[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.]
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.”
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.”
Review: Boys State Presents an Aptly Dire Microcosm of American Politics
The film suggests that our political system is a popularity contest that functions for no one but those jockeying for power.3
Initiatives to get young people involved in politics are often organized in service of a given party agenda, but the “non-partisan” Americanism of the American Legion’s Boys and Girls State programs differentiates them from groups like the Young Republicans, while somehow also managing to make the blind enthusiasm of youthful politics even more off-putting. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s Boys State offers a skeptical take on the eponymous summer leadership and citizenship programs. A disconcerting mix of a Boy Scouts outing and Model U.N., the Boys State program, based on the evidence presented in the film, appears to be less an educational tool or a communal gathering of like-minded youth, and more an indoctrination into a cultish fetishization of American power politics.
McBaine and Moss predominantly focus on four boys participating in the Texas iteration of the annual gathering in which, as the opening-credits graphics inform us, such dubious luminaries as Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh also participated in their youth. While the program’s participants are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and conservative, the four boys who rise to fake-government power don’t quite fit that stereotyped Texan mold: René Otero is a black, liberal Chicago transplant (“I’ve never seen so many white people in one place in my life,” he confesses at one point); Steven Garza is Latino, and was inspired to get into politics by Bernie Sanders; Ben Feinstein is a Reagan-worshipping arch-conservative with two prosthetic legs (he had meningitis as a child); and Rob Macdougall, a breezily confident white boy who publicly plays the right-wing All-American, privately harbors pro-choice convictions.
After the program’s 1,100-plus participants arrive in Austin—all clad in the same white uniform shirts, like members of a religious mission—they’re randomly split into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, in reference to the constitutional debate of the 1780s, though the particulars of that nation-founding conversation play no part in how each party is meant to behave. Instead, each group organizes and forms a contemporary party platform, and, using the actual facilities of the Texas state government, runs candidates for governor against one another. This, presumably, is how it came to pass that in 2017, the year before the documentary was filmed, Texas Boys State voted to secede from the Union.
One might be tempted to conclude that the Nationalists won the mock gubernatorial election that year, but, again, the party names mean nothing. Indeed, Boys State shows the entire program as a form of social conditioning that compels its participants to talk without saying very much at all, and teaches them how best to make cynically calculated power moves. The worst culprit in this regard is Ben, who arrives fully formed as a self-styled political wheeler and dealer, and who, despite espousing some conservative convictions, mostly sees politics as a zero-sum game of self-fulfillment. Elected as the Federalists’ state chair, Ben runs his party by the mantra that “you have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.”
In such moments, McBaine and Moss capture the way teenagers can be adept at obliviously, even innocently articulating the subtext of the politics of corruption. After confessing he gave a stump speech misrepresenting his true views, Rob explains with a final note of uncertainty, “That’s politics…I think.” Few of these kids really have a fully formed idea of their own political identity: The purportedly left-leaning Steven, while achieving unlikely popularity among a body politic almost unanimously against background checks and immigrant rights, professes an open admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. In his final pitch for governorship he even quotes the French emperor who displaced a democratic republic.
Boys State initially looks askance at all this naïve politicking, mixing a sympathetic view of the teens with ironic commentary, delivered by judicious cuts to interviews or metaphorical images that undermine the sentiment of the prior scene. After a visibly nervous Steven, uncertain of his political platform, rises to the occasion with a primary debate performance that’s surprisingly fluid and honest-sounding but absent of detailed policy proposals, there’s a cut to a racoon outside the debate hall diving headfirst into a trash can. Point taken.
At the same time, however, Steven’s rise through the ranks of the tumultuous Nationalist party—a concurrent plotline sees René, the group’s chair, doing battle with racist party members want to see him impeached and removed for declining to move forward with a secession platform—gets plotted as something like an inspirational tale, the American dream in miniature. It’s easy to identify with the humble Steven as he forms an inchoate political voice, but the way that voice only reflects the crowd’s own pleasurable ideal of itself back to it constitutes a development more tragic than the documentary appears to realize.
In assembling Boys State as a rise-to-the-top narrative, the filmmakers dull a potential critical edge that might have allowed them to ask more pointed questions about actual policy, history, and political science at this camp. If women have nominally been full participants in U.S. politics since 1920, then why does the American Legion train politically interested youth to address only the (often frivolous and always underthought) concerns that arise from homosocial teen groupings? But even if it sometimes emphasizes the individualized drama of a political contest over such critical matters, Boys State presents a fittingly dire microcosm of American politics, suggesting that our political system as an exclusionary and essentially contentless popularity contest functions for no one but those jockeying for power.
Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss Distributor: A24
Review: Sputnik Toils in the Long Shadow Cast by Ridley Scott’s Alien
Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.2
Ridley Scott’s Alien has cast a long shadow. Certain images in the film conjure an unshakeable terror of violation, which is afforded a brutal catharsis when one creature, suggesting a cross between a tapeworm, a snake, and a phallus, rips its way out of a man’s ribcage in one of the most brutal “births” in cinema history. Many movie monsters since have been compared to the various creatures of Alien, just as virtually every slasher movie owes some form of allegiance to Psycho. Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik is already at least the second film to riff on Alien this year alone, after William Eubank’s Underwater, and it adds one promising gimmick to the body-horror formula: The alien here is a symbiote rather than a parasite, entering and exiting its host over and over again. The violation is ongoing.
Sputnik is set in the Soviet Union in 1983, and Abramenko subtly allows us to feel the pall of the Cold War as it’s entering its death rattle. It’s cast in lonely, shadowy hues, and the soft, warm, and grainy cinematography un-showily suggests that the film has been beamed in from the analog era, in the tradition of Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, also from this year. The Soviets are concerned with heroes to keep morale up, and cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) will do nicely. He’s returned from a space mission that’s vaguely defined by the filmmakers, which is an evocative touch that suggests that when heroes are needed by a society the specifics of their aspirational accomplishments hardly matter. Something happened in space though: A shadow drifted over Konstantin’s vessel, and his fellow cosmonaut is now in a coma. Konstantin has amnesia and is being held in a bunker presided over by Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who’s pressing scientists to solve the mystery of the time he lost in space. Semiradov recruits a doctor who’s in hot water for unorthodox measures, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), in an effort to crack Konstantin.
Sputnik’s first act is eerie, strange, and unusually character-centric for a monster movie. The film initially suggests many episodes of The Outer Limits, in which the audience was chilled by the implications of what happened to characters who ventured into outer space. And Abramenko doesn’t tease the audience as long as one might expect: Soon, Semiradov reveals more details of the situation to Tatyana, inviting her to watch Konstantin in his holding cell in the middle of the night, when he convulses in his sleep while a creature gradually crawls out of his mouth. This sequence is unnerving, showing the creature’s emergence partially from the point of view of laboratory cameras, lending the event a patina of casualness and “reality.” The creature itself is, in design, beholden less to Alien than to the mutations of that film’s prequel, Prometheus, as it’s pale and amphibian in nature, suggesting a miniature manta ray or hammerhead shark, with little legs and a gelatinous tail that is, of course, so very phallic.
Like the various otherworldly beings of Prometheus, Sputnik’s monster is disappointing, timidly designed for the sake of a supposed, greatly overrated notion of believability. It doesn’t seem especially plausible that a tapeworm creature would evolve, seemingly overnight, into the metallic praying mantis colossus of Alien, and this irrationality, coupled with the primordial design itself, is terrifying. By contrast, Sputnik’s wan creature ushers forth a series of anticlimaxes that ripple through the film. After the alien’s symbiotic relationship with Konstantin is explained via amusing pseudo-science, Sputnik changes formulas, becoming a story of a special man who must be saved from evil military industrialists. At times, Abramenko even seems to be visually quoting Ang Lee’s Hulk.
But a story of a special man must be fixated, as Hulk was, with the psychology of said man. Konstantin’s anguish at being invaded, and the weird elation he might feel at discovering that he can control his interloper, are glossed over by Abramenko. Sputnik’s third act is a rush of formulaic action meant, perhaps, to compensate for the interminably repetitive and impersonal second act, which is mostly concerned with reinforcing a set of foregone conclusions. Incredibly, the central notion of the film—of an alien that symbolically rapes its host over and over—is relegated to an inciting incident. Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.
Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Albrecht Zander, Anna Nazarova, Vasiliy Zotov Director: Egor Abramenko Screenwriter: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic, the Theater of Cruelty, and More
The maverick filmmaker discusses working with the tarot, the surrealist moviement, and more.
At the age of 91, maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has made his first ever documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to his recent self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical films The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, in which Jodorowsky inserted his present-day self into the narrative of his own boyhood and youth. Where the earlier films show Jodorowsky arriving at private rituals and symbolic acts to deal with his own issues, Psychomagic expands his sphere of influence to include men and women who find themselves in a cul-de-sac of existential distress.
Essentially a daisy chain of case histories, the film allows Jodorowsky to demonstrate the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques he’s developed over a lifetime spent studying various psychological systems and an astonishing variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. As you might expect from the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, it can be a wild ride, full of sometimes totally bonkers, even grotesque imagery, yet also betraying Jodorowsky’s full-blooded compassion for the vicissitudes of human suffering.
Ahead of the VOD release of Psychomagic, I had the opportunity to speak with Jodorowsky via Skype. We touched upon a far-ranging assortment of topics including working with the tarot, Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the “last days” of the surrealist movement, and the films of Dario Argento and Luis Buñuel.
Early in your new documentary you mention your work with the tarot deck. How did that contribute to your development of psychomagic?
For me, the tarot isn’t magic that let’s you see the future. It’s only a language to open the unconscious. That is all. It’s to work with the dreams like Sigmund Freud worked with dreams. My films help me to speak about dreams, and put you on the table [in a tarot spread]. I use tarot to do that. But, in order to do that, I needed 50 years of working with the tarot, learning how to memorize the tarot deck. I memorized every line, every color, every meaning. [Jodorowsky proceeds to give a quick three-card tarot reading.]
Psychomagic techniques seem to involve a dreamlike, poetic logic. How do you arrive at the specific details of the treatments?
When you’re working with me, first I make your genealogical tree. You have the son, you have the partner, the father and mother, the grandfather. Then I know where you are, what formed you. And then, when I know that, I will not experience you in a psychoanalytic way, an intellectual way. That is for psychoanalysts, who take dreams and teach you what is real life. I am different. I take what you think with the reality and I put it into the image of the dream. I use the language of acting, not speaking, doing things you never did before. New things. I am breaking your psychological defense with an image to go do something. I will say, “Paint your beard gold and kiss a woman, or a man, who has silver hair.” I will say that’s an image. That will open to you the unconscious, something you will discover. That is the work of psychomagic.
With most of the participants in the film, all we see is their short-term response to the treatment. What made you follow up with the woman who had throat cancer after almost 10 years?
What I did in the theater was an experience. Because I had a theater. I had to pay to have that theater. Because every healing I do is free. I’m not a psychoanalyst, so nobody paid me. It’s free. Because I had a big theater, and in Chile I am very well known, I will have a conference in the theater. Five thousand people came. And then I decided to make an experience. I didn’t know if collective thinking, like quantum theory says, could change reality, if we have a group of people who do the same thing. Can we heal this woman? She thinks she will die very quickly. And then I take the woman and I make the experience. And then I didn’t speak with her. And then, when I made the picture 10 years later, I wanted to know, because I never repeated it. In order to teach healing, you need 5,000 doctors! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wanted to know, with thinking, do we or don’t we have the power? The cancer, they say we cannot heal that. I don’t know if they fought the cancer for years because it’s a big, big business, and they don’t want to find the solution. That I don’t know. When healing becomes a business, it cannot heal for me. Healing is an act of love. You have to take the person in your arms. The psychoanalyst doesn’t take you in his arms!
And then I get a telephone call from a friend of the woman, a student of mine. I asked him if she had died. He said no, she’s alive. I asked if I could make an interview for the film. She tells how the experience was. She said it was very good. I don’t know if it was a placebo. Placebos can be good also.
Yes, if it works, it’s good.
But it was only an experience that I did once. I can’t find 5,000 people for every person who has an illness.
Psychomagic includes short clips from many of your earlier films. Do you see this film, and the therapeutic work it illustrates, as an encapsulation of your entire career?
From the theater I came to the “happening,” improvised theater, the theater of action, then to psychomagic. I came to it. I didn’t create it. But, in all my pictures, I was searching for something. I respect very much the industrial movies. Movies from the beginning were an industry. Their goal from the beginning was to make big money. And then they discovered Hollywood and all that. But there was not one real truth, one real feeling, it was acting feelings. The show must go on! But for me movies are not a show, they’re an art.
What is art? It’s open for the person who does the work, new horizons, they will open the human soul. That’s what I did in my pictures. I started to put real things into the picture. Reality says, “Problem! I am having problems with my mother, problems with my father.” I was telling it all. Step by step, I was coming to introduce my real life into the pictures. I was having problems with my father in Endless Poetry, and I was shooting, and suddenly I jumped into the picture! Psychomagic is only real feelings, not an imitation. And that’s what I was searching for. I put examples in my pictures, saying I am speaking always of the same thing, but in an artistic way. I show a guy closed in a tower [in El Topo] and in Psychomagic I show a guy breaking pumpkins. I did that in El Topo, but in a metaphorical way, not directly. And then I show in my film that it was the same position, but in another language: artistic language, therapeutic language.
Can you tell me something about your encounters with André Breton and other surrealists in the Paris of the 1960s?
I will speak about that in my third film. It’s a trilogy: The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry, and Essential Journey. That’s number three. I hope, if I am alive, because I am an old person, to start it in January. The script I’ve done already. I am very happy with it. I speak about that time, until I started to be a movie director. I stop there. In it, I am going to France to work with the surrealists, with the theater of Marcel Marceau, with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. I have those three worlds.
My mind was opened with philosophy. With surrealism, I think I am the last surrealistic moviemaker who’s really surrealistic. But I am a little step farther, because surrealism doesn’t show, doesn’t explain. It’s the mystery of something you don’t understand. That is surrealism. A dream image you don’t understand, you have no need to explain that. In the art I do, you know what you’re doing. It has a finality. It has to solve your problem and come to felicity. Felicity of life. That’s what I feel with the idiotic love story. Love is not like love with a star. Love is love. We need to show what love is. Tell the things that are true, make you go to happiness. Not an idiotic happiness, not Disneyland, a real internal life. Happy to be alive. I am alive. It’s fantastic. What an incredible thing. Art has to give you with possibility to be what you are, not what the moviemaker is. Not what the actor is, you. It’s complicated, no?
Speaking of surrealistic filmmakers, what do you think about the films of Luis Buñuel?
He was a surrealist, yes, but he’s too realistic for me. He was a real person, in the real. And for me the pictures have not only a meaning, they’re a painting. You can shoot something like that [mimes different angles], traveling shots, etcetera. Everything speaks. Buñuel’s show only one point of view. He’s sitting and everything is in the size of someone sitting. But he doesn’t go out [he mimes leaving the Skype frame], he doesn’t make other things. Hollywood discovered camera movement. Camera movement is fantastic! I need to have Buñuel in Hollywood and that would be good. He could show a deep meaning but with greater freedom of form.
When you worked with Claudio Argento on Santa Sangre did you know anything about the films of his brother Dario?
Yes, I like them a lot. He was a guy who doesn’t give too much importance to the script. He can be not logical. The pleasure to shoot something that’s weird! And I liked that. No message, no meaning. Very aesthetical.
Do you have a favorite film of his?
I am very old. I don’t remember the names. I’ve seen it a lot of times, this picture. He goes into a building, he goes inside the house.
Deep Red. Profondo Rosso.
Yes! Profondo Rosso. Fantastic picture. A film like that, for his time, he made explosive cinema. Because it was the film of a director. Generally, in the industrial film, the director is an employee. The studios are surveying the script. You aren’t free with the script. You need to shoot what’s right there. Because, when you’re free, you make the script to start the picture. But in the middle of the picture you can change whatever you want and put new things in. Because there are magic things that happen when you’re shooting. In Santa Sangre, when the father commits suicide, the naked father, it was in Mexico, in the street. A very old woman was singing, drunk. There were a lot of bars there. I said, “Go find me this drunk woman, because it’s the music I need for that suicide.” And then he will kill himself, but in the image there’s a real song of a person who’s really suffering. And it’s fantastic, like that. You need to be free. When you make the picture, the director is the poet. In Hollywood, the poet is the money. More money, more happiness. I say, “No.” More poetical, more artistical—that is good. Like the tarot, that isn’t a business. I know I’m crazy, but you need some crazy person in the generality, then somebody will use it in another way.
We certainly need more people in the world who are crazy in that way.
Yes, because crazy people aren’t crazy. They’re just using their mind in another way. And it’s very interesting.
How closely did you collaborate with David Lynch on your King Shot project?
He was very gentle with me. He said, “Maybe we can make a picture.” But my project was so crazy. Maybe I wanted to shoot in Spain. I wanted to do what I always do. But he had a little company at that moment. He was not able to have the money to do that. So, since I didn’t have the money, I didn’t do it. It was too expensive.
What can you tell me about your time with Arrabal and Roland Topor in the Panic Movement?
That was really a fantastic moment in my life. Because we were accepted within the surrealist group. That was the end of surrealism. A lot of surrealists were into politics. They were Trotskyists. Into the Romantic realization of the woman, not the real woman. Arrabal, Topor, and I were searching for absolute freedom. The artist needs to be inside the play, for example, inside what you’re shooting or playing. You need to be inside, in your body. You are there. Not out of the work. You need to go farther than the intellect, farther than the unconscious. Farther than the religions. You need to find the panic. Panic isn’t fear, panic is the totality. You need to find what a man is in totality. And then, if you are an artist in totality, you need to be a painter, dancer, mime, cinematographic creator, marionette. All the things I did. Because it’s the totality. Searching the totality of expression, that’s what we did. It wasn’t a movement, it was only three persons. And we called it a movement. We wanted to show that culture was fake, was an illusion. Because three persons will go into history as a movement that doesn’t exist!
Your performances sound a lot like what was called “happenings” in other countries or what the Vienna Aktionists were doing with their films. Would you say that’s accurate?
No, the happenings were going on in the milieu of painting and sculpture. It was a way to develop the plastic arts. I made ephemera. Ephemera is not that. Ephemera is a kind of theater, psychoanalysis, dreams, surrealism. The language of art, with meaning. Happening is an expression of freedom, but only freedom.
So the performances were closer to what Antonin Artaud was talking about with his Theater of Cruelty?
I was a big admirer of The Theater and Its Double. I started from there. He opened my eyes. In Fando y Lis, you have a little influence of Artaud. I had a theater play of Arrabal, with Fando y Lis, but I didn’t use the play, I used the memory I had as director of the play. With a lot of violence coming from Artaud. And then in El Topo, I had a Japanese Zen Master, Ejo Takata. Zen meditation, not like a hippie, real Zen meditation. Seven-day meditating without sleep. I was sleeping every night for 30 minutes, that’s all. Terrible, incredible! I brought this experience to El Topo. Because Artaud made the Theater of Cruelty. When you see the cruelty, you are open. But then I didn’t want any more cruelty. I decided I wanted to make the encounter with our self, make the cathedral [forms a steeple with his hands]. You are a cathedral. You aren’t a butcher. You’re creating the sacred. Some religions are fanatical. But I read the teachings of the Buddha, and I think there’s something more true than Artaud.
Is it true that René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue was an influence on The Holy Mountain?
Yes. I love René Daumal, because I love his teacher. He had a great teacher, who was Gurdjieff. And in that novel, Daumal is speaking about his experience with Gurdjieff. More than surrealism, Daumal took it a step farther: The Great Game [a “counter-surrealist” journal founded by Daumal and friends]. He started to choke himself to see how it was to almost die. He was searching for stronger things, real metaphysical searching. I wanted to do his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue. He never finished it because he died very young from tuberculosis. But the family didn’t want to give me the rights. I said, “Well, I will make my own Holy Mountain!” What I directed depicts Daumal’s book. It’s a group that goes with a teacher to find immortality on a mountain. That I took. Then I developed my ideas.
So, at the end of the film, when we see the making of the film, when you turn one camera on another, was that a way of opening it up to the interpretation of the viewer?
I never thought of it the way you are saying now. Maybe, yes. I went to a real mountain in Mexico. I brought a tiger, a monk, actors, all that. And the Mexicans told me it was dangerous. Why? “Because there are tempests, and when there are tempests, you can die. Be careful.” No, I will go, because it’s beautiful, the weather is so fantastic. I shoot what I shoot, and when I finished shooting, the tempest came. And then we started to run in concert, to get off the mountain, because it was dangerous! I was running and I slipped and [mimes rolling down the mountain]. But I had a hammer and [mimes jamming it into the ground]. “No! I don’t want to die, I need to finish this damn picture!” I am making a picture. Like this, I will finish. This is the end of the picture, because it was the real end. It wasn’t as good, but I put in reality into my film. I wanted to make real things, and that, for me, was a real thing!
We’re making a picture. It’s not a comedy. There are real sentiments, because all those people I found were not actors. Every person I showed had the problem I show in the picture. Real people I used, real tiger! I’m not a Hollywood company making fake everything. I asked Hollywood that I want a stampede of tarantulas, big spiders on a body. They made fake ones. So we went out and bought spiders and had their fangs cut out. We made up the body and then we used the spiders. Real spiders came out there. And the person who did that, also myself, never liked spiders! There he was, suffering something enormous with those spiders!
Are you currently working on any new graphic novels?
Graphic novels. That is my industrial business. Because I have The Incal, Metabarons, Sons of El Topo. That I am doing all the time. That is normal for me, because I have a big imagination. If I didn’t have imagination, I would die. I am taking a step farther than Psychomagic with Psychotrance. It’s a kind of literature, but at the same time you’re reading, I’m giving you exercises. It’s mixing a lecture with exercises to inspire what you do, the impact of having a trance. With drugs, you have a trance. I say no drugs. We can do it without drugs. How to do it like this. Not only meditation. Go farther than meditation. Go immediately to what you are when you’re not intellect. What is in you? You don’t need to take LSD. You don’t need to take ayahuasca. Because those are dreams. I am saying do the same thing I do in movies. In movies, in a century of fake feelings, I am making real feelings. In a culture full of drugs, psychological drugs, I am putting in a real hallucination, guiding how you can do it.
Translation by Pascale Montandon.
Interview: Kate Lyn Sheil on Calibrating Her Performance in She Dies Tomorrow
Sheil discusses how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is of obvious relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The film, which had been set to premiere at this year’s SXSW, grapples with the contagious nature of despondency and angst in a contemporary milieu that so often seeks to minimize or ignore them. These amorphous feelings prove to be an inexplicably transmissible disease passed from character to character, each of which stops in their tracks and calmly declares, “I’m going to die tomorrow.”
That She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t buckle under the weight of its heady themes and supernatural premise is a testament to how the performances ground the film in reality. In the film, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a surrogate character for the director who quietly yet urgently probes the boundaries of the anxieties that ensnare her. Sheil, who commands the most screen time, captivates as she wields her mastery of minutiae. She’s capable of precisely executing small physical gestures to convey forceful intent.
It’s merely the latest in a line of exciting and unpredictable performances from Sheil, whose prolific presence in the New York independent film scene spans from working with early mumblecore pioneers like Joe Swanberg in Silver Bullets to partnering with boundary-pushing luminaries such as Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine. She’s equally as revelatory appearing briefly in a short film, the latest Alex Ross Perry project, an episode of House of Cards, or working through the very ethics of her trade as herself in documentary format.
I caught up with Sheil prior to the digital release of She Dies Tomorrow to discuss how she approaches conveying such potent interiority, her long-term collaboration with Seimetz, and how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.
What are the ripple effects of Kate Plays Christine in your work and career, given that it’s such a meta performance about the nature of performance?
I worked with a director afterward who said that he wanted to work with me after he saw Kate Plays Christine because it made him feel like I would be honest with him if I didn’t like the way that he was directing me. And I was like, “Oh, no, you’re mistaken. I probably will not say anything at all and just try and toe the party line.” Because that movie plays with what is real and what is fake, I feel like there could potentially be a misconception that I yell. Which is…not the case. Your guess is as good as mine.
That scene where you really snap was staged too, right? It was something Robert Greene invented to see what would happen when you felt boxed in by the experiment.
Yeah, it was scripted, essentially.
Is the movie at all a window into the way you work?
I think I spoke honestly about some ways that I approach acting roles in Kate Plays Christine, while lots of it is scripted, embellished or made up to create a narrative arc. I think there are moments that I speak truthfully about the way I do approach a role. I, personally, would never go to Sarasota and think that I had to interview people in order to play a part correctly. But I think I talk about my—I hate to say it—“process” in a truthful manner at a certain point, and that’s how I would [do it]. That’s probably how I approached this movie. Amy wrote this role, and then the best that I can do is just to try to find ways that I relate to the character and use substitutions to think of times when I maybe felt analogous.
Part of what makes Kate Plays Christine so fascinating is the way the camera allows you to externalize the process of thinking and deliberating. Was that at all helpful for She Dies Tomorrow?
Yeah, that’s all that’s all Amy’s writing though. That was baked into the script from the earliest stages of it. She wanted the character to be very physical in the way that she was exploring that house and touching things in a way that, at least from the outside if someone were to catch you doing it, it doesn’t seem like normal behavior. But when faced with the enormity of this thing, normalcy doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Amy Seimetz has said that the tactile details of touching the house came from her own experience grappling with the weird mix of emotions that arose from her becoming a homeowner. How do you find your way into this compulsion that’s so visceral and unique?
It’s Amy, she wrote it for me, and then she creates an environment on set where—I don’t want to say it’s not difficult, because I certainly was afraid the entire time that I maybe wasn’t doing as good a job as I could. I didn’t want to let Amy down. She creates an environment where you can sort of slip into it. We’ve known each other for such a long time, and we’ve worked together before. I love the way that she directs me. She’s not precious with me at all. She will quite literally show me what she wants if I’m not getting it. [laughs, mimes direction] “Okay, that’s what I’m supposed to do, cool!”
The beginning of the film is largely free of dialogue. How much of what we see was scripted or pre-planned versus discovered once the camera rolled?
Not much of an element of discovery once the camera starts rolling. Amy is pretty precise in her visuals, and she has worked with Jake Keitel, who shot the movie, for like 17 years now. They share a brain in certain ways in terms of lighting the shots. Because that element is so important to her, there really wasn’t much of the “go with the flow, we’ll just find it in the moment.” There’s a level of precision to it, which I like and appreciate. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t give you as much room as you need to emotionally find the scene. But, in terms of physicality, she really has planned it out pretty precisely beforehand.
Was that at all different from Sun Don’t Shine? Since that was such a scrappy, on-the-go road movie, did really planting your feet in a location change the nature of your collaboration with Amy at all?
With Sun Don’t Shine, yeah, certain things are obviously outside your control if you’re shooting outside. But also with that, the economy of the way that she approaches making the movie, she still has a scrappy sensibility. That’s my favorite thing because I think if you know how to make a movie for no money, then you can use those skills and continue to apply that to whatever budget you happen to be working with. She had everything on Sun Don’t Shine so precisely planned out in terms of how to shoot the car because she and Jake didn’t want it to become monotonous. In a way, that required a great deal of precision too. But then, of course, for that movie, you’re shooting in Florida in the middle of summer. There are just variables. I got very sick when we were making that movie, so there are scenes where [they] had one thing in mind. And then she’s like, “Okay, you’re just gonna be sitting because you can’t do anything.”
Since you mentioned that Amy and her cinematographer share the same brain, do you feel the same kinship with her or other directors? A lot of your work comes from collaboration with people like Amy Seimetz, Alex Ross Perry, Robert Greene, among others, with whom you share a social circle. How does the process of working with them, where you might be more involved at the ground level of a project, compare with something where you’re brought in through a more traditional casting process?
I love working with all the people that you just mentioned, and I think it’s very lucky that I happen to know people that, by my estimation, are incredible. It’s so wonderful to work with them because there is a shared history and a shorthand. It just so happens, as I said before, that I like their work a lot, so it’s more bang for your buck. Not only do you get to work with friends, but you get to be in a project that you’re probably going to like or would like, even if you had nothing to do with it. But, at the same time, there’s something really something very fun about showing up to a set and just trying your best to execute the thing, do your job and then go home at the end of the day and it’s not your old, close friends. There’s something nice about both.
What’s the best way to describe your relationship to that extended Kim’s Video orbit? Muse, co-conspirator, something else entirely?
I’m so close to it that it’s hard to think of what to call it. But that place meant everything to me. It’s where I feel like I got my education in film. I think my life would be completely different if it hadn’t existed. It truly does mean so much to me. Surprisingly, though I don’t think any of us truly saw it coming at the time, a bunch of people who have worked there at a certain time actually started making their own projects. I feel very fortunate that I was around at that time. And it’s nice to make movies with people [for whom] the impetus is a love of watching them. That’s a very joyous experience.
I know you kind of scoffed at the word “process” earlier and put it in scare quotes…
Yeah, but…I used it! [laughs]
Well, we can just caveat that. I know your training as an actress primarily came from a theatrical background at NYU. She Dies Tomorrow is about the farthest thing from a theatrical performance: The film opens on a shot of your eye, and meaning gets conveyed through how your pupil moves. How did you learn to communicate in these micro moments? Did it involve “unlearning” any theatrical training?
Yes and no. I feel like it’s all the same skill set. And then, of course, when you get in front of the camera, you learn to adjust and have a relationship with the camera also. Rather than acting for an audience, you’re trying to be present with your fellow actor, more present in the moment. If there isn’t anybody else there, which is largely the case for my stuff in She Dies Tomorrow, the camera’s your audience. I haven’t acted in a play in a very long time. I miss it, personally. I left school, and I never wanted to do to theater again. I was obsessed with movies, and I still am. But at a certain point, maybe a few years ago, I was like, “You know what, it would be fun to do to do a play!” But, I mean, I still struggle with it. I feel like a lot of my close friends who are actors talk about it too. I still walk away at the end of some days being like, “I was too big, or I was too aware of the camera. So I tried to be small, and I think it was too small.” You still have these anxieties about that exact thing, calibrating your performance to the medium.
As an actress in a film like this, do you feel the need to “understand” the rest of the film like the nature of the contagion or the impressionistic transitions? Or is it a matter of performing your part and trusting that the rest of the film will fall into place around you?
I think it’s important to make it make sense for you, but I don’t think it’s important for me to understand the structure of the entire film. But it’s always very important for me to know what I’m doing to understand where, in particular, I’m coming from. I definitely trusted that Amy was doing something great with those parts of the movie. When she told me that’s how the movie was going to proceed, that it was going to expand and extrapolate in that way, I was very, very happy. I was happy that there were going to be other people for the audience to sit with for a while. And I also love those scenes. The dinner scene, I think is so funny. Everything in the movie is wonderful, but [that’s what is] coming to mind right now. I like the way that those scenes bounced around with my scenes and recontextualize my scenes to a certain degree.
I’m always fascinated with this duality that to communicate something existential and widely recognizable, it’s often rooted in such personal and intimate performance. How do you manage the balance between the general and the specific, especially in a film like She Dies Tomorrow that has a more allegorical or representational edge to it?
I think that certain things are just outside of my control. The most that I can control is to try and make the character specific for me and then I can’t get too caught up in thinking of the overarching themes. I just try and stay in my lane, stay focused and make it specific and individual. But if the person directing movie is creating something allegorical, then hopefully my performance lends itself to that goal.
What are your thoughts on the meta element of anxiety and death premonitions being contagious? Do you think the screen is porous enough that the audience could, or should, catch it? By the end of the film, I was wondering if I would end up saying “I’m going to die tomorrow” like all the characters.
We’re obviously living in such a strange time right now that Amy never could have anticipated. Hopefully what people would feel more than anything is recognition, or that some experience that they’ve had is being reflected back to them. Hopefully that would make someone feel better potentially, less alone or less crazy. Something like that. But I mean, the movie is about ideas being contagious. So, maybe.
It was so interesting to watch in the back half of the film where, for certain characters, you can tell that the ability to express and verbalize their anxiety helps them manage it. Maybe that’s the more constructive takeaway.
Yeah, there you go!
Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots
Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.
It’s been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming he’s been in the business much longer given all that he’s accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.
While Rogen’s on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasn’t, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Max’s first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogen’s own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.
The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.
I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickle’s release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.
I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that I’m older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that it’s almost like a period piece?
I think when you make a movie you never truly know how it’s going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, that’s a good lesson in that! There’s people on the set of the worst movie you’ve ever seen who think they’re making a masterpiece, and there’s people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no one’s going to watch or see it ever—and even if they do, they’ll hate it. It’s not uncontrollable, but it’s hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, I’m glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really don’t know what’s going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.
I ask about that film partly because I feel there’s an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?
Yeah, I think it’s definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]
There’s such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?
Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wife’s mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. I’ve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.
You’ve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?
I’m definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one that’s on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isn’t what I would do, always, but I’m not the writer! I try to respect that.
This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?
We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. It’s not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasn’t expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. It’s an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.
It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.
I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a theater, I don’t think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw There’s Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear what’s happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.
Any chance you’d do a This Is the End sequel? It’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.
Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.
Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source
Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.2
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.
Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.
The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.
The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.
As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.
Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions
The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work.3
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)—some of them are couples—to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.
Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off one’s old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls “initiatic massage,” a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his “grave,” and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then he’s dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.
Later, there’s a section given over to “social psychomagic,” ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as “the Walk of the Dead,” a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesn’t make that connection.
One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. It’s never entirely clear whether or not she’s cured, but 10 years later, she’s still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The “experiment” merely “opened a door” for her healing process to begin.
What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowsky’s compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran
Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.3
Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.
Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.
In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.
At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.
The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.
It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization
The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.
Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.
Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.
In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.
The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.
León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León Screenwriter: Melina León, Michael J. White Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora
The visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity.3
For Beyoncé, it’s no longer enough for us to listen to her music. We must witness and viscerally feel it. Which is why the visual album is increasingly becoming her preferred mode of expression. As she did with last year’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, the singer recruited heavyweights from West African dance music like Nigeria’s WizKid and Ghana’s Shatta Wale, as well as emerging artists like South Africa’s Busiswa, to star in Black Is King, which Beyoncé based on the music from The Gift. Out of a dazzling fusion of the hottest R&B and Afrobeat trends, this visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity, making it Beyoncé’s most wide-reaching and ambitious effort yet.
Black Is King is largely inseparable from Disney’s live-action remake of the The Lion King, and to a fault at times. The project follows the arc of the film’s plot, personifying the animal characters with human actors. A young prince (Folajomi Akinmurele), the human stand-in for young Simba, falls from grace and embarks on a coming-of-age odyssey that eventually leads him back home to reclaim the throne. Throughout, large-scale sets, wide shots of the Saharan desert, and eye-catching dance routines distract from this plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to catch when the young prince grows into a young man (Nyaniso Dzedze) as the two actors abruptly switch places between songs without warning, and the introduction of an underdeveloped subplot involving a mysterious artifact may leave viewers scratching their heads.
But Black Is King is no traditional cinematic experience, because it’s performance, symbolism, and music that are integral to it, not any narrative minutiae. To wit, unlike the original version of the album, the deluxe edition of The Gift, which was released alongside Black Is King, forgoes the intermissions lifted from The Lion King’s dialogue, as if to suggest that the songs speak for themselves, without strict adherence to the film it draws from as inspiration.
Beyoncé, who co-directed the visual album, interprets Simba’s reclaiming of the throne for her ends; his royal lineage is evocative of the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people, and his homecoming is representative of the Black diaspora’s turning to that heritage as a source of strength. The animated and live-action versions of the The Lion King are beloved, if not equally so, and they remain among the few Disney films to be set in Africa, but as they’re both devoid of Black bodies, there’s something galvanizing about witnessing the lavishness of The Lion King interpreted by Black actors, dancers, and musicians.
Black Is King will inevitably be criticized for its ostentatious display of wealth and ostensible failure to represent the day-to-day realities of African countries—which is to say, what the rest of the world hastily and egregiously presumes to be struggle and impoverishment. The visual album’s purpose isn’t to draft some documentary-style exegesis, but to illustrate an imaginative wonderland of possibility and celebration. Black Is King may well be steeped in the opulence of drifting, pimped-out cars (“Ja Ara E”), and a head-spinning wardrobe of designer clothing (“Water”), but this grandiosity is empowering and subversive in its own way. The “Mood 4 Eva” sequence boasts a splendor fit for a Baz Luhrmann film, complete with a breathtaking synchronized swimming routine. Generations of families, from regal grandparents to rambunctious five-year-olds, reside in a mansion and partake in elitist traditions brought to the African continent by European colonizers. All the while, white servants wait on them as they drink tea and play tennis in a verdant garden.
Although Black Is King preaches the moral that Black kingship amounts to responsible manhood, Black femininity is just as integral to Beyoncé’s conceptualization of the visual album. As an unidentified male speaker relates in one voiceover: “Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.” Beyoncé embodies a maternal figure at several points, cradling a baby in “Bigger” and playing a handclap game with her daughter, Blue Ivy, in “Brown Skin Girl.”
It’s this last song that is the film’s most stirring dedication to Black women. Overhead shots of a ballroom depict a formation of debutante dancers, fanning in and out like a flower in bloom. Interspersed throughout are glamor shots of the dark-skinned women Beyoncé sings praise of: Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland. For all of its larger-than-life grandeur, Black Is King still succeeds in conveying the stark intimacy between two people in a scene in which Rowland and Beyoncé share an embrace and gaze at each other lovingly.
If The Gift is a love letter to Africa—as Beyoncé herself described the album—then Black Is King is a love letter to the Black diaspora. In her narration, Beyoncé remarks of “lost languages [that] spill out of our mouths,” and an American flag bearing the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism proudly waves during “Power.” Like the ‘90s hip-hop MCs who espoused Afrocentricity before her, Beyoncé turns to the African motherland to reconstruct a heritage and identity stolen by slavery and the erosion of time. At the film’s beginning, young Simba hurtles toward Earth from among the stars, leaving the streak of a comet’s tail behind him. No matter how far you stray from home, Beyoncé reminds viewers throughout Black is King that the great Black ancestors can immediately be felt in the stars they inhabit in the night skies.
Cast: Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odeje, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala, Blue Ivy Carter Director: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé Screenwriter: Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 85 min Rating: NA Year: 2020
Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions
Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora
Review: Phil Goldstone’s The Sin of Nora Moran on Film Detective Blu-ray
Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen
Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization
Blu-ray Review: America as Seen by a Frenchman Joins the Arrow Academy
Review: Boys State Presents an Aptly Dire Microcosm of American Politics
Review: Sputnik Toils in the Long Shadow Cast by Ridley Scott’s Alien
Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic, the Theater of Cruelty, and More
Interview: Kate Lyn Sheil on Calibrating Her Performance in She Dies Tomorrow
- Film5 days ago
Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions
- Film6 days ago
Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora
- Video3 days ago
Review: Phil Goldstone’s The Sin of Nora Moran on Film Detective Blu-ray
- Film6 days ago
Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen