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“He’s the Internet”: A Conversation on Satoshi Kon

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“He’s the Internet”: A Conversation on Satoshi Kon

“Satoshi Kon: Beyond Imagination” opens today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and runs through July 1st. In anticipation of the retrospective, Brendon Bouzard, John Lichman, and Keith Uhlich gathered at Grassroots Tavern to discuss Kon and his work. See after the break for their podcast conversation and a transcript, slightly edited for clarity.

To download the podcast, click Shooting Down Pictures.

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JOHN LICHMAN: Hello and welcome to a House Next Door podcast featuring myself, John Lichman, contributor and author of “Idiot Savant Japan,” the somewhat bi-weekly column if I remember to write it. Joined here with Keith Uhlich, editor of The House.

KEITH UHLICH: Howdy, howdy John.

JL: And Brendon Bouzard of My Five Year Plan. Which is currently on the third year.

BRENDON BOUZARD: Yes! Just entered my third year on the five year plan.

KU: And we’re here today to talk about…

BB: … the films of Satoshi Kon. As well as his television series, Paranoia Agent.

KU: And this is because of an upcoming retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

JL: Which runs June 27th to July 1st, where on the opening night we have a conversation with Satoshi Kon after a screening of Paprika. So I think it’s fitting we start off on his most recent film.

KU: And before we do, I should say that where I’m currently coming from is I’ve watched all of Kon’s movies, but I haven’t watched them recently. So I’m going mainly by memory on everything, and what I’m actually is that the movies are pretty fresh in my memory in spite of having some distance from them. Brendon, what about you?

BB: I just rewatched all of the features. I have not seen Paranoia Agent, but I rewatched all the features over the past couple of weeks so they’re relatively fresh in my mind. And being able to see them all together at a clip allowed me to see a lot of the similarities and some of the subtle differences between the films, which I really appreciated.

KU: And John?

JL: And I’m coming from somewhere.

KU: Coming from where?

JL: Somewhere.

KU: That’s fine. You’re the middle ground.

JL: Brendon, you’ve actually brought up an interesting point of how Kon’s films tend to blend together. He’s had four major motion pictures and one TV series, and most of the films, aside from Tokyo Godfathers, follow a very new media nightmare—it’s always an information driven society that eventually destroys itself and then rebuilds after the fact. Do you see any recurring themes like that? How would you interpret those?

BB: I think Kon is up there with De Palma and a few other filmmakers working today whose films are grounded in a very strong understanding of theory and, specifically, of the means by which film communicates, theoretically, as a medium. I think that three of his films—Paprika, Millennium Actress, and Perfect Blue all sort of work together. Obviously two of them are specifically about filmmaking in one way or another. But they all sort of comment on the relationship between the spectator and the onscreen figure—the female onscreen figure—in a way that is really compelling.

KU: And always a female onscreen figure?

JL: Aside from Tokyo Godfathers all three have lead female figures. Part of the reason, at least from what Kon said in an interview, is that he thinks women are more interesting than men, and that having a male lead is pointless.

KU: Which is something that De Palma actually has echoed in his own filmmaking as well—an interesting point of comparison.

BB: Both of them are extremely intelligent about film. Both of them have seen a lot of films, obviously, and they both draw a lot on the same filmmakers. Both have been compared to Hitchcock. Perfect Blue has gotten the Hitchcock comparison quite a few times and of course De Palma can’t quite escape that in criticism. But I think the two are very similar, at least in terms of their understanding of the female figure as relates to the audience.

KU: This brings up a point: in anime I know the portrayal of women is something that’s often discussed, sometimes disparaged. John, I’d turn to you on that and say does Kon bring a different perspective on the female form to his movies than is traditional in anime or does he tweak it in some way?

JL: Well I think he tweaks it in that you’re not dealing with a magical pretty sailor girl or a buxom bouncy bubbly person. You’re dealing with very averagely drawn characters; the only people who really are exaggerated in Kon’s work are either the elderly or the male figure. Women are always drawn in a very subtle, non-assuming style, unless he makes them be extravagant. Like in Paprika and Millennium Actress where the women portray characters in order to protect themselves.

KU: Where they have alter-egos.

JL: When the alter-egos are used as protection. They’re not used to attack. They’re not used to pry. They’re used as a defense mechanism. There’s that great scene in Paprika where—I’m not going to remember any of their names, which is awful—where Paprika is being stripped of her alter-ego and then she’s a very plain looking woman left naked on the table. And the co-worker who’s doing that to her remarks how beautiful that is. So even though Paprika is this beautiful pixieish woman, this is what’s really underneath her and it’s better than being the pixie. So I think Kon has a very interesting realism when it comes to a female character, one I’d say that’s not used anywhere else. The only others who may treat women that well the two other major anime directors: Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii. With Kon, they’re the only three. I think it’s worth it to say: they’re the three mainstream directors of anime.

BB: They’re the three that have sort of crossed over to Western audiences on that level. I think it’s interesting though that Kon’s treatment of women has developed over the course of his career. If you look at something like Perfect Blue and the treatment of Mima: to a certain extent, one could make the argument that he includes a few fan service shots of Mima over the course of the film. Mima is of course nude at various points, but I think that even then he’s very intelligent about how he does that. Perfect Blue is so much about spectatorship that it makes the audience complicit in the exploitation of Mima when, for instance, she’s being photographed by that photographer who basically takes advantage of her and sort of elevates the stalker’s insanity to the next level. Whereas later Kon films, I think, go more towards a level of respect and understanding of femininity.

JL: I want to bring up a point since we got on the track of Oshii and Miyazaki. These are the three best received anime directors for Western audiences right now.

KU: Oshii, Miyazaki, and Kon.

JL: And I think it represents a great trio because you have Miyazaki who is heavily the mainstream favorite. He has family-friendly fare that is actually social satire. And being repped by Disney doesn’t hurt because that guarantees box office. Then you have Oshii who is basically art-house. No matter what he does he can’t get out of the art-house, and he likes it there. And then you have Kon, who straddles this middle ground of extremely highbrow thinking. I mean in terms of identity, of femininity, of what it means to be a digital culture, of what it means to be an apocalyptic culture, of living in the shadow of the bomb… you can go on and on. But he’s very much a 21st-century thinker. And yet he juxtaposes that with extremely cartoony images, like the parade sequence in Paprika. And I’m trying to figure out, do we think Kon is happy there? Does living in that middle ground give him the freedom to do something like Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers?

BB: Well the thing about Tokyo Godfathers: on so many levels that is a film that can be appreciated by pretty much anyone. It’s a very heartwarming film. It’s got a lot of extremely funny stuff in it. The characters are extraordinarily likable. And yet there’s this darkness to it that I feel nevertheless would prevent its reception by a large cross-section of the audience. And so in terms of it being a middle ground—I feel Kon really is a middle ground. He blends elements in Tokyo Godfathers and the art of the film reflects this in the very realistic portrayal of these three homeless people in Tokyo.

JL: See this also brings up another idea of mine: If you look at how Kon’s work has progressed, when Perfect Blue first premiered in New York it played the Angelika. That was it. Then when Millennium Actress came out: Angelika and Landmark. Tokyo Godfathers comes out: Angelika and Landmark. Paprika comes out: most of the chain theaters, Angelika, and Landmark. It just shows that he’s being more and more accepted, but I think it’s unheard of for an anime director to get that acclaim.

BB: Especially with what I’d say is probably his most difficult film, Paprika. It’s probably the hardest to glean a lot of meaning from, at least on a first viewing.

KU: And especially if you’re not familiar with some of the earlier works because it really does grow out of them. (As you were pointing out, John, the ending of Paprika with the three movie posters of the films that Kon had directed previous on the marquee—that sort of cyclical thing that’s there in pretty much everything he’s done). Just to go on something with the middlebrow idea.

JL: I don’t think it’s middlebrow. I think it’s middle ground.

KU: Yeah, I know what you mean, but it just brought up something in my mind about my first reaction to Paprika. I liked it more on the second viewing, but the first time out… I’ve always found that Kon’s apocalypse’s, and there are a few, save for Millennium Actress which I actually think does that more psychologically and emotionally than the others. Yet I felt like the ones in Paranoia Agent and Paprika kind of paled in comparison to what I feel is the definitive anime apocalypse, which is Evangelion by Hideaki Anno.

JL: Going into Eva’s a whole other can of worms.

KU: I’m sure it is and that’s why it’s probably something of an unfair comparison. Kon approaches it differently than Anno does, but I’m just saying purely from the visceral sense of apocalypse portrayed, I’ve always felt like that’s one of the weaker aspects of Kon because it seems so tossed off and thrown away to me. And maybe that’s the point. If we’re talking about getting the anime out of the ghetto, maybe it’s getting it out of the “we’re influenced by the atomic bomb” ghetto.

JL: But you’re never gonna get out of that. Every part of anime is taken from the Little Boy standpoint of Takashi Murakami, which is robots, atomic bomb, apocalypse, atomic bomb, changing oneself, atomic bomb, dystopian future, atomic bomb. These are all things that are ingrained in their culture. You can’t take away that and still expect to get the same product.

KU: Right, but what you’re saying is that Kon is appealing to a more Western audience.

JL: He’s appealing to them through the art style. He’s always had a very mundane style of art. All his characters look very humanesque and no one’s really exaggerated except for in Paprika where she dons the avatar. Paprika is the bubbly pixie, and she flies through billboards and she flies through signs for eating fast food, J-Pops behind her. I mean that’s the deal. But as her regular self she’s a boring, flat, straight-lined, dark-haired figure.

KU: But then there’s the guy, her assistant, the big portly assistant…

JL: He’s otaku. He’s fat. He likes robots. And, eventually, when the dream world takes over, he sees himself as a robot. Not just any robot, but a 1950s sci-fi chic robot that goes out and wants to help people, but yet causes more damage, which—you can say right there—that’s the US Army. That’s how people can see that.

KU: But I’m just thinking of this appeal to Western sensibilities as much as Eastern because there’s even history of that in, say, Iranian culture with Kiarostami or Majidi or Panahi. I would say at their worst they play to prejudices that Westerners harbor about Easterners. Because they know that will get them more exposure. And I’m not saying they always do that. And I’m not necessarily saying Kon is doing that, but just because of his appeal, do you see anything of that in his work?

JL: I do, but let’s go back to the main three argument. Miyazaki, Kon, and Oshii all use apocalypse. All use dystopian future. All use a corruption of modernity. And I think that’s what appeals most. They’re moving out of the whole Little Boy phase and into the fact that the world is a corrupt place anyway, and there’s no more perfect example of that than the Internet. Than digital culture.

KU: Oshii’s Fast Food Grifters movie is very much about that.

JL: Oshii is huge into that style. He also did that adaptation of Avalon. I mean Oshii is very much stuck in that and maybe that’s why he’s doomed for the art-house. But Kon knows that he can trick his viewers. He’s going to show you a very pretty thing, but really it’s going to be much darker. It’s not going to be Miyazaki level pretty. Actually, this is important. When you say Miyazaki, you say anime. When you say Kon, most times you say film. Kon’s transitioning out of anime into some other weird realm.

KU: Well bringing up this idea of the trickster is interesting because that really is ingrained in a lot of his work. And I’m thinking especially of Paprika when Kon is actually in the movie as one of the cyberbar bartenders who help out the detective. And he’s sort of copping to the fact that he’s playing with your mind and such.

JL: It’s a bar that you can only reach by going on the Internet. So that takes into account the whole aspect of social networking. You pretend you’re going to a bar without going to a bar. Is the detective actually in a bar or is he sitting at his computer watching this animated feature play out? I mean Kon is a master, pardon my French for a second, of mindfucking. He was working on Paprika while doing Paranoia Agent and those two rub off on each other.

KU: They really do, yeah.

JL: So I wonder, Keith, if you can actually go into the themes of Paranoia Agent, ’cause we’ve been going over Paprika nonstop. Paranoia Agent was the 24 episode…

KU: No it’s only…

BB: …13. A 13 episode series.

JL: Gosh, it seems a lot longer. A 13 episode series focusing around what we at first think is the Little Slugger attacks, but quickly turns into another story.

KU: There’s basically this figure attacking people in Tokyo, and he’s this kid on rollerblades with a cap down over his eyes, and he has a hockey stick, and he comes at you, and he basically hits you…

JL: It’s a baseball bat. It’s a crooked baseball bat.

KU: Right. Right. It’s a crooked baseball bat. This is why I need to have seen it more recently, but yeah, it’s a crooked baseball bat, essentially I assume from all the people he’s hit—it’s just gotten that shape. And once you’re hit you become part of this shared madness in the city…

JL: You become part of it, or you wake up to it? It’s like being hit and once you’re hit, you’re awakened to what’s going on.

KU: Right, exactly. When that’s first happening, it seems like madness because it’s only affecting a few people, but the minute madness tips into the majority, it can become sanity. And the whole opening of Paranoia Agent is everyone in the series laughing in maniacal unison while the city around them moves in fast motion. And that’s definitely a Kon image in that it’s an image of shared madness.

JL: Don’t forget the final sequence of the opening as a mushroom cloud comes up over Tokyo. And yeah, it’s a great image for Kon. I think he’s coming back to the whole theme of apocalypse, which he and a bunch of other directors are very much accepting of.

KU: It’s an image of unitedness. And I’m remembering this one episode of the series (“ETC”), which basically takes place among these ladies in an apartment complex who gossip to each other, and each of their stories that they tell about Little Slugger is shown as a five minute interlude. At the end, Kon zooms up above the apartment complex and you see the buildings themselves are shaped into either a number or a symbol that specifically refers to Little Slugger. So it’s like they’re gossiping about it, but they’re also being affected by it without even really knowing it. And that’s later in the series, so at that point Little Slugger is infecting the populace whether or not he’s actually hit you.

BB: The collective experience of madness comes up again and again in Kon’s films. And I think the example that stands out strongest for me is in Millennium Actress. The way that the three figures of the actress as well as the documentarian and his cameraman all find themselves collectively in this world that exists between her memories of the past and her films, sort of blending the two together. And in a way it represents the collective memory of the audience—the filmgoing audience of Japan over this very historically specific period—and it regards collective historical memory as a sort of shared delusion. Of all his films, I think Millennium Actress is the one that’s the most grounded in reality, and yet it’s the one that I think formally interrogates that question of where reality and fantasy blend together in the strongest sense.

JL: I’ve always enjoyed how Kon assumes his audience is global. Millennium Actress is inherently Japanese. As you were saying earlier before we were recording, he looks at Ozu and never says you’re looking at an Ozu film. He looks at Chanbara, but you’re not looking at a Chanbara film. In Paprika he models one of the characters after a screenshot of Akira Kurosawa. And another shot in Paprika is entrusted to Son Goku, not of Dragon Ball, but of Journey to the West. And most people won’t get that image.

KU: They won’t get it, but they will. I think that’s probably the key.

BB: Yeah, he draws on images that are part of the collective visual culture of Japan, but also more, in Paprika, of the West.

JL: And that’s why you can tell that he’s spreading. ’Cause either he’s spreading or we’re all combining—Eastern and Western images are combining. And there’s no longer a big divide. Now it’s: “Oh that’s the rising sun flag. I know exactly what that means.” Or: “There’s the battleship Yamato. I know the history behind that now.” Or: “There’s two smoking towers. I know that.” Or: “There’s a square-jawed white guy on the TV screen. That’s Kennedy.” That’s actually another weird tangent I want to get off on for a sec. Kennedy is the most iconic American president figure in Japanese animation. And I don’t know why.

KU: Really? Hm. I seem to recall Oshii put him in a movie.

JL: In 70s and 80s anime, Kennedy is the American president. And even in the early 90s. I don’t know if that builds up from the whole icon aspect of the animation, and of the global figure. ’Cause Kennedy’s probably one of the most globally known US presidents.

BB: He died young. He was a very telegenic figure. A lot of the myth of Kennedy comes from the whole idea of the television age and people being able to see him, which helped him win the debates against Nixon. So I think the iconic image of Kennedy is one that’s very strong for all viewers.

KU: Kennedy was coming up during a time when televisions were really, really infiltrating worldwide. Moreso than with Ike. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if, in Japanese culture, especially post-war, he was the first American president that the masses of Japan had a collective image of. That’s a proposition. I’m not entirely certain.

JL: Here’s a theory for you all. If we consider Miyazaki to be the storyteller who relies on fantasy imagery. If we consider Oshii to be the avante-garde New Wave. Is Kon then truly middle ground in that he is television?

KU: See middle ground just sounds so negative to me…

BB: Yeah.

JL: I know, but he just seems the perfect balance of the art-house and the mainstream.

KU: Maybe it’s because I don’t necessarily think of movies in terms of art-house and mainstream that I’m resisting that. I think that there are just figures who are more polarizing to people than others. Oshii I can absolutely see why because his movies can be very lethargic and really disturbingly hypnotic, and—I don’t mean this as a criticism—incoherent. There’s an incoherence to Oshii that actually works on the level of a dream. I think Kon is a bit more coherent. I think you can read a Kon film with story. You can read it as a dream. There are a lot of elements and layers that he works on for different people and I can see why because if you go to it as, say, a fanboy I think you’ll get your anime fix. If you go to it as, “Oh, I want to see something at the art-house” I think you’ll get that with Kon. If you even just want to see a kind of mainstream, plot-driven whatever, I think you can get that out of him as well. Again, I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism, I just believe there’s something of an incoherent dream logic to a lot of anime. But in Paprika I think you can pretty much figure out what the story is. I don’t think that it’s that hard to figure out for anybody. I think he delineates what the dream space and the real space are enough that people get it.

JL: Or blends them together.

BB: The word that you use that I think is really good is “delineate.” “Linear.” There’s a linearity to Miyazaki that is part of what I think makes him so accessible to people and I think part of what makes Kon accessible to people is that there’s a basic linearity to the narrative, vs. what you see as the incoherence of Oshii. The fact that there’s this sort of through-line temporally, even though his films blend fantasy and reality, and even venture into the past. I feel as though there’s a definite through-line that you can follow in any of Kon’s films. And yet they do sort of fold in fantasy and the past. And if you can say he’s a middle ground between the two, I think it’s in the degree to which he relies on linear storytelling. John. you brought up the issue of “Is Kon television?” I would actually say he’s the Internet. You can follow the pathway between various hyperlinks and you can find a coherent narrative, but there’s also so many other tangents that are being drawn into every moment. He uses the Internet motif so often in his films.

KU: And I think that this differentiates him from Miyazaki as well. Brendon, you were positing him as something of a more popular figure than Miyazaki. Certainly Miyazaki’s films have made a lot of money in this country, but at the same time there’s also a kind of antiquated fairytale aspect to his films, whereas Kon is engaging in the present tense and the present moment. I would say Miyazaki tends to model his characters, at least to Western eyes, and maybe he’s not doing this consciously, but I think his characters would appeal more immediately to children. Or those, let’s say, with younger eyes. Whereas Kon is drawing adults in animation realistically.

JL: I agree with that. Miyazaki’s a radical, leftist…

KU: Environmentalist.

JL: Yeah, I mean he would hate Kon because Kon champions technology. I mean that’s where they split right there.

KU: Do you think Kon is championing technology or that he just accepts that it’s there and he looks at it in all its complexity?

JL: I think he realizes what… you know the complexity argument… he sees it and he realizes that that’s what the society is based on right now.

KU: Now that I think about it, when I look at the apocalypses in Kon, maybe what is bothering me that I’m now starting to put together is I don’t necessarily find them horrifying. In Anno’s Evangelion, it’s horrifying and legitimately like a psychological scar, a wound being ripped into your brain. Whereas in Kon, you look at it and it’s just a fact. It’s a fact and it’s there. Technology can lead to this, but it can also lead to Paprika (the doctor who is Paprika) and her assistant connecting on a very human level. So he sees the beauty and the horror at the same emotional level.

JL: But if you do have, like the scene in Paprika where there is the big apocalyptic moment that I think actually “Eschers” Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira. You know, the gigantic white light, the sphere appearing around the city. It’s like the final scene from Akira when Tetsuo’s about to explode and the entire city gets destroyed in another blast. Yet it gets swallowed in on itself and instead of death it brings back the entire world. And let’s the world be reborn.

BB: And, of course, Ôtomo was Kon’s mentor.

JL: Kon does show the grittiness of what happens, but he’s also very careful to follow it up with, “But look at the bright side. It’s not going to happen. If we have someone to check it, we’ll be fine. If there was no one like Paprika who would want to stop this from happening, then we would all be dead.” Which is fatalistic, but hey… Brendon: We keep talking about Paprika and Paranoia Agent. You have drawn some comparisons between Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue.

BB: I think they’re two sides of the same coin. Both of them are essentially about the relationship between a woman and her audience, specifically a fan. In Perfect Blue it’s this extremely dangerous relationship between Mima and her stalker, as well as her other stalker as it turns out. And in Millennium Actress, it’s the documentarian who’s been a lifelong fan of the actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. And throughout the film, as she’s reliving these moments from her various films, or these moments from her life, the documentarian consistently reinvents himself as this knight in shining armor who rushes in and saves her at the last moment. To a certain extent, I think both of the films are about the way that the audience injects themself into a narrative. The way that they relate to the onscreen figures. And the way that they project themselves into these stories. In the same way that Paprika shows you the apocalypse, but then pulls back and says, “But this isn’t gonna happen,” I think that Perfect Blue shows you an extremely dangerous relationship between a performer and her fan and then Millennium Actress pulls back and says “Okay, but this is more likely.”

KU: So those two films engage in the dialectic that then in subsequent films he blends into a single story.

BB: Absolutely. And I think Paprika is where he blends that most cogently. Tokyo Godfathers I consider a bit of an anomaly.

JL: It’s funny because Kon’s next film is going to be a children’s fairy tale, which has me really worried.

KU: What is it called?

JL: It has a name. I don’t know it offhand. I just know that it’s about two kids who find a book and then they live out the fairy tale. And I’m wondering if we’re not supposed to be seeing some theme here: we have Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. Paprika and Paranoia Agent. And then Tokyo Godfathers and this fantasy film. Is he creating these dual notions?

KU: I would just say that in terms of Tokyo Godfathers: it does fit in with his other films in terms of people living as a collective mind. Having their own very defined individual personalities in Tokyo Godfathers, and very disparate personalities in a lot of ways, and then having that thing, essentially, that brings them together. Paprika, as you say, bringing the darkness and the light together in harmony. As the baby in Tokyo Godfathers bring this trio together. I think the trio… it’s taken from John Ford, but certainly I think there’s a Catholic reading, or a Christian reading to be given to it.

BB: A very explicit one because in the beginning of the film, the first images are of the three wise men showing up at a Nativity scene.

KU: Indeed. But also acknowledging the present day in the sense of: there’s a transsexual, there’s a girl, there’s a man. They all have their traumas. One of the things I’d actually like to get into, and this is a comparison between Tokyo Godfathers and Paranoia Agent, is that both that film and that TV series hinge around a character’s relationship to a pet that died when they were a kid. This is something that a lot of people were nonplussed by… that the pet was the cause of this girl’s psychological grief. As it is in Paranoia Agent. I have this feeling that that is something that’s very specifically Japanese, this worshiping of a pet or an animal. I wonder if either of you might be able to expound on that.

JL: I don’t think it would be the worshiping of a pet. I think it’s more about childhood and being forced to move on.

KU: Right. But in hearing and reading about Japanese culture, in seeing that most signs and other public spaces have cartoon animals that are everywhere telling you what to do and where to go, I don’t think of it just as a childhood thing. There’s something about the way Kon puts those two incidents across. He portrays it very seriously. It’s not just flippant: “Oh, the reason she’s fucked up is because her dog died.” No. It’s a real big trauma. And yes it happened during childhood, but it’s still rooted in the culture in some way. Or so it seems, from what I understand about Japanese culture, the place animals have in it, and the way that’s it’s portrayed in Kon’s films, those two specifically.

BB: Yeah.

KU: In Paranoia Agent, it’s essentially the catalyst for the entire series. The reason the whole city is going mad is because this girl created a toy based on her dead dog. Her emotion surrounding that event, of that dog getting run over, infects the populace. And they all react to varying degrees in shared emotionalism, in shared madness.

JL: I would read that as bad childhood memories, but moreso of remembering hardships from early on in your life. And having that affect you later. I don’t know how much I would read the animals into that. But…

KU: So do you think it’s more metaphorical?

JL: I’m gonna go with more metaphorical. The animal thing is interesting and there may be something to it, but I don’t know what because I can’t speak to it. I’m going to lean towards the more metaphorical aspect of being brought up and having this awful memory in your past, and you can’t quite define it. But it sets you for the rest of your life—who you’re going to become. Which also leads back into the whole Little Boy theory. Of an entire infantilized culture.

BB: I’m not of an opinion either way on this animal issue, although I do remember in Perfect Blue one of Mima’s obsessions are these pet fish that she has. And she has a traumatic vision of all her pet fish dying.

JL: Man, this is like an untapped animal thing that we’re getting on now. We got to write to Film Comment right away.

KU: I remember thinking about it just because I saw Paranoia Agent and Tokyo Godfathers in close succession and it was striking to me ’cause it seemed to tap into something very much of Eastern culture. When I first saw it I didn’t quite know how to react to it. It didn’t really touch me that deeply on any level. But then when I saw other critics writing from a Western perspective and saying, “Oh, it all comes down to that?” I thought, “Well why not.” And I don’t think Kon’s necessarily saying it all comes down to that. But he is portraying something that’s very ingrained and deeply traumatic to these particular characters. I can’t think of anything comparable in Millennium Actress or Paprika necessarily, but it seems like these are driving psychological stressors in the other films, just another avenue of exploration.

JL: That might be a good note to end out on as we uncover a brand new aspect of Kon that I actually have never thought about before.

KU: Well… Film Comment I hope you come calling after you hear this. If you’ve listened to the end, as Vadim says. Any final thoughts on Kon?

JL: I stand by the fact that I think he is going to become more influential in the coming years. I think it’s interesting that he’s backed by Studio Madhouse who are one of the main independent studios. (All creator-run and creator-owned for the most part, unless they’re hired out to do backgrounds or something of the sort.) And it shows in that he’s only worked on his own projects, which is a rarity for an anime director or for anyone involved in anime. Even Miyazaki had to do background—in-betweens, foreground, background. Was Kon Otomo’s apprentice or was he…

BB: Otomo was his mentor and I think Kon did scene design for one or two of Otomo’s projects, but yeah he didn’t have to pay that many dues in order to get his directing position.

JL: Which is unheard of. In the anime system today, you have to wait until you’re 30 or 35 until you’re even given art director or until you’re put in charge of a group. In your twenties you’re told to do in-between. You’re told to do background, and that’s why there’s a lack of current anime. Or a lack of current anime directors, ’cause you have guys like Shinichirô Watanabe who did Cowboy Bebop. He’s fairly old. Most younger guys are leaving the studio system and handmaking everything. And Kon exerts amazing creative control.

KU: His hands are all over everything.

JL: And that’s extremely admirable… I love Kon’s work…

KU: And it should be seen on the big screen on Walter Reade.

BB: Absolutely.

KU: So everybody get there because he’s well worth it.

JL: So to change our usual ending. For The House Next Door, I’m John Lichman.

KU: I’m Keith Uhlich.

BB: I’m Brendon Bouzard.

JL: And if you see us at Walter Reade, please buy us a soda pop.

Brendon Bouzard is author of the blog My Five Year Plan.

John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.

Keith Uhlich is Editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.

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Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and ‘80s Movie Culture

Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reagan’s presidency.

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They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while America’s reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vinton’s song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.

A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nation’s chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the year’s top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?

With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th president’s administration. And on the occasion of the book’s release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the ‘80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the “Age of Reagan,” and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the ‘80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, you’ve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?

I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didn’t realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. It’s not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasn’t to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.

I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadn’t changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the ‘80s was true to the moment. That’s why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasn’t just reusing the material without thinking about it.

You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-’80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?

I didn’t really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voice’s second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.

While midnight movies aren’t the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of ‘80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled “White Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumb” in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smith’s nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?

That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.

Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?

There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didn’t much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.

Though primarily concerned with Regan’s political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience you’ve watched it with. Why do you think that is?

Well, I’m not sure that’s still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didn’t respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didn’t expect to see Reagan in it. I don’t think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every night—the whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naïve response. I couldn’t understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didn’t see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.

Speaking of essence, it’s odd re-watching Donald Trump’s numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reagan’s silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reagan’s “lovable” persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trump’s media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.

This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t come as a result of the movies. He’s a celebrity and a celebrity is someone who’s able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didn’t really see Trump’s presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voice’s narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly that’s what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.

As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedy’s attempt at a presidential run. It’s hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidates’ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?

I think it’s different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedy’s success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but it’s not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.

Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasn’t, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that he’s just going to make this stuff up. They think it’s funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a “greater degree of authenticity.”

There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitler’s appeal. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler, but he’s a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitler’s lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didn’t get Hitler’s appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitler’s assertions and his tantrums. What they didn’t realize was that’s precisely what his fans liked about him. I think that’s also the case with Trump and his supporters.

If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?

Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although I’m not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. There’s no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.

A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I don’t see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peele’s Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, it’s a movie about 1969, and yet it’s also a movie about 2019. It can’t help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just aren’t taking it the same way.

And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it did…

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they haven’t seen it!

The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The ‘50s is a big one, but as you point out, the movies’ view of the ‘50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the ‘90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the ‘50s, but from the ‘50s itself.

That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the ‘50s “as it should have been.” Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early ‘50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. That’s what Happy Days was. I think Reagan’s genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized ‘60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.

On the occasion of your book’s release, you’ve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?

I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever it’s possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each other—and I don’t have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the ‘90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as “an enemy of the people.” And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.

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Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination

The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

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Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. It’s an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vita’s desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesn’t fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two women’s tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.

Vita’s deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Arterton’s bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasé in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginia’s escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginia’s joys and struggles as they arise from Vita’s hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.

Outside of these moments, Virginia’s interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessa’s roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginia’s emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vita’s, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the letters’ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.

Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.” There’s more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vita’s love for Virginia than there is in all of Button’s film.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror

Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot.

2.5

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Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy’s screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kids’ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.

Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s just wedded the family’s favorite son, Alex (Mark O’Brien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.

Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the film’s premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrick’s The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the film’s light-hearted sadism.

Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan aren’t even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansion’s security cameras, to track Grace down. But the film’s constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domases’ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the film’s kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the film’s violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.

Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

3

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Jawline
Photo: Hulu

The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and it’s refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what it’s like to be a commodity with a nervous system.

The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow who’s itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fans’ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austyn’s online brand, a “follow your dreams, no matter what” sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it weren’t for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.

Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girls’ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesn’t trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.

The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isn’t much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that they’re toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelup’s footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacular—the shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venues—but because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fans’ adulation. From an outsiders’ perspective, there’s a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what they’re actually responding to.

How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize what’s relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. He’s great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the film’s end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. He’s turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before they’re old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.

At the heart of Weist’s efforts is the exploitation of Austyn’s more successful colleagues to commodify young girls’ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesn’t draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that don’t quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and don’t measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentary’s way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.

More importantly, while Jawline’s depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesn’t look past its narrow horizon. There’s little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All that’s really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.

Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy

The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational poster—the type with a single-word slogan below a stock photograph—that inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that there’s nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplay’s cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesn’t prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.

At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index—and an ominous close-up on the doctor’s chart shows us that she’s crossed over into obese terrain.

And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittany’s persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.

The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but there’s an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the self—namely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much he’d rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, it’s portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. We’re told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because she’s funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.

Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house they’re meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a “fat sidekick.”

It’s a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittany’s active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonist’s newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathon’s positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzo’s film is “inspirational” only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama

Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nations’ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.’s approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.

In the film’s first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherine’s (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blair’s government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a “surge effort,” intelligence sources are “product lines,” and so forth.

This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le Carré, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isn’t a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the film’s actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.

Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennes’s probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmerson’s adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmoving—a sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the film’s procedural momentum.

It’s strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonist’s life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isn’t especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year could’ve provided a personal counterpoint to the film’s political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.

Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage

It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.

Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.

At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.

That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.

As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.

Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.

Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

2

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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