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Imagining Sisyphus Happy: A Groundhog Day Retrospective

Life might very well lack purpose, and it might very well be a struggle, but that doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole about it.

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Groundhog Day
Photo: Columbia Pictures

For 16 years, Groundhog Day has been hailed as a meditation on self-redemption. But to pigeonhole it into one overarching theme would be an insult to the layered precision, and perfection, of Harold Ramis’s 1993 masterpiece, which ventures into the heart of darkness and despair to ultimately emerge unharmed, but not unmarked. This story of a man doomed to relive the same day over and over again is not concerned about tomorrow. A true absurdist triumph, it cares not what the destination might be, for it knows that the pursuit of meaning is itself meaningful whether or not that pursuit is eventually rewarded. Life might very well lack purpose, and it might very well be a struggle, but that doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole about it.

A shot of a blue sky (cotton-white clouds floating, lazily, across the screen) opens the film. Every few seconds the shot changes—yet it remains the same. The sky is blue, the clouds as pearly as before and still in their hazy dance, even though they are not the same as the ones from the previous shot. It is a visual metaphor that permeates the rest of the film. That it is intertwined with an otherworldly small town marching band track only adds to the positively Lynchian feel.

Eventually, the sky cuts to a blue screen as an outstretched palm invades the frame from the right, looking like it belongs to an illusionist—a flick of the wrist, a legerdemain, and an Ace of Spades might suddenly appear, dangling precariously from the tip of the fingers. The illusionist in this case is Phil Connors (Bill Murray, wonderfully channeling W.C. Fields), a weatherman with Channel 9 Pittsburgh, acerbic and detached from his fellow humans to the point of nervosa. In this brief moment, however, beyond Phil’s soul-devouring sarcasm, we are presented with one of the film’s central themes. That our lives as we live them are illusions—not in a New Age/Philosophy 101 sense, but in the way that we reflect into them the meaning that we want them to have. The blue screen is, in fact, Phil’s tapestry, and he is, in fact, its creator. Later in the film, Ramis makes his point even clearer in two separate scenes where Phil, incensed by a snowstorm he predicted won’t happen, and shivering uncontrollably, will declare “I MAKE THE WEATHER!” Further on, he is confronted by his Pollyanna of a producer (Andie MacDowell) on the way he is, seemingly, living his life. “I am a god,” he says, before adding, not too convincingly, “I am not THE god…I don’t think.” These are not mere character beats showing off Phil’s egocentricity. They are, instead, singular examples of absurdist existentialism (like the film, this writer is also aware of the oxymoron).

February 1st is not a good day for Phil. It is when he has to make his annual trip to Punxsutawney, PA. to report on the town’s Groundhog Day festivities; or as he puts it, “the excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.” His frustration grows when he finds out that he is unable to leave town due to the aforementioned snowstorm, and it is doubled the next day (or, the very same day) when he discovers, much, much to his chagrin, that he is stuck in a time loop. This is the film’s premise—one that needs not repeating. Roger Ebert put it best, as he so frequently does, when he said: “When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like “Groundhog Day” to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something.”

But back to that original key sequence. Look at the way it is framed. From wide open blue skies, Ramis takes us into the cramped, controlled environment of a TV studio. He keeps his shots short, he keeps them tight. During the exchange between Phil and his fellow anchorwoman, who is all too happy that Phil is going on a bitch of an assignment, the back-and-forth is dominated by the fake cityscape background behind the anchor, and the wan dullness of an office. This is the real world that Phil will come to miss.

And the transition into the world he loathes is exquisite. As Phil’s party, with his producer Rita, and abrasive cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott, in a career-defining role), takes its leave from the confines of the studio, the camera lingers on an out-of-the-way television showing that trustiest of visual metaphors, a bridge, as it zooms slowly towards it, and takes us, suddenly, into the screen itself. Now we are quite literally through the looking glass, and our ordeal will be the same as Phil’s, as a new, quite cheerful, credit sequence starts.

And it is within the confines of this make-believe world that Phil finds himself, as we all do. Phil hates the small town as a concept, and, in this case, the concept is all too real in Punxsutawney. For eternity, he is condemned to live a life of whimsy, a life of naïveté, and a life of earnestness. These are anathema to Phil as they are to any man or woman who lives in the modern city. One of the cleverest ways the film deals with the petit bourgeois compulsions of the Western city dweller (sounds like a genus and maybe that is correct) is to make the small town big. We all have been in company where someone says, possibly us, that they would just love to leave everything behind, all the trappings of the modern world, and move to a small town. Groundhog Day has the audacity to make the small town a metaphor for life, sure, but also a representation of the Christian heaven. Andie MacDowell’s character flat out says so when she declares her love not just for the town, but for the idea of the town itself. The film is not impressed. In that very scene, as Phil and Rita walk through the snow, the camera stays suspended looking down at the two pathetic figures making their ways through the snow, as if to recall that unforgettable line from The Twilight Zone: “This is the other place.”

As many have observed, in other hands, and with other actors, Groundhog Day might very well have felt like an extended Twilight Zone episode, for, in its reductive summary, the film would call for it. An allusion to, and connection with, pop culture is somewhat essential to see the true point of the film, but it is not Rod Serling that one should be immediately drawn to. Instead, it is with that perennial Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, that the film has more in common. That, in the brummagem Scrooged, Bill Murray was the star of a failed reimagining of, you know, the original It’s a Wonderful Life only helps to highlight the association.

Phil’s sempiternal misery echoes George Bailey’s, and by the end of both films, the characters, like the audience, are duped. Kenneth Von Gunden, in his 1989 book Flights of Fancy, sees through the illusion of happiness:

“Poor George has been sandbagged, this time by Clarence, for good. He has been revealed as the only glue holding the town of Bedford Falls together, and the guardian of the lives of a number of people who would otherwise be dead. George now cheerfully accepts his imprisonment. Yet despite the warm and uplifting ending, nothing has really changed. George will pinch pennies for the rest of his life, bludgeoned into accepting his lot in life as inevitable and unavoidable. Mr Potter, and others like him, will continue to oppose George and make his life difficult.”

Von Gunden’s observations on the Frank Capra classic can very easily be applied to Groundhog Day. Unlike George Bailey, Phil is not the glue that holds Punxsutawney together, but, instead, he metamorphoses into it in the process of his travails. Like George he saves at least two people from certain death and becomes the very force that holds the town together—the Ghost of Community Spirit, if you like. Like It’s A Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day tenderly weaves the concept of middle aged, middle class self-sacrifice into the narrative, highlighting, on the way, the importance of counting one’s blessings (its ending is also slightly, but ever so slightly, more upbeat than the earlier movie). As Christopher Tookey wrote in 1994, “Our hero regrets, but comes to terms with, the fact that he has had to give up his hopes of escape … for the sake of local community.” Phil’s life might not be wonderful, but he has to go on living it pretending that it is. Just like we all do.

And it is so funny. God, it is so very, very funny. The fine moments, as in This Is Spinal Tap (another existential melodrama), have been referenced so many times, but look at the smaller ones; the ones that are much more subtle: Once again trying to win over Rita, Phil orders the one drink that she loves, and toasts, as per the previous day’s mistake, to what she usually does, world peace. “I’d like to say a prayer and drink to world peace,” he says. The scene stays as a two shot as Andie McDowell sips from her glass just as Bill Murray waits, looking into the distance, for a moment or two. After a beat, a silent “amen” escapes from his lips, before he takes his drink. All the money in my pocket to the person who can top that. All of it.

Similarly, remember the scene where, having learned of Rita’s background in French literature, Phil recites Baudelaire, bizarrely mimicking the wonderful James Lipton, only to answer to Rita’s incredulity if he can’t speak French: “Oui.” It is all in Murray’s delivery.

Bill Murray’s delivery makes a lot of things more powerful in Groundhog Dog. Phil comes to terms with the pointlessness of time just as, paradoxically, he does with his self worth when he notices, for the first time in what may very well be years, an old vagrant he passes by on the street. He buys him a meal, which turns out to be his last. The old man’s time has come, but that does not deter Phil from trying to save him, even though he fails every single time. Watch as Murray gives the best delivery of his career as a nurse tells him that “sometimes people just die.” “Not today,” he says.

This scene is crucial to Phil’s eventual transformation. Earlier, Murray goes through the various circles of grief with relative ease (has there been a more cheerful approach to modern man’s suicidal tendencies) that we forget how, in lesser hands, the part might well have foundered. In fact, imagine, if you dare, how this film would work out in today’s Hollywood cinema. There would have to be a spiritual guide of sorts, one that would give meaning to Phil’s ordeals (the film doesn’t offer an explanation to the time loop—it is an allegory, and has more in common with J.B. Priestley’s Time Plays, in particular the absurdist I Have Been Here Before than it does with Back to the Future). An ecclesiastical take would be necessary and a montage of various visits to a church, a synagogue, and a Buddhist temple mandatory (who else but Jack Black as the wacky yogi!). But Phil’s problem is not so much spiritual as it is existential, and Groundhog Day is an incredibly secular film—upon his initial discovery of his predicament, Phil, like any normal person, first goes to the doctor, and when that fails, he goes to see a psychiatrist. During none of his trials does Phil ever feel compelled to visit a holy man. The only time we ever see a church is when Phil commits suicide by jumping off the bell tower. It’s a powerful image.

Phil doesn’t have any guide but himself. He has to figure out the lesson without celestial counsel. Phil Connors is the modern-day Sisyphus, sequaciously rolling his boulder with the greatest effort, and greatest trepidation, to the very peak of the mountain, only for the gods to wish it down once again to the bottom. Groundhog Day is the only Hollywood film—hell, the only film in the history of cinema (not even Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel comes close)—to truly delve into the abyss of Camus’ absurdist nightmare (or dream, I suppose). Its closest spiritual relative is The Sopranos. Both Tony and Phil eventually understand the nature of the rut they have found themselves in—Tony has to take peyote and sleep with the girlfriend of the cousin he recently murdered—and Phil has to witness his powerlessness in the face of life. That he cannot prevent the old vagrant’s death is when Phil truly changes, and when—as an Internet critic whose name or site escapes me puts it—he finally transfers the sympathy he had towards the old man to his fellow humans. Despite his infamous assertion to the contrary, Tony Soprano never gets it. He doesn’t get that we, all of us, are Ouroboroses, stuck in our own loops, the perpetual damnation that is life. Phil comes to realize that life might, in fact, be damnation, but you have to live it as if it isn’t. Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of eternal return is the true leitmotif, as is Albert Camus’s parable of Sisyphus:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Eventually, Groundhog Day does (Camus would have loved this film), even though he very well might not be. Phil’s last line is the profession of a desire to live in Punxsutawney, but he is cautious: “We’ll rent first.” It is a very funny line, a spiritual descendant of “Nobody’s perfect,” in that it identifies with the limitations set by the universe and life. Phil will acquiesce, but only in his own terms. But, at least, he finally gets it: For there to be shadow, there has to be light.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: Angel Has Fallen Paints an Incoherent Picture of an Action Hero

The film seems to have cobbled its set pieces together from a series of close-ups edited as if by random selection.

1.5

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Angel Has Fallen
Photo: Summit Entertainment

Ric Roman Waugh’s Angel Has Fallen sees U.S. Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler)—having returned to his home turf after a trip across the pond—contending with more threats to international security. Mercifully jettisoning the Islamophobia of Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, the film finds Mike framed for an assassination attempt on President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). And clearing his name appears to hinge, at least at first, on whether or not he learns to grapple with the physical and psychological toll of his previous exploits, as multiple concussions and spinal injuries have saddled him with insomnia and an addiction to painkillers.

As a fleet of miniature drones slaughters Trumbull’s security detail, it’s impossible not to think of Mike’s early interactions with his old Army Ranger buddy, Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), the head of a private military contractor. Angel Has Fallen introduces Wade openly lamenting that Trumbull’s efforts to stop war profiteering have hurt his business. It’s almost to the film’s credit that Jennings’s guilt is never in doubt, meaning that Mike’s subsequent escape from custody and quest to clear his name are rooted solely in his having to contend with his traitorous friend’s private army, and not some dull mystery centered around who set him up.

Still, the film’s framing of Mike as the most wanted man in America is clumsily executed. Given that his face is plastered on screens all over the country, you’d think that the man would be trying to avoid public exposure at all times. In practice, though, Mike is almost always in plain sight, never making any attempt to disguise himself, almost as if he’s aware that no one ever seems to recognize him. The only exception to this rule is when he’s held up by two armed, backwoods militiamen in Angel Has Fallen’s most baffling scene; after all, when one imagines the sort of people who might be driven to an outraged citizen’s arrest over an attack on a liberal, black president, one doesn’t immediately think of white nationalists.

Given the lack of significant impediment to Mike’s movements, the film allows plenty of space for action thrills, but Waugh seems to have cobbled his set pieces together from a series of close-ups edited as if by random selection. And because of so much coherence-defying shot continuity, it’s impossible to tell what’s happening during any given skirmish. Even the nonviolent scenes are jittery and aggressive; a close-up at one point tracks a character picking up a phone with a whip pan so fast that the shot slips out of focus. Worst of all, though, are the special effects that mark the more grandiose set pieces, with smoke from massive explosions hanging statically in the air as a giant, solid mass and, in the film’s rooftop climax, the obvious use of green screen revealing image artifacts around the actors’ faces.

It doesn’t help that, three films into the Fallen series, Mike has almost paradoxically lost some of his dimensionality as a character. In an age of impossibly conditioned physiques, Butler’s everyman image is a welcome throwback to the action stars of yore. But he doesn’t radiate much wit and personality, delivering Mike’s punchlines with the same leaden severity that he does the film’s exposition. Butler portrays Mike’s dire health condition with nothing more than the occasional flutter of his eyelids and a momentary stumble, and what could have given Mike’s quest to clear his name added urgency is swiftly abandoned as soon he goes on the run, evincing as he does no visible signs of suffering from any malady or trauma.

The only time that Angel Has Fallen exhibits any spark of inspiration is when Mike hides out with his estranged, traumatized veteran father, Clay (Nick Nolte), who’s secluded himself in a cabin in the deep woods of West Virginia. When Jennings inevitably finds his prey there, Mike’s efforts to take charge are overridden by Clay tripping a number of booby traps, setting off so many explosives that the sequence, for the way its initial tediousness blooms into improbable hilarity as each successive explosion dispatches one of Jennings’s men, comes to suggest a brutal iteration of the famous rake gag from The Simpsons. Nolte, with his gravelly voice, bent frame, and matted briar patch of hair, communicates in a few scenes all of the pathos of weariness and trauma that Butler fails to invest in Mike, providing Angel Has Fallen with its only sources of comedy and emotional resonance.

Cast: Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Danny Huston, Michael Landes, Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Nolte, Piper Perabo, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lance Reddick Director: Ric Roman Waugh Screenwriter: Robert Mark Kamen, Matt Cook, Ric Roman Waugh Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year

A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.

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Technoboss
Photo: Locarno

Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.

Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.

Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.

Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.

Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.

However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.

A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.

Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.

While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.

The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.

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

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

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They Live
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vita & Virginia
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Ready or Not
Fox Searchlight Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom

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

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Jawline
Photo: Hulu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Brittany Runs a Marathon
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Official Secrets
Photo: IFC Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Photo: Shudder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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