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House Movie Guide (March 28, 2008)

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House Movie Guide (March 28, 2008)

[Editor’s Note: This is the inaugural installment of a new House feature compiling links to reviews of new and recent theatrical films playing in North America. It is intended as a sampling of critical opinion and not a guide to theaters because, hey, it’s a big world. If we’ve left out any titles, or if you’d like to call our attention to a noteworthy review, feel free to leave a comment below.]

NEW RELEASES

Alexandra. Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra—a film of startling originality and beauty—feels like a communiqué from another time, another place, anywhere but here. Mr. Sokurov, a Russian director best known in America for Russian Ark, makes films so far removed from the usual commercial blather that it sometimes seems as if he’s working in a different medium. His work is serious, intense, at times opaque and so feverishly personal that it also feels as if you’re being invited into his head, not just another reality.” J. Hoberman, Village Voice: “Spare yet tactile, a mysterious mixture of lightness and gravity, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra is founded on contradiction. Musing on war in general and the Russian occupation of Chechnya in particular, this is a movie in which combat is never shown. The star, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, is an opera diva who never sings.”

American Zombie. Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times: “Grace Lee’s faux documentary takes one of horror cinema’s enduring subjects—the undead—and crafts an amusing media satire on our fascination with/fear of marginalized cultures.” Ben Sweet, LA Weekly: “Director Grace Lee plays an exaggerated version of herself in this mockumentary, which follows a pair of filmmakers as they shadow four zombies in an effort to infiltrate Los Angeles’ undead community…Computers don’t exist in their lives (a convenience-store slacker publishes a Xeroxed zine, not a blog); Live Dead, the zombies’ annual desert festival, is meant to be a Burning Man stand-in, but its dirty dreadlocked attendees and Ani DiFranco–esque balladeers are more reminiscent of Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair…The best zombie movies shock us into a realization about ourselves and the world in which we live, but how much can zombies teach us when their world so closely resembles 1995?”

Backseat. Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “Only in America are adult men who refuse to grow up considered cute rather than developmentally disabled, and only in American movies is masculine immaturity celebrated with such regularity.” Ed Gonzalez, Slant: “Essentially a hit-or-miss affair, Backseat features a character who only communicates via text message, an expression of the filmmakers’ frustration for the sublimation of human relations that feels amusing but also weird for a film that suggests Sideways filtered through a hipster scrim.”

Boarding Gate.Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “I’m fairly certain one reason that the French director Olivier Assayas made Boarding Gate is that he wanted to watch the Italian actress Asia Argento strut around in black underwear and punishing heels. And why not? Ms. Argento looks delectable if somewhat demented in Boarding Gate, in which she comes across as a postmodern Pearl White, who starred in silent adventure serials like The Perils of Pauline. Ms. Argento seems to invite trouble, and Mr. Assayas, who has a way of capturing the seemingly ineffable, has a thing for troubled, troubling women.” Glenn Kenny, Premiere: “This is very much a French intellectual cineaste’s idea of a B thriller, and hence is as far from innocent in its genre as you can get. Which is not to say that Assayas deals in bad faith. There are some genuinely frisson-inducing twists, and he does wrap up the plot pretty neatly despite giving every indication that he’s not going to. In the meantime, his mastery of the camera and his always innovative approach to setting are constant, knotty pleasures; the Paris of the film’s first half is as alien to our perceived ideas of Paris as Godard’s Alphaville was, while his Hong Kong is a crumbling labyrinth where the only clues about which corner to turn are provided by cellphone rings.” David Edelstein, New York: “Boarding Gate was evidently made quickly and cheaply, and parts of it are fun. It’s too bad there’s no real viewer equivalent—that you can’t watch a film quickly and cheaply.” Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times: “The plot may be murky, but actress Asia Argento is a clear and commanding force throughout.”

Chapter 27. Nick Schager, Slant: “Jared Leto looks like he’s eaten his 30 Seconds to Mars bandmates in Chapter 27, a daft, unrevealing based-on-real-events film in which the actor packs on the pounds, habitually fidgets, and indulges in the occasional spazzy freakout in order to embody John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman during the three days prior to his fateful December 1980 crime.” Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “It’s established by now that Chapman, at the time of his crime, was full of contradictions, yearning to be like and pay tribute to Holden Caulfield, obsessed with and repelled by ’phonies,’ seeking fame by killing the most famous man in the world. Confused and profoundly vulnerable, in J.P. Schaefer’s film he is also calculating and judgmental, determined to forge order out of his own psychic and emotional chaos. His resolve inspired by a fictional character, Chapman’s insanity is here plain and not quite harrowing: he rides into the city in a cab, his profile set in deep, dark close-up as he worries out loud about the ducks Holden worried about; in a cozy bookstore, he discovers the Wizard of Oz postcard he will leave so ominously in his hotel room dresser. Every moment, every look, every brief interaction is here weighted with intent and possible meaning.”

The Cool School.Nick Schaeger, Slant: “In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Los Angeles transformed itself from an artistic wasteland into a burgeoning mecca of modern art, thereby confirming there was more to the world of painting, sculpture, and photography than what was happening in Paris and New York. With narration from Jeff Bridges, Morgan Neville’s The Cool School details this vital period of creativity, in which a group of young artists championed by curator Walter Hopps at his famous Ferus gallery (1957 – 1966) made great strides in the areas of abstract expressionism and assemblage.” Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “It’s an old story in some ways, a myth-making tale of a group of post-World War II aesthetic adventurers who, working together and alone, created an exciting American moment. Given the lingering prejudice of some East Coasters and the inferiority complex of select West Coasters, though, it’s also a story that deserves to be told often and as loudly as possible.” Michael Joshua Rowin, IndieWire: “It’s hard to avoid faint praise even when recommending Morgan Neville’s I, which recounts Los Angeles’ frequently overshadowed 1950s and 1960s art scene. As ’Scenes of Yesteryear’ documentaries go it does right by its subject, providing an illuminating primer on a lesser-known strand of America’s eruptive postwar art movement, even as it doesn’t do much aesthetically to distinguish itself from the pack.”

Flawless. Scott Foundas, LA Weekly: “In director Michael Radford’s latest, Demi Moore stars as the sole female executive at the fictional London Diamond Corporation, who, upon learning she’s about to get the boot, teams with a crafty cockney night janitor (Michael Caine) to empty the corporate vault of its 100-million-pound inventory. Rife with the lipstick traces of Inside Man, The League of Gentlemen (which it explicitly references) and countless other superior heist pictures, Flawless is the sort of movie that tends to get called “enjoyably old-fashioned,” except that there’s nothing enjoyable about it.” Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “Caine—who, contrary to common critical opinion, is perfectly capable of giving a dull or misjudged performance—redeems this film almost wholesale.” Desson Thomson, Washington Post: “Flawless makes an entertainingly nostalgic journey to old Britain—that black-and-white world we remember from long-ago Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean movies.”

A Four Letter Word. Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “With its breezy shots of male genitalia and characters nicknamed Long John and Tripod, A Four Letter Word is a surprisingly endearing romantic comedy that explores gay relationships with low-budget verve.” Ed Gonzalez, The Village Voice: “Shot in and around New York City’s queer hot spots (I see Vlada! I see Boys Room—the new one!), and brought to you in part by Manhunt, Andreas’s pun-choked rom-com asks only for our passive identification, preening on the same wavelength as Jesse Archer’s Luke, who sets out to prove that he is neither exception nor stereotype, only exceptional, after Stephen (Charlie David)—a hustler, professed top, and Luke’s future boy toy—calls him ’a gay cliché.’ ’All our world sees of our community is you,’ says Stephen, almost as if he were describing the film.”

The Grand. Jim Ridley, Village Voice: “Great movies about gambling—Robert Altman’s California Split, say, or Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels—concern almost everything but the rules of the game or even the outcome of the wager. What matters are faces, surroundings, sharp talk, and the behavior of people in the grip of fixation—people undaunted by losing, yet unappeased by winning. The Grand, a largely improvised comedy set at a Las Vegas poker championship, isn’t as good or tough-minded as those movies. But it earns a seat at the table anyway, mostly because it’s funny—sometimes very funny.” Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “Werner Herzog plays The German. In another movie, this might be all you need to know. But in Zak Penn’s improvisational comedy, this delicious detail is slightly less meaningful. Though Herzog spends several minutes in mock-interview mode, describing how essential it is for him ’to kill something each day,’ these are fleeting and generally overwhelmed by the rest of the movie’s awkward unfunniness.” Philip Marchand, Toronto Star: “Just shy of being a first-rate comedy.” Jan Stuart, Newsday: “Why don’t mockumentaries ever go after targets worth the mocking?”

Hats Off. Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “A documentary tribute to the 93-year-old actress Mimi Weddell, one of those people for whom the word ’individual’ seems especially apt. Widowed at 65 by a husband who left only unpaid bills and fond memories, the indomitable Ms. Weddell saw an opportunity to follow her passion. ’I love illusion,’ she says, describing an acting career that has paid her bills for almost three decades. From Law & Order to Sex and the City, from vampire movies to cheese commercials, this remarkable woman has compiled a résumé that defies the industry’s rampant ageism.” Matthew Margini, Washington Square News: “That a 63-year-old woman could give birth caused comedian Patton Oswalt to dismiss science as being ’all about coulda, not shoulda.’ Such words gnaw at Mimi Weddell, who treats her age as just a minor impediment to stardom, glamor and theatrical nobility. The new documentary Hats Off examines Weddell’s mystique from a number of entertaining angles, but doesn’t necessarily share (or preach) her unique perspective, which is at times stubbornly airy and self-obsessed.” Nick Schager, Slant: “Quaint and slight, Hats Off revolves around Mimi Weddell, a 93-year-old model and actress (of stage and screen) whose boundless energy and indefatigable spirit are amazing…ly ho-hum.”

Just Add Water. Ernest Hardy, LA Weekly: “There’s really only one reason to check out Just Add Water, and it’s Dylan Walsh’s wistful, smiling-through-the-melancholy performance as Ray, a man so defeated by life that he can no longer muster any resistance to the daily humiliations he suffers at home and at his blue-collar job. After discovering duplicity in his own home, Ray shakes off the doldrums, goes after the woman of his dreams and finally stands up to the Neanderthal teen bullies in his neighborhood. Unfortunately, bracketing Walsh’s thoughtful performance is a depiction of small-town, working-class life that swims in both formulaic indie-flick irony and Hollywood condescension.” John Anderson, Variety: “Whimsy and the macabre are the operating systems in Just Add Water, and they’re not always complementary.”

My Brother Is an Only Child. A.O. Scott, New York Times: “A lively minor addendum to the grand tradition of Italian fraternal cinema.” Ed Gonzalez, Slant: My Brother Is an Only Child—whose title I’ve yet to completely wrap my mind around—moves so playfully and briskly you may not notice its glibness, which may have been director Daniele Luchetti’s intent.” Nick Pinkerton, Village Voice: “The family as microcosm of a divided country: Two brothers ’come of age’ in late-‘60s Italy, as political strife reaches their provincial Latina (a city laid out by Mussolini’s government)…If expectedly cynical about junior black-shirt hooliganism, Daniele Luchetti’s film is also ambivalent about how piggishness takes the guise of ’free love’ among the left, and deadpan funny with its ’de-fascisized’ performance of ’Ode to Joy’ at a student-occupied conservatory.” David Edelstein, New York: “What makes My Brother Is an Only Child so alive and entertaining is how it dramatizes the endless tug-of-war between political conviction and personal experience—the way the lines twist and blur and finally implode.” Armond White, New York Press: “Luchetti’s film continues the Italian tradition of movies that simultaneously explore family life and national politics…The broken-down house the boys grow up in (from which Accio eventually liberates them to better digs) is, of course, a symbol for Italy itself.”

Priceless. Ed Gonzalez, Slant: “Pierre Salvadori’s re-imagining (read: vulgarization) of Breakfast at Tiffany’s wears its contempt on its sleeve.” Vadim Rizov, Village Voice: “Priceless begins as standard, unconvincing, assembly-line French farce and ends as a cop-out, feel-good rom-com. In between, it develops into something considerably more interesting.” Raphaela Weissman, New York Press: “The American poster for the French comedy Priceless shows an elegantly dressed Audrey Tautou surrounded by four hands offering up expensive baubles. From this, we can glean the basic plot: The adorable pixie from Amélie plays a gold-digger. It’s not inaccurate, but it is misleading. While the publicity’s focus is on Tautou, an actress Americans immediately recognize (she also starred in an art-house flick called The Da Vinci Code), Priceless belongs to her co-star, Gad Elmaleh, who lends the film the bulk of its charm, originality and genuine humor.” Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Because its shenanigans are so improbable, Priceless is too frivolous even to be called satire.”

Run, Fat Boy, Run. Eric Kohn, New York Press: “Even Simon Pegg has repeatedly underutilized the distinct comedic appeal of Simon Pegg. Run, Fat Boy, Run, the directorial debut of David Schwimmer—inextricably identifiable as Ross from “Friends”—gives Pegg a screenplay credit, suggesting that he has written to his weaknesses. In both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright’s sly genre deconstructions, Pegg mimics the audience’s thrill of being adrift in fantastical conflict with wide-eyed incredulousness and a goofy demeanor. Akin to the underdog appeal of slapstick artists like Buster Keaton, the pathetic nature of Pegg’s characters hardens into a heroic streak. In Fat Boy, playing an out-of-shape security guard who runs a marathon to prove his worthiness to an ex-girlfriend, Pegg just seems pathetic.” Matt Prigge, Philadelphia Weekly: “Did the guy who came up with hurling second-rate Prince records at zombies really dream up a gag about a volcanic foot boil being popped in some poor guy’s face?” David Edelstein, New York: “The director, David Schwimmer, underlines the jokes and adds exclamation points, but a softer touch probably wouldn’t have helped.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “Run, Fat Boy, Run is the kind of movie that’s apt to be dismissed a goofy lark. It is that. But it’s also a rare comedy that believes in its own message, and that could inspire the depressed and the demoralized to grit their teeth and keep running.”

Shelter. Chuck Wilson, LA Weekly: “Zach (Trevor Wright) is a promising artist who turned down CalArts to stay in San Pedro and help his irresponsible older sister (played by the amazingly gifted L.A. actress Tina Holmes) care for her little boy. At the beach, Zach, who surfs as often as possible, reconnects with his best friend’s gay-novelist older brother, Shaun (Brad Rowe). The two start hanging out and eventually begin an affair, Zach’s first with a man. Like much of this impressive first film from writer-director Jonah Markowitz, Zach and Shaun’s relationship feels authentic and true; you can imagine them being together for a long time to come.” Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “The movie’s abundance of tanned bodies, rolling waves and golden sunsets create an aesthetic of inoffensive hedonism that perfectly matches the subject matter.” Fernando F. Croce, Slant: “The first project of the here! gay television network’s new movie initiative, Shelter regrettably plays closer to Lifetime fodder.”

Shotgun Stories. David Edelstein, New York: “The story is set in southeast Arkansas, against a landscape of isolated farms and dilapidated main streets, and the rhythms are languid; but the lines that pop out of these stuporous characters’ mouths have the bitter tang of real life.” Steven Boone, The House Next Door: “Glorious Southern fried sloth, in epic widescreen.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times. “Jeff Nichols’s drama about warring clans of brothers in small-town southern Arkansas defines the classic western phrase ’doing what a man’s got to do’ as both a moral imperative and a biological compulsion. The movie is filled with unremarkable men who would rather die than appear weak.”

Stop-Loss. Alonso Duralde, MSNBC.com: “Even if you think the U.S. presence in Iraq is justified, Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss provides a poignant and shattering portrait of what our soldiers have to endure in combat, at home, and from an army that sends its men and women back into battle over and over again.” Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly: “Comprised of bitter, beautifully observed truths butting up uncomfortably against loads of hoary Hollywood hooey, writer/director Kimberly Peirce’s extremely well-meaning Stop-Loss attempts to battle the trend of audience indifference toward Iraq War dramas. But the movie’s real war is with itself.” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “The sober, mournful piety that has characterized a lot of the other fictional features about Iraq—documentaries are another matter—is almost entirely missing from Stop-Loss, which is being distributed by Paramount’s youth-friendly label MTV Films. Not that the movie is unsentimental—far from it—but its messy, chaotic welter of feeling has a tang of authenticity. Instead of high-minded indignation or sorrow, it runs on earthier fuel: sweat, blood, beer, testosterone, loud music and an ideologically indeterminate, freewheeling sense of rage.” Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “This is a wrenching story of men at arms who cannot find peace outside the military circle, who return to civilian life on the horrific edge of violence and despair. In this Stop-Loss has a certain amount in common with Boys Don’t Cry. Peirce again concerns herself with men and violence as well as with individuals conflicted over gender roles trying to work out what society demands of them.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “Peirce makes her points, all right. She just doesn’t trust us to get them.”

21. Alonso Duralde, MSNBC.com: “One would expect a movie about high-stakes gambling in Las Vegas and young, attractive savants using their smarts to break the bank at blackjack to be sexy and thrilling. Unfortunately, 21 winds up being about as exciting as freshman calculus.” Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “Greed is good and comes without a hint of conscience in 21, a feature-length bore about some smarty-pants who take Vegas for a ride.” Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “21 isn’t pretentious, exactly, but it’s damn close, and in trying to whip up a melodramatic morality tale the film becomes an increasingly flabby slog.” Robert Wilonsky, LA Weekly: “The big-screen version of Ben Mezrich’s book ain’t no gamble at all—it’s about as risky as playing the nickel slots with 10 cents in your pocket. It’s as though director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law) and writers Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool, as if) and Allan Loeb adapted the book-jacket blurb rather than crack the spine.”

ALSO PLAYING

The Bank Job. Jim Emerson, Chicago Sun-Times: “A serviceable B-grade British heist movie, “The Bank Job” is no worse than its generic title. And no better.” Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Observer: “Statham—reduced to muttering guttural groans in various bombs that close on opening weekend (In the Name of the King, War) or get released directly to DVD (Chaos) or spawn inexplicable franchises (Transporter, Crank)—at last proves himself a leading man who does more than lead with his head. It isn’t till the film’s end that he has to throw a few punches and land a few head-butts—contractually obligated, no doubt. But by then he’s managed to negotiate a screenplay in which there are complete sentences—whole paragraphs, even—that he gives his all without breaking a sweat; even when he has to convince his missus he’s a stand-up shitheel, Statham’s totally believable. He might yet become Bruce Willis.”

Be Kind Rewind. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: “Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind is whimsy with a capital W. No, it’s WHIMSY in all caps. Make that all-caps italic boldface. Oh, never mind. I’m getting too whimsical. Maybe Gondry does, too. You’ll have to decide for yourself. This is a movie that takes place in no possible world, which may be a shame, if not for the movie, then for possible worlds.” Elbert Ventura, ReverseShot: “Be Kind Rewind contains reminders of the limits of this brilliant artist. That the movie still enthralls is a testament to the fact that Gondry’s starting point—an aesthetic in which each frame bears its maker’s sensibility—is miles ahead of where most filmmakers aspire to be.”

Chicago 10. J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “Chicago 10, an electrifying new “mash-up documentary” by Brett Morgen, vividly reconstructs the battles on the street and in the courtroom, and it couldn’t come at a more opportune moment.” Jim Emerson, Chicago Sun-Times: “Through the kaleidoscopic prism of Brett Morgen’s uproarious Chicago 10, a zippy mixture of documentary footage and motion-capture animation, we see how the confrontations between police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention played out as political theater.”

Cloverfield. Oily Richards, Empire: “Wise to the fact that the most frightening attack is the one without apparent reason, Cloverfield never chooses to explain its monster’s arrival. It’s suddenly there and, as one soldier notes, ’it’s winning’. It intends to scare, not educate. The constant air of panic is so pervasive that it’s easy to miss the skilful creation of the sequences, which include a rescue from a collapsing skyscraper and a tunnel sequence so butt-clenching you’ll crap diamonds for a week.” Keith Phipps, Onion A/V Club: “It’s absolutely terrifying, and it’s all the more effective for the way it lets viewers spend time getting to know the terrified stars, and the emotions and regrets behind their seemingly futile efforts to survive. It puts human faces on the victims of mass destruction, faces that might easily have been yours or mine, staring down the maw of something we don’t understand.” J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “[Producer J.J.] Abrams may be exploiting images of a national trauma, but politicians have been doing the same thing for years in pursuit of even less noble ends: the $10 you’ll spend on Cloverfield hardly compares with the estimated $487 billion spent to date on the war in Iraq.” Richard Corliss, Time: “A horror/sf/disaster movie loses points every time you’re forced to ask yourself, ’Why are they doing something so stupid?’, and the answer is, ’Because they’re in a horror/sf/disaster movie.’ And if you thought that Abrams—the creator of Felicity, Alias and Lost, and the writer-director of the spiffy if underperforming Mission: Impossible III—would produce a horror movie that was not just high-concept but high-IQ—you misjudge his faithfulness to a genre requiring that, in extremis, people act in a manner that’s way below their intelligence levels.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “Is Cloverfield trying to be a ’fun’ monster movie, or is it trying to say something about the way, post-9/11, we experience horrific events? I simply have no idea.”

The Counterfeiters. Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: ” For the prisoners in Blocks 18 and 19 of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, meals were served, beds provided, light opera floated from the speakers. There was even a ping-pong table to play on. But as writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky shows, powerfully, affectingly, in The Counterfeiters, the privileges experienced by this small team of Jews and criminals came at a price.” David Denby, The New Yorker: “The Counterfeiters is a testament to guile.” Adam Bernstein, Washington Post: “Based on a real-life Nazi operation, the film is a tense drama with performances that elevate the movie to the front rank of films set in concentration camps, from Gillo Pontecorvo’s magnificent 1959 drama Kapo to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List of 1993.”

Diary of the Dead. Jim Emerson, The Chicago Sun-Times: “When young filmmakers gather to shoot cinema-verite video documentaries, watch out: Something really bad is going to happen. In The Blair Witch Project, it was…well, we don’t really know what it was, but it sure freaked out Heather. In Cloverfield, it was something large with an antipathy toward Manhattan landmarks. And in George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, as you have probably gathered by now, it is the meat-eating undead. These movies give the shaky-cam a reason to get shaky—but the kids try not to miss a shot.” David Edelstein, New York: “Compared with other first-person motion-sickness horror pictures like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead is weak tea, yet there’s enough social commentary (and innovative splatter) to acidulate the brew—to remind you that Romero, even behind the curve, makes other genre filmmakers look like fraidy-cats.” J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “Diary of the Dead proceeds as if the events of the first four movies never happened, starting over in the present with a handful of film students whose no-budget shoot for a mummy thriller is interrupted by an outbreak of zombie violence. The premise allows Romero a second childhood of sorts, a chance to revisit the independent spirit of his first big hit even as he reflects on how much America has changed in the past 40 years.”

Doomsday. Gideon Levy, UnderGroundOnline: “The most fun thing about Doomsday was watching a generic action flick run the gamut from near-future militarism to post-apoc tribal punkland to the Dark Ages without any boring plot twists to slow down the shoot & slash & run & kill. When they get to the souped-up sports car that appears out of nowhere, you’re ready for the chase scene & big boom at the end. If only the action scenes – the only backbone holding together this otherwise paper-thin film – weren’t so lazily and poorly edited, I could’ve really enjoyed this film that made no pretenses to being more than it was.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The New York Times: “Doomsday has an appealing punk-rock sneer, but aside from a few clever music cues—including a Fine Young Cannibals song that accompanies a deranged bacchanal given by fine young cannibals—swagger is, unfortunately, its only notable quality.” Gina Piccalo, San Francisco Chronicle: “There is no slow build in Doomsday. Geysers of blood, severed limbs and pustule-ravaged faces blanket the opening frames. Then Rhona Mitra’s machete-wielding babe with the removable, bionic eyeball shows up to wreak her own pickax-to-the-face brand of havoc, decapitating her way through tribes of Thunderdome-ready cannibals. That’s when things really get moving.”

Drillbit Taylor. Keith Uhlich, UnderGroundOnline: “There are worse things, I suppose, than being below-waistline roundhoused by a Hollywood celebrity. Chief among such tortures would be experiencing the complete sense of desperation that marks Drillbit Taylor’s each and every scene .” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “’You get what you pay for,’ the tag line on the advertisement says. I saw it free, and I still feel cheated.” Raphaela Weissman, New York Press: “Its comedy falls flat, and the film has a violent core where its heart should be.” Xan Brooks, The Guardian: “The final bell can’t come soon enough.”

Frownland. Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “It’s a horror film about everyday life in which characters who fail to recognize their own freakish aspects behave monstrously toward others: Marty by way of Eraserhead.” Daniel Cockburn, ReverseShot: “Its 100%-celluloid material and Method-ish performances may be just more convention, but all these conventions counterbalance to create something new.”

Funny Games. Fernando F. Croce, The House Next Door: “Michael Haneke is a clever guy. I promised myself I’d never revisit his 1997 film Funny Games, yet he’s tricked me into doing just that by remaking it, shot by agonizing shot…The plot is still The Desperate Hours rewritten by the Marquis De Sade.” David Edelstein, New York: “Naomi Watts produced this remake, apparently concluding that she hadn’t yet been sufficiently violated onscreen. King Kong, after all, turned out to be a softy—now she’s in the hairy paw of a giant ape artiste.”

The Hammer. Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “The synopsis of The Hammer makes it sound like a long-lost Billy Crystal movie: a smart-alecky, self-destructive Los Angeles handyman named Jerry Ferro (Adam Carolla) loses his job and his girlfriend, then reconnects with his past as a Golden Gloves boxer and tries to qualify for the United States Olympic team at 40. Mr. Carolla, an amateur boxer and cable television veteran, has a tendency to riff when he should be acting, and the whole project—written by Kevin Hench and directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (Kissing Jessica Stein)—is rambling and disorganized. At the same time, though, The Hammer also has dry wit and unforced working-class swagger, and hits some surprising emotional notes.”

Horton Hears a Who! A.O. Scott, New York Times: “What distinguishes Horton Hears a Who! from the other recent Dr. Seuss film adaptations—How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, in case you need reminding—is that it is not one of the worst movies ever made.” Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: “An inspired CGI comedy that honors the spirit of the good doctor’s story even as it expands upon it thematically.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “The ratio of innocent enthusiasm to commercial cartoon formula is higher than I expected. Co-directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, scriptwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and the animators from Blue Sky (the Ice Age studio) have managed to adapt Seuss without turning him out, which I guess counts as progress.”

In Bruges. Bilge Ebiri, Nerve: ” Way more engaging than a bantering-hitman-with-a-heart picture released in 2008 has any right to be, Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges might have made serious waves back in 1994. Today it feels like a mysterious creature from another age—devoid of grit or naturalism, and shot with a composed elegance largely missing from today’s screens. In other words, it’s a fairy tale with guns and exploding heads. That’s its blessing and its curse.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “Often it feels that McDonagh’s script is as adrift as one of the boats on the shimmering canals. The pace is too slow, at times lagging behind the adrenalin-packed story, the film relying heavily on Carter Burwell’s theatrical score. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about In Bruges is its predictable ending.”

Irina Palm: A.O. Scott, New York Times. “Irina Palm may be the work of a German-born Belgian director, but it belongs to a sturdy and very British genre: the naughty-granny comedy, in which an older woman is liberated and rejuvenated by an excursion into vice.” Jim Ridley, LA Weekly: “Nobody can reduce tawdry material to doddering quaintness like the British, but this staggeringly inane joint effort of U.K., Belgian, French, German and Luxembourgian film financing represents a true coalition of the witless.”

Jar City. A.O. Scott, New York Times: “The picture of Iceland that emerges in Baltasar Kormákur’s Jar City is vivid and powerful but not something the country’s tourist board would be likely to endorse. The landscape has its austere poetry to be sure—mountains framing the apartment blocks of Reykjavik, spits of volcanic rock jutting into a churning sea—but a fog of damp unhappiness seems to pervade every face and conversation. And yet by the end of this film, based on a popular mystery novel by Arnaldur Indridason, it is hard not to feel a certain affection for the place.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “This is not just a fictional story about a couple who lose their four-year-old girl to a brain tumor, nor just a tale about the search for a murderer and his motive, but an intriguing blend of the two, overlaid by a Big Brother that takes the form of the nonfiction, controversial deCODE Genetics Inc., a company specializing in genetic research that, several years ago, received access to all medical files in the Icelandic government’s database. Invasion of privacy or scientific necessity? As a government stand-in character argues near the beginning of the film, information isn’t ’personal’ since it’s been passed on for generations. Rather, it belongs to society. But does society have a right to know about every disease, even those that can’t be cured?”

Juno. Fernando F. Croce, Slant: “Lke the titular character’s accidental pregnancy, Juno has a fumbling start and an affecting delivery.” Elbert Ventura, ReverseShot: “Juno is occasionally funny, rarely intelligent, and often annoying. A crowd-pleaser for people who like to think they’re above crowd-pleasers but are actually not.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “Juno doesn’t make judgments or pronouncements. Its great beauty lies in how generous it is toward all its characters.” Richard Schickel, Time: “Juno is not a great movie; it does not have aspirations in that direction. But it is, in its little way, a truthful, engaging and welcome entertainment.” Marcy Dermansky, About.com: “Though too precocious and polished, Juno manages to charm, with many lovely moments. In the tradition of maladjusted teen comedies, however, Juno doesn’t rank among the recent greats.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody has described herself as a ’naked Margaret Mead,’ a cultural anthropologist who for years studied the rites and rituals of the stripper tribe in lieu of the nine-to-five grind. It’s a great line and a quite telling one, for this writer’s scientific approach to life is precisely why Juno ultimately fails.”

Look. Maureen M. Hart, Chicago Tribune: “According to the producers of Look, the average American is unwittingly photographed up to 200 times a day, thanks to the 30 million surveillance cameras at work in this country 24/7. With all this attention, are we any safer? What is the state of privacy rights if we’re never really alone? For those answers, look elsewhere.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “Between the likelihood of surveillance cameras capturing every dramatically significant moment (with crystal-clear sound) and the filmmaker’s deployment of ripped-from-the-tabloids ugliness to amp up viewer involvement, Look grows less compelling and believable as it unreels.”

Love Songs. David Edelstein, New York: “Honoré has proven you can make a movie musical in which style doesn’t upstage content—a movie musical that blossoms from the inside out.” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “The Paris of Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs (Les Chansons d’Amour) belongs unmistakably to the present. Its residents talk on cellphones and drop the name of Nicolas Sarkozy (still an aspirant to the Élysée Palace rather than an occupant when the movie was being shot). But they also dwell, just as noticeably, in the Paris of classic French movies—in a vague, bracing atmosphere of good old Nouvelle Vague.”

Married Life. Bill Gibron, PopMatters: “Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry – and sometimes separate – that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs’ period piece drama Married Life is so downright flat?” Keith Uhlich, The House Next Door: “A deeply felt examination of the ties that bind.” Desson Thomson, Washington Post: “How is it that the disastrous repercussions of an extramarital affair could be considered entertaining, and even comforting, viewing? By presenting it as a nail-biting, cautionary tale set in another era. Director Ira Sachs and co-writer Oren Moverman (who adapted the John Bingham Five Roundabouts to Heaven) take the basic ingredients of those old-time films noir, shake them in a postmodern martini mixer, then pour it into chilled glasses for our delectation.” Chris Wisnieswki, ReverseShot: “Married Life falls somewhere between parodic pastiche and straightforward narrative. Like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven, it filters its period details through classical Hollywood genre while nevertheless striving for emotional resonance. Where Haynes pulled off this nearly impossible gambit, though, Sachs falls short on both counts.”

Never Back Down. Keith Uhlich, UnderGroundOnline: “As Never Back Down would have it, Orlando, Florida is a spoiled rich kid’s haven, littered with cavernous million dollar mansions and inhabited by sun-baked, iPhone-toting teenagers prone to nightly Fight Club-like bouts of bloodletting. Parents and trailer trash are non-existent, but rock-hard abs are legion (for truth-in-advertising purposes the film might best be subtitled ’Chest Porn’). Into this sweat-drenched sea of masculine mammaries comes fresh-faced Iowan Jake Tyler (Sean Faris), whose stretch-lipped, teeth-grinding intensity suggests he’s just graduated summa cum laude from the Tom Cruise Finishing School for Wanton Pretty Boys.”

No Country for Old Men. Jim Emerson, Scanners: “I’ve used the term ’existential thriller’ (and/or ’epistemological thriller’) to describe movies such as Chinatown and Caché. It’s a useful term because it can be used across genres and it describes the nature of the “thrills” the movie has in store. Chinatown is also a period American detective noir and Caché is a modern French intellectual puzzle and No Country for Old Men is a contemporary Texas Western chase movie, but they’re all inquiries into the nature of knowledge and existence. They all ask: ’What do we know and how do we know it?’ Is there a more worthy or essential question?” Michael Koresky, ReverseShot: “The most rewarding thing about No Country is the way in which its narrative is set up as a singularly unstoppable force, a shark constantly moving forward (every scene seems to have a goal, every frame initially gives off the impression of tightly relaying crucial plot information), only to allow itself to purposefully break down, both in terms of resolution and traditional narrative payoffs.” Sukhdev Sandu, Daily Telegraph: “Is it a masterpiece? Not even close.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “No Country’s message, such as it is (the Coens aren’t message-y directors) is not about Where We Are Now. It’s simpler and more encompassing, less reminiscent of reportage or the editorial page than the admonitions of a philosopher or court jester: Get over yourselves, Americans, and everyone else, too.” Andrew Tracy, ReverseShot: “What they’re doing is so impressive within its limits that the only criticism one can level is that the Coens are clearly aiming for something far beyond those limits, and have not the skill or character to reach it.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader: “I admire the creativity and storytelling craft of the Coen brothers, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what use they think they’re putting that creativity and craft to.”

The Other Boleyn Girl. Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “The Other Boleyn Girl is the most sterile of bodice-rippers, a genteel soap opera in which the sex and intrigue are so muted, so tasteful, that they practically blow off the screen in a scattering of dust.” David Edelstein, New York: “A brisk feminist melodrama that is, historically speaking, a load of wank.” N.P. Thompson, Movies Into Film: “The Other Boleyn Girl, about two virtuous daughters who become rival whores for King Henry VIII, may reach its apex when Anne (Natalie Portman) takes her sibling Mary (Scarlett Johansson) by the hand, on the night before the latter beds the King for the first time, and exclaims, ’My little sis-tah! My golden sis-tah! My milk-and-honey sis-tah!’”

Paranoid Park. Vadim Rizov, The House Next Door: “If I were over 40 and/or French—in other words, if I hadn’t been to American public high school recently enough to still experience a little residual shudder thinking about it—I might well be blown away by Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant’s not-so-breathlessly awaited return to the semi-conventional narrative.” Kevin B. Lee, The House Next Door: “Gus Van Sant finally crawls out from under his Béla Tarr-inspired long-take detachment and dares to explore an interior landscape in ways not seen since My Own Private Idaho. Indeed, the privacy of this film—a reflection of its insular protagonist—is what puts the shockingly violent death that haunts its sinuous narrative a league apart from those in Van Sant’s most recent work.” Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “Working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his work with such Hong Kong directors as Wong Kar-wai, Van Sant films Paranoid Park with dreamy, mesmerizing lassitude (those swooping skateboards), as well as the subversive brio of something caught on the fly; at one point, Doyle films Portland street scenes on Super-8 film, then bars the subjects’ eyes out, tabloid style. At other moments, Van Sant derives his inspiration from silent films. One memorable scene features the face of young actress Taylor Momsen as she reacts to unwelcome news, her wide-eyed expression resembling a cross between Lillian Gish and a Bratz doll.” Zachary Wigon, The House Next Door: “The awkwardness inherent in being a teenager is captured by one of the most rarely encountered cinematic techniques: a director intentionally using unintentionally bad acting.”

Shutter. Andy Webster, The New York Times: “The director, Masayuki Ochiai, conjures textbook J-horror miasma: clammy clinical interiors; overcast skies; diffuse cityscapes. He also gives Alfred Hitchcock a nod, with a sequence nakedly stolen from Psycho, and draws unease from Jane’s disorientation in a foreign city. Tokyo, in fact, may be the movie’s most fascinating player. But the mandatory bump-offs—a gouging through a viewfinder, a compelled suicide—lack novelty.” Rafer Guzman, Newsday: “Have you ever seen a horror film in which a character, against her better judgment, approaches a motionless body sitting in a chair facing the wall, then slowly turns it toward the camera? How about a horror film in which this happens more than once? How about three times?” John Hutchins, UnderGroundOnline: “With un-likeable, shallowly written characters populating a formulaically garbled storyline filled with plot contrivances, Shutter’s redeeming qualities are few and far between.”

Snow Angels. Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly: “David Gordon Green’s fourth feature is both magnificently silly yet strangely gentle, at least until two gunshots echo in the distance. Like his previous film, the confused backwoods-chase picture Undertow, Snow Angels finds this wonderfully distinctive filmmaker suffering growing pains, trying to wrestle his meandering, oddball sensibilities into the requirements of conventional genre forms.” Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “At its center, and much like David Gordon Green’s other movies, from the brilliant George Washington to Undertow, Snow Angels is about faith. More precisely, it’s about doubt and desire, the underpinnings of faith.”

The Spiderwick Chronicles. Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times: The Spiderwick Chronicles is a terrific entertainment for the whole family, except those below a certain age, who are likely to be scared out of their wits. What is that age? I dunno; they’re your kids. But I do know the PG classification is insane, especially considering what happens right after a father says he loves his son.” David Edelstein, New York: “The Spiderwick Chronicles boasts some of the ugliest animated creatures this side of Jar-Jar Binks, and the friendly ones are only marginally less repulsive than the lethal ones. (The obnoxious vocal stylings of Martin Short and Seth Rogen don’t help.)”

Sputnik Mania. Vadim Rizov, The House Next Door: “At times, the movie seems to be less about Sputnik and more of an Atomic Cafe redux.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “David Hoffman’s documentary treats 1950s America as an ancient time and place that can be scrutinized with archaeological detachment. Narrated by Liev Schreiber in wry, ominous tones, Sputnik Mania characterizes post-World War II America as a fat and happy society, secure in its belief that it ruled the globe and spooked by the ambitions of a despised and underestimated rival.”

10,000 B.C.. Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “About an hour into 10,000 B.C., a young boy prisoner is being shipped away to a far-off desert. His captors are mean, tall, and swarthy, and one, called One Eye (Marco Khan) for obvious reason, is especially brutal, given to whipping and kicking his charges. Still, Baku (Nathanael Baring) is spunky and steadfast, certain that his savior will yet appear. And indeed, he is rewarded, for lo! upon a distant dune, Baku spots D’Leh (Steven Strait), hollering as the ship bearing the captives heads off downriver. Baku yells back and smiles broadly, even as his young companion wonders if D’Leh will actually follow and save them. Oh yes, nods Baku. D’Leh is in love with yet another captive, the beautiful, blue-eyed Evolet (Camilla Belle), and to illustrate, the boy makes a kissy-face and writhes in exaggerated pleasure, before he grimaces at the mushy thought. It’s an unexpectedly light moment in this ponderous exercise. Baku’s quite charming, and his understanding of this tiresome plot is dead-on. The hero will save the girl he has loved since childhood, fulfill his destiny, and oh yes, in the process also wreak vengeance on the nasty slavers. Even as Baku comprehends his dire situation, he also mocks the cliché. Thank goodness for small amusements.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “Perhaps this film is rated PG-13 because it’s not suitable for anyone with post-pubescent thinking skills?”

There Will Be Blood. Glenn Kenny, There Will Be Blood: “Is Plainview a personification of the excesses of capitalism? Could be. I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is that this film invaded my consciousness (literally—I had a dream about it the first night I saw it, a very rare occurrence) and still has a tight, daunting grip on it.” Jeff Reichert, ReverseShot: “A slow-moving whirlwind that suddenly, utterly spent, just finishes.” Karina Longworth, SpoutBlog: “I confess: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has pretty much slain me.” J. Hoberman, Village Voice: “From the deliberately dark and fragmented prologue to the wildly excessive denouement, this movie continually defamiliarizes what might sound like a Giant-style potboiler.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “It isn’t perfect or entirely satisfying, but it’s so singular in its conception and execution that one can no more dismiss it than one can dismiss a volcanic eruption occurring in one’s backyard.” C. Jerry Kutner, Bright Lights After Dark: “It remains a story about aberrant individuals, setting us up for some great unexpected insight about community and our present-day world that it never delivers.” Bilge Ebiri, Nerve: ” An epic with a coal-black heart.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader: “Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature, a striking piece of American self-loathing loosely derived from Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, is lively as bombastic period storytelling but limited as allegory.” Armond White, New York Press: ““No!” is the first word spoken in There Will Be Blood, and it should be the last said in response to Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest pretend epic.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “An austere folly, a picture so ambitious, so filled with filmmaking, that its very scale almost obscures its blankness.” N.P. Thompson, The House Next Door: “Minor virtues, welcome as they are, cannot begin to salvage There Will Be Blood.”

Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns.. Alonso Duralde, MSNBC.com: “The good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Perry keeps things moving at a brisk clip—aided by his editor, Robert Altman veteran Maysie Hoy—and the cast turns what might have been caricatures into interesting and fleshed-out characters.” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “Madea, the vociferous, big-boned grandmother Mr. Perry played in that film (and then in Madea’s Family Reunion), makes a brief, raucous cameo near the end of Meet the Browns. Not for any reason having to do with the picture’s many story lines, but just as a kind of lagniappe, a gift of pure silliness for the loyal public.” Armond White, New York Press: “Ruthlessly alternating pathos with broad, profane family satire, Perry exceeds the boundaries of chitlin’ circuit theater.”

Under the Moon. Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “’What are you going to do, call the police?’ Hardworking, conscientious, and illegal, Rosario (Kate del Castillo) has no recourse when her employer (Jacqueline Voltaire) decides to ’let her go.’ Taut-faced and designer-outfitted, the woman has no cause to fire her housekeeper, but so what? She’s unaccountable and besides, she’s a dismal stereotype. ’Oh for god’s sake,’ she sniffs at Rosario, ’you’ll find something else, because you’re young.’ No matter that Rosario is struggling to make enough money to bring her nine-year-old son across the border, that she hasn’t seen that son for four years, or that actually finding ’something else’ will be an ordeal. The white lady—nicknamed ’Cruella de Vil’ by Rosario’s best friend and fellow domestic—has had a bad day. Rosario’s determination and resilience ground the moral design of Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna).” Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor: “Some tearjerkers are jerkier than others.”

The Unforeseen. Andrew Schenker, The House Next Door: “The Unforeseen neatly encapsulates the problems of the contemporary political non-fiction film: its importance as social document is everywhere countered by its poverty as cinema.” Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “The Unforeseen has the title of a science fiction thriller, not a thoughtful documentary on the environment, but there’s truth in that packaging. As directed by Laura Dunn, this unusual film unfolds like a mournful whodunit, with the Earth itself being the victim of the crime.”

Vantage Point. Talis Saule Archdeacon, Baltic Times: “The trouble with Vantage Point is that the movie—much like the terrorists it is about—is constantly shooting itself in the foot.” David Denby, The New Yorker: “The movie is intended as an homage to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but, really, it’s quite different. In Rashomon, the varying accounts of a rape and murder are shaped by self-interest. Vantage Point is more literal; it shows what each person actually sees, not what he wants to see. In each depiction, we get a little closer to comprehension of the entire affair only to have the film-makers—in a rather cheap trick—cut away to still another character’s restricted view of things. Finally, they abandon the vantage-point experiment, shift to an impersonal view, and finish the story in a conventional way. Like so many other thrillers, this one ends in a series of car crashes and shootouts.”

The Years My Parents Went on Vacation. Bill Stamets, Chicago Sun-Times: “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation gives us a boy’s-eye view of a turbulent Brazil in 1970. Pele and soccer goals mean more than Che or slogans spray-painted on walls. For a 12-year-old, reuniting your family scores higher than overturning a repressive regime.” John Anderson, Washington Post: “Call me a cynic, but it’s plain to see why Brazil made The Year My Parents Went on Vacation its candidate for this year’s foreign-film Oscar. Kids. Old people. Cuteness. Dire circumstances that don’t interfere with the cuteness but imply gravity nonetheless—the old Life Is Beautiful gambit.” Adam Nayman, Eye Weekly: “Doesn’t so much draw you in as glide on by.”

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

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

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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

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

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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