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It’s Alive!: The Top Film Criticism Sites: An Annotated Blog Roll, Part One

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It’s Alive!: The Top Film Criticism Sites: An Annotated Blog Roll, Part One

There’s one word that sums up the World Wide Web: huge. Faced with the Internet’s exponentially expansive growth and sprawling heterogeneity, every other generalization comes up short. Though the all-too-familiar “death of film criticism” polemics prefer to frame the current era in terms of (degraded) quality, the truly epochal shift in digital-age criticism is a function of quantity: total media saturation and head-spinning content overload.

Mid-century cinephilia offered its transatlantic disciples something that, for the other fine arts, had reached its breaking point in the Modernist period: a canon that could be mastered in its entirety by an individual consciousness. If you subscribed to a dozen or so of the “right” periodicals and faithfully patronized the art-house premieres and repertory revivals of London, Paris, or New York (or, later, San Francisco and Los Angeles), you could quite literally see everything that was considered worth seeing and read all the critics thought to be worth reading. This culture, of course, was built on a kind of artificial scarcity: the back catalogues of film history were just starting to be excavated and archived, much of world cinema was off the Western radar, and most of the accomplished criticism published in student newspapers, mid-sized metropolitan dailies, and underground film journals went largely unnoticed. The last two decades have yielded so much to cinephilia—from digital archives and movie-review clearinghouses to TCM and Netflix—but the surfeit has taken at least one thing away: the illusion of all-encompassing critical authority. The spirit of encyclopedic completism embodied in, say, Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema seems more anachronistic by the day. There are just too many films to see and (more to the point) too many smart writers to compete with.

So where do we get off appointing ourselves the selection committee for the top film criticism sites? If that strikes you as a little presumptuous, you’re totally right. Though not “meaningless,” the selections below are meaningful only in a contingent, puzzle-piece sort of way. There are plenty of sites that could just as easily have made the cut: Arbogast on Film, Buzz Buzz, Chronicle of a Passion, Cinema Style, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, The Crop Duster, DVD Savant, Elusive Lucidity, The Independent Eye, Movie Morlocks, New Deal Sally, Rightwing Film Geek, Shooting Down Pictures, Theo’s Century of Movies, Zero for Conduct, plus a dozen others we could name off the top of our heads—and who knows how many more that we’re not even aware of. But here’s the thing: while we could have billed the selections as “43 Semi-Randomly Selected but Genuinely Distinguished Film Criticism Sites,” that meme just doesn’t trend as well (#awkward). To tantalizingly mislabel the headline above and then clarify the stakes here in the introduction seemed like the best compromise, in a lie-that-tells-the-truth sort of way.

The blog roll has become the defining trope of critical exchange in the early Internet era: its network of laterally enmeshed connections quite literally defines “the Web.” But the long, scrolling lists of hyperlinked sites are easily overwhelming. Jumping into a random blog midstream is often disorienting. And if you’re already the kind of person who actively seeks out intelligent film criticism, your reading queue is no doubt pretty full. But maybe you’d like to refine your short-list of go-to sites, match your favorite venues against a few others in a Darwinian death-match—because how else are your tastes going to expand and evolve?

Our goal here is to make that process as easy and efficient as possible. For every URL included, one of our crack contributors has come up with an elegantly pithy synopsis of the critical style and obsessively revisited subjects that define the spirit of the site. When you’ve found a couple of capsules that pique your interest, bookmark them at the top of your browser and click over when you have some downtime. Try to have patience if the writer’s personality doesn’t immediately hook you. Just as in real life, the person who at first strikes you as slightly boring may later become your best friend forever. So give it a week or two of casual browsing; peruse the backlog of posts by subject tags; linger in the comments sections. Every writer has his own rhythms, her own hidden wellsprings of ideas and emotions, and sometimes it takes some up-front effort to tune in to that. The more you put in, the more you get out.

The projects included here span a wide range of genres: digital film journals, multi-writer theme sites, side projects of film studies academics, digital outreach by professional print reviewers, and, above all, the personal blogs of unpaid enthusiasts. Our only criteria for inclusion were that (a) posts must be written primarily in the English language and (b) the content must be specifically produced for online consumption. The selections are unranked and in randomly generated order (our highly sophisticated algorithm is modeled loosely on the perennial schoolyard favorite MASH).

For years now, Internet film critics have been relentlessly dumped on by many (but by no means all) in the legacy media. Though they’ve gotten little in the way of social recognition or financial compensation, cinephile bloggers have filled in the gaps of mainstream review coverage, corralled hard-to-find source materials, enriched cinema’s theoretical vocabularies and historical narratives, and shared their personal obsessions in often fascinating, hilarious, and deeply affecting ways. I feel personally privileged and just really fucking happy to shine a light on their work—all of them life-affirming examples of democratic participation and humanizing cultural exchange. —Paul Brunick

The Self-Styled Siren

Self-Styled SirenClassical Hollywood fetishism has found a most enchanting ambassador. Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren turns the articulation of cliché and convention into a sport—no surprise she’s chosen melodrama as her champion underdog and counts Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk among her favorite directors. A witty, working mother of three (the blog originated during afternoon naptime), the Siren is a unique and refreshing voice in a field often prone to nostalgic vacuity or esoteric one-upmanship. An “Anecdote of the Week” feature showcases her extensive bibliographic endeavors. Her obituaries are the most dependably poetic on the scene. Whether dusting off forgotten gems and industry players or providing fresh analysis on the already canonical, the Siren speaks with the grit, gumption, and savvy of the pre-Code ladies she so admires. Her extensive research is a valuable corollary to the Hollywood Babylon school of salacious folklore; not that the blog is without juice (delicious bon mots care of her beloved George Sanders) or mysticism (a reverential moment of silence for Charles Boyer’s “incomparable way with a hat”). The Siren abandoned anonymity upon co-programming a series for TCM, but lifting the veil, in true Merry Widow style, has only furthered the blossoming of her appeal: a recent blogathon hosted in association with the National Film Preservation Foundation has raised $13,500 and counting. Not only is the Siren the best film geek friend you ever had but an increasingly powerful force. —Brynn White

Strictly Film School

Strictly Film School

No one embodies cinephilia in the Internet age better than the pseudonymous Acquarello (aka Pascual Espiritu), a self-described “NASA flight systems design engineer” who single-handedly creates all the content for Strictly Film School. Unapologetically auteurist in design, Strictly Film School’s biggest draw is its jaw-droppingly extensive Director’s Database that boasts over 500 names, from canonical faves like Chantal Akerman and Pedro Almodóvar to the less known (but no less worthy) Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Lisandro Alonso—and that’s just scratching the surface of the As. The directory doesn’t offer bios but instead concise capsules whose brevity is belied by their insights. While online platforms offer practically limitless writing space, Acquarello’s economical and precise prose is something to treasure. And for those looking to venture beyond auteurism, Strictly Film School offers the option to browse reviews by genres (of the academic sort: “Neo-Expressionism,” “Cinema Verité”), themes (“Generational Conflict,” “Aging/Obsolescence/Death”), and images (“Chromatic Shifts—State of Consciousness, Existential Realm” being my personal favorite). “Film-Related Reading Notes” on recently browsed print matter and a “Film Fest Journal” tops off this exhaustively (and exhaustingly) comprehensive site. If only real film schools were as informative and passionate as Strictly Film School. —Cullen Gallagher

Diagonal Thoughts

Diagonal ThoughtsIn the distant future—when we are nothing more than incorporeal abstractions coded into the algorithmic consciousness of a virtual singularity, or blue-skinned, loin-clothed power-forwards cybersexing flora and fauna with our FireWire pony tails, or whatever!—I sincerely hope that our post-organic nervous systems will occasionally light up to the archived index of Diagonal Thoughts. Media and culture aficionado Stoffel Debuysere, a member of Belgium’s Courtisane collective and co-programmer of its film and video festival, maintains a dense and diligently curated collection of “notes on seeing and being, sound and image, media and memory.” The site presents fresh, often mind-bending findings drawn from the worlds of neuroscience, philosophy, sociology, computer science, cultural studies, and (of course) the cinema. Collating quotations from innumerable sources, Debuysere is much more than a mere cut-and-paster—the rhetorical patchwork of interviews, articles, and program note snippets have a synthetic brilliance all their own, further gilded with Debuysere’s original observations and erudite commentary. Alongside his interest in new media’s ontological collision with human cognition and perceptual reality is a stalwart passion for old-school avant-garde celluloid (lovingly categorized as “Indeterminate Cinema”); recent “Artists in Focus” have included Guy Sherwin, David Gatten, and Morgan Fisher. Tracking the intersecting vectors of technological and aesthetic evolution, Diagonal Thoughts is nothing less than the cinephile’s survival guide for the 21st century. —Jesse P. Finnegan

Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Not Coming to a Theater Near YouRumsey Taylor was reared in the hinterlands of rural Kentucky, nurtured by VHS rentals and late-night cable TV. It’s fitting that he would go on to found Not Coming to a Theater Near You, an ambitious online resource for reevaluations of forgotten and fringe cinema. Taylor’s prowess as an editor lies in an innate ability to skirt both irreverent fan-boy pitfalls and highfalutin postgrad navel-gazing; the writing remains doggedly non-academic while retaining a sharp populism and simple elegance often lacking in similar niche sites. Not Coming increased its profile in 2009 by partnering with the NYC revival venue at 92YTribeca, where editors and contributors present public screenings of rare and controversial classics. The site sets itself apart through its assemblage of talented contributors, many of whom are able up-and-comers in New York’s criticism and repertory programming scenes. In addition to reviews, Not Coming offers independent festival coverage, interviews with significant figures in alternative cinema and criticism (filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, animator Don Hertzfeldt, and New Yorker film editor Richard Brody were all recent respondents), as well as comprehensive essays on intriguingly obscure subjects. A recent piece analyzed the rogue cinephilia of underground video mixtapes, most of which are of questionable legal status. It’s rare to find such subjects spotlighted with so much eloquence, and it’s with essays like this that the site really scores. —Benjamin Shapiro

Acidemic

AcidemicAcidemic is to be experienced more than summarized. While founder Erich Kuersten will write on oft-discussed blogosphere subjects—down-and-dirty horror pics, Seventies cinema of both mainstream and marginal varieties—these often serve as launching pads for loose-limbed meditations on cultural mores, youth nostalgia or, well, whatever else he wants to talk about. Kuersten’s runaway-train sentence structure and off-the-cuff humor result in some singular insights. (From an appreciation of 1982’s Conan the Barbarian: “The Thulsa Doom serpent cult in the film was a perfect analogy for the hippie movement, with its focus on converting young people to blood orgies and training them to kill their parents…For kids wondering why they weren’t growing up drowned in orgies like their older brothers in the 1970s, [it] was the perfect demonization tool.”) But following the snaking paths of his musings proves quite rewarding, not least for the way he intertwines the analytical with the personal. In a defense of Lindsay Lohan, for instance, Kuersten (who has written about his struggles with alcohol) both calls out the public’s gender bias and then offers the oft-soused starlet some AA-inspired solidarity. Full of freewheeling insights, Acidemic gives seemingly familiar material an idiosyncratic spin. —Matthew Connolly

The Academic Hack

The Academic HackAt first glance, there’s something intimidating about Michael Sicinski’s website, with its spare design and unadorned capsules of small-print Times New Roman. But as Sicinski’s ever-increasing fan base will attest, appearances can be deceiving. While he may indeed be an academic (he has a background in visual art and teaches university film courses), there’s nothing dry about his writing. Sicinski specializes in avant-garde film—there’s no other critic I know of who can make some of cinema’s most challenging works sound downright inviting—but he writes about Hollywood and art cinema with equal passion, humor, and clarity. His short-form reviews waste not a word; as the father of a young child, he doesn’t have the time to spare. Whether he’s unpacking complicated films with astonishing insight, defending a misunderstood triumph, or tearing down a seemingly unassailable critical favorite, Sicinski’s voice is one of almost scary intelligence—but it’s never haughty or condescending. His writing challenges accepted opinions and inspires reflection and investigation. You can’t ask for much more from a critic. —Matt Noller

Undercurrent

Undercurrent

Spartan and straightforward, the online magazine Undercurrent gets by without the hard sell—and that’s no small matter. A labor of love founded by Chris Fujiwara in 2006, Undercurrent is a quintessential small magazine, posting only one or two issues a year yet greatly enriching the world of film criticism. The site has done especially sharp and enjoyable work in the single-theme tribute format: a special section on John Ford, an homage to Danièle Huillet. Fujiwara, an occasional Film Comment contributor and author of several perceptive critical studies (on Tourneur, Preminger, and Jerry Lewis), says that he sees the project partly as “a magazine about film criticism.” Under the aegis of FIPRESCI (The International Federation of Film Critics), the journal’s focus and cosmopolitan character seem fitting, but it’s a real credit to Fujiwara’s editorial hand that Undercurrent transcends professional insiderism. Fujiwara, who grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in Tokyo for the past three years, says he seeks to steer the journal toward examination of the critical scenes in countries outside North America and Europe, and spur more thinking on “the theory and practice of criticism, the ways it gets written and read, in practical terms, and what critics’ goals and ideals are.” —Paul Fileri

DVD Beaver

DVDBeaverWith its wealth of screen grabs direct from their DVD or Blu-Ray sources, Gary Tooze’s DVD Beaver is the go-to site for home-cinema perfectionists. From bit-rate analyses and run-time certifications to examinations of aspect ratios and image formatting, Beaver’s orgy of tech specs is a cinephilic wet dream. As the next-generation heir to Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog (see separate entry), Tooze has maintained pressure on home-video distributors to keep raising the bar of image and audio quality. Particularly revealing are side-by-side comparisons of a single title’s competing regional releases, in which the often staggering differences in transfer quality have to be seen to be believed. For such reasons, Beaver is both a major advocate of owning a multi-region player and a consumer-reports resource for sorting through the various models. Though reviews can get lost in the sea of advertising necessary to support the independently owned and operated site, once a user gains a little familiarity with the layout, staying updated is easy (and addictive): from the “What’s New” and “Release Calendar” sections to the conversely complementary “Criterions Going Out of Print” alerts. While the site currently focuses on technical evaluations, Tooze applies his unique analytical voice to auteurist critiques in the “Director’s Chair” section and shows off his genre smarts in the “Definitive Film Noir on DVD” resource page. —Ben Simington

Kino Slang

Kino SlangAt once a secret history of radical cinema and a secret history of radicals in the cinema, Kino Slang is as much about politics as film. Andy Rector’s selections of text and image capture the moments when history seeps through moving pictures in spite of themselves, revealing for a trembling instant the politics underlying their representation. There’s no preferred “genre” here other than authenticity; posts might combine images and texts from Pedro Costa with Kenji Mizoguchi or from Jean-Marie Straub with Charles Burnett. As an attempt to excavate the 20th-century political projects that have structured the history of cinema, Kino Slang is often oblique but no less essential for that. Like the flickering images of Chris Marker’s Grin Without a Cat or the tombstones of John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind, Rector isolates the outliers, those critical voices in the wilderness, and assembles them into a unified trajectory of what might have been—and could be still. Rector’s compilation of discrete cultural moments does more than unearth forgotten episodes of (film) history. More than the sum of its parts, Kino Slang’s posts cumulatively comprise their very own histoire(s)—of cinema, of politics, and of personal artistic commitment. —Dave McDougall

Ludic Despair

Ludic DespairNorthwestern University professor Jeffery Sconce has devoted his career to the scholarly probing of seedy cinematic underbellies: exploitation flicks, televised trash, and various cult phenomena. Sconce’s blog, billed as “An Index of Co-Morbid Symptoms,” skims lurid treasures off the cesspool of mass media with a timeliness that a critical anthology or symposium could never provide. Ludic’s robust, readable, and topical-to-the-week epistles are distinguished by Sconce’s spry intellectual vigor and playfully acerbic (or acerbically playful) curiosity, not to mention his laser-guided insights and pitch-perfect wit. Speculating as to why the incubators of Avatar seemed so compelled to weigh down a would-be romp with the cement shoes of a “message movie,” Sconce hypothesizes: “Perhaps this stems from a sense of guilt—if someone is going to spend this much money on a film, it should do more than simply grind Cool Ranch Doritos into the spectator’s eyes for two hours.” Dusting off all manner off sub-pop pap and B-grade tawdriness from decades past, Ludic also offers analytical treatises on contemporary concerns: a memorandum on our growing fascination with mall cops; a fiery deflation of the “Balloon Boy” media circus; a dialectical account of the death of “the teenager,” prompted by England’s adoption of the anti-loitering gizmo “the mosquito.” No matter the moving-image netherworlds Sconce navigates, the self-evident absurdity (which would be enough for most cultural commentators) is only the starting point—Sconce’s explications may be funny, but they’re far from a joke. And if you’re still waiting for the definitive appraisal of oddball icon Clint Howard, your day has arrived. —Jesse P. Finnegan

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly RuleIn a media environment that rewards snark, however joyless, Dennis Cozzalio is an affable and refreshing voice. A father of two who came of age in the heyday of New Hollywood, Cozzalio’s cinematic reference points run as broad and deep as any salaried movie reviewer; but unlike the professionals, who are often required to waste spleen on films toward which they feel indifferent or hostile, Cozzalio has the luxury of focusing on the movies he actually enjoys. In practice this means that the content is delightfully varied: reviews of new releases, coverage of repertory events in the Los Angeles area, nostalgic looks back at trashy gems that won’t even play on cable. As someone who doesn’t believe in the concept of the guilty pleasure, Cozzalio doesn’t approach the “lowbrow” with caustic irony or overcompensating veneration; the oeuvre of Joe Dante is treated on its own terms. Since Cozzalio has a day job, updates can be sporadic, but uninhibited by space limitations or word count, his posts are lengthy and well-illustrated with images. Most impressive, as any dedicated digi-critic will tell you, is the community of commenters and fellow bloggers that have responded to Cozzalio’s work: their robust and insightful engagement lives up to Wired magazine’s Web utopianism. —Violet Lucca

Some Came Running

Some Came RunningGlenn Kenny was once a respected critic and editor for Premiere until he became a casualty of capitalism’s war on journalism. Now he finds himself online doing exactly what he wants, no longer beholden to deadlines and column inches. Not that he’s totally happy about that. Kenny has always been ambivalent about the position online criticism holds in the cultural discourse. When he’s at his best, though, he navigates the cyber landscape with the ease of any “digital native” youngster. A regular highlight of his site are the entries on DVD and Blu-Ray releases wherein he scopes out oft-obscure corners of the market for beautiful transfers of forgotten classics. And serious lovers of film criticism can appreciate Kenny’s regular lambasting of his two favorite punching bags, Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells and the New York Press’s Armond White. —Evan Davis

Wright On Film

Wright on FilmWriting with a Bordwellian clarity and analytical rigor that’s perfect for unpacking the components of cinematic form, Benjamin Wright’s site is a fount of smart discourse on modern film aesthetics. Topics range from the character of Michael Mann’s close-ups to speculation on the almost-projects of great directors, but Wright (a graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa) perhaps shines brightest when discussing his dissertation topic: sound in modern movies. His essays delve into the ways in which technology and industrial economics shape our experience of the oft-ignored aural aspects of the films we see (and hear), always taking care to initiate sonic laypeople with generous explanations of technical terms. It may sound a little (gasp!) academic, but Wright’s thoughtful enthusiasm guides you gracefully through the intricacies of, say, the narrative functions of Jerry Goldsmith’s scores or inside-baseball debates on 5.1 versus 10.2 surround sound systems. Wright has recently been considering the implications of 3-D, particularly with regard to how it might alter the soundscape of feature films. The intelligence and equanimity with which Wright treats this much-discussed topic alone makes Wright on Film a valuable resource. Best of luck with the dissertation, Benjamin, but make sure to keep the posts coming! —Matthew Connolly

Moving Image Source

Moving Image Source

Under the stewardship of editor-in-chief Dennis Lim, Moving Image Source has quickly become one of the most consistently engaging critical voices on the Web, offering a versatile platform for its home institution (Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image) to explore classic and contemporary cinema in all its international variety. Bridging the gap between serious criticism and scholarship, the journal is noteworthy not only for its consistently insightful prose and wide-ranging subjects—often pegged to important film exhibitions—but for its regular inclusion of video essays, an exciting emergent format that has been pioneered by frequent contributors Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz. In its two years online, the publication has thrived on a cinephilic passion open to many different tastes and approaches, with subjects ranging from the art of cinematography to the aesthetics of early video games, from established filmmakers like Wes Anderson to more obscure figures such as Yasmin Ahmad. In addition to top-notch criticism, the sleekly designed website features an exhaustive but easily navigable list of online resources for cinema-related research, a calendar highlighting the most significant film events around the world, and an audio treasure trove of MOMI’s Pinewood Dialogues with film and TV luminaries. —Andrew Chan

Artforum.com

ArtforumContinuing Artforum’s tradition of film writing begun in the late Sixties by such luminaries as Annette Michelson and Manny Farber, the film blog at Artforum.com also gives space to a wider range of subjects than the print publication and more reflections from a welcome roster of critical voices including James Quandt, Amy Taubin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ed Halter, Nicolas Rapold, Melissa Anderson, Andrew Hultkrans, Michael Joshua Rowin, and more. Artforum’s pristinely designed outpost places the cinema beat alongside a news digest and links to both its “critics’ picks” section and the Scene & Herd diary, which offers a plethora of photos from exhibition openings and parties. New York remains a persistent locus of attention, but current online editor David Velasco says he aims to keep “multiple venues and topics in the mix.” Recent reports have been filed on screenings of Pancho Villa-centered documentaries by Gregorio Rocha and Félix and Edmundo Padilla at L.A.’s REDCAT experimental film theater, and an exhibition of works by Ryan Trecartin, Peter Campus, Sharon Lockhart, and Joachim Koester at The Power Plant contemporary art gallery in Toronto. At its best, Artforum.com reports and reflects the ways in which the world of cinema and the contemporary art scene increasingly commingle and cross-fertilize. —Paul Fileri

Film-Philosophy

Film-PhilosophyIn the world of online film publications, Film-Philosophy qualifies as a firmly entrenched fixture. Begun as an e-mail list in 1996, this first-generation, U.K.-based enterprise has cultivated a small but focused international readership, helping to renew interest in thinkers who yoke together philosophy and film, from Gilles Deleuze and Stanley Cavell to Henri Bergson and Hugo Münsterberg. Founder and academic Daniel Frampton has since collected his long-gestating reflections in an ambitious 2006 book Filmosophy (a work whose cumbersome title has perhaps unsurprisingly failed to catch on), turning over stewardship of the site to current managing editor David Sorfa. “We have special issues coming up on disgust and on animation,” Sorfa said [in the fall of 2009]. “One theme that runs through many of the recently published articles is the question of what it might mean for films to ’do’ philosophy themselves (rather than merely act as examples of prior philosophical theses).” That’s a major challenge, and it’s been most recently met by an issue devoted to Claire Denis and her sometime collaborator Jean-Luc Nancy; articles on the Dardenne Brothers’ cinema in relation to thinker Emmanuel Levinas; and a compelling reconsideration by Gal Kirn of the collectively made 1932 German film Kuhle Wampe. —Paul Fileri

Film Journey

Film JourneyFilm Journey’s extemporized thoughts on long-percolating interests read like the best conversations you ever overheard at the cinematheque. Edited and written (with semi-regular guest contributors) by Doug Cummings, the Los Angeles-based co-founder of Masters of Cinema (see separate entry), Film Journey is less a modest triumph than a triumph of modesty: unaffectedly functional in style, wonkish but never willfully obscure, updated on a schedule that’s leisurely but sustained (Journey has averaged a handful of entries per month for over six years now). Though Cummings’s prosaic, analytical voice has little in common with the freewheeling wordsmithery and bumper-car collisions of ideas that were the signature of his critical idol Manny Farber, it shares with the latter an ability to burrow deep into fine-grained detail and a restless dissatisfaction with intellectual shorthand and orthodox wisdom. Whether re-evaluating old masters like Ozu and Bresson, championing contemporary favorites like Andrew Bujalski and the Dardenne Brothers, highlighting under-praised work in niche periodicals, or getting into the weeds of film festival politics, Cummings continually breaks new ground. That he once had the uncanny experience of discovering his own writing repurposed (without citation) in a sheet of CSUN screening notes is not that surprising—next to his small-scale but refreshingly original insights, the majority of film criticism looks like a rhetorically polished thesaurus-job. —Paul Brunick

The Front Row

The Front RowHark the overdue emergence of New Yorker film editor Richard Brody, previously only available in capsule-sized bites; his physical-emotional breakdowns of American auteurists’ neglected works and sophisticated, subversive celebrations of Norbit and Jared Hess certainly stood out from the “Goings On About Town” fray. Brody published his landmark opus on Jean-Luc Godard (Everything Is Cinema) in the summer of 2008 and his investment in the Nouvelle Vague legacy peppers his daily blog. This bilingual Francophilia is to everyone’s benefit: translations of news items and interviews otherwise unavailable in English and illuminating comparisons of European and American responses appear regularly. The most engaging and sincere species of highbrow intellectual, Brody makes thoughtful, mainstream applications of his interests in cinema symbology and poetics. He offers his readers a philosophical, macrocosmic grasp of film today: its marketers, its creators, and its audiences—including his two teenaged daughters and their responses to films both contemporary and classic. Championship of indie underdogs, weekly video essays on DVD releases, and notifications of must-see TCM broadcasts keep readers abreast of what’s worth seeing now, as filtered through the perspective of a modernist with an infectiously ecstatic faith in the potential of the medium. And for those still worshipping at the altar of Woody Allen, Brody’s got your back. —Brynn White

indieWIRE

indieWIREFlaunting the “independent” banner with business-minded acumen, indieWIRE stands as a prime example of the ways in which commercial online outposts serve up news, information and interactive commentary. The site, which began in 1996 as an e-newsletter co-founded by current editor-in-chief Eugene Hernandez, has grown exponentially. Back in January of 2009, it launched a “re-imagining” of its website to coincide with the Sundance Film Festival’s kickoff, and announced its increasing integration with its new owner, SnagFilms, an online documentary-focused video distribution platform. Now arrayed with the characteristic accoutrements of fashionable journalistic ventures—feeds for news and blog links, rankings of articles, prominent advertising—indieWIRE has further consolidated its status as an alternative to the industry trade paper Variety. In its current incarnation, the site draws together industry players in their own niches, dispersed and networked throughout North America—largely beyond the purview of Hollywood, although Anne Thompson’s blog hardly ventures outside that frame—and also, more centrally, a whole audience that tracks the marketing and commerce of indie cinema. Though Variety no longer reigns supreme as the inside players’ bible of Hollywood dealing, the trade-magazine ethos thrives in more corners than ever, for readerships more general than a studio town ever defined. —Paul Fileri

Video Watchblog

Video WatchblogSelf-proclaimed “Perfectionist of Fantastic Video” Tim Lucas is the creator of Video Watchblog, an outgrowth of his cult magazine Video Watchdog (1990-present; 157 issues to date), which itself originated in a series of columns Lucas published across multiple magazines throughout the Eighties. Recognizing that home media would be the dominant mode of movie-viewing in the future, Lucas’s quietly revolutionary writing is in part responsible for setting the high standards home media must meet today, as well as the emergence of boutique labels, whether they aim to release the definitive edition of a world-cinema classic or reintroduce the public to a forgotten cult gem. Lucas’s approach exhibits an archival commitment to preservation before evaluation: no matter how far outside the canon a title may reside, it first and foremost deserves the highest-possible handling to replicate the director’s original theatrical intentions… then criticism can follow. To these ends, Lucas trained an entire generation of film readers and video renters to manually measure aspect ratios onscreen, hunt down multiple and multi-region releases of the same title, compare alternate run-times and conflicting versions of the same film, and in the process, appreciate the ever-blurring line between exploitation and art house. —Ben Simington

Girish Shambu

Girish ShambuA professor of management at Buffalo’s Canisius College who had originally trained as an engineer, Shambu is an unlikely candidate for Best Online Critic—but he’s certainly in the running. Shambu’s blog is less a formal collection of essays than a locus of fresh and energetic debate about seriously cinephilic matters. He posts recent observations, thoughts, or concerns, and then prompts his commenters to respond with a related query. The results are some of the most enlightening discussions on film style, theory, and history this side of davekehr.com (Shambu counts among his frequent contributors such heavy-hitters as Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum). After all, isn’t the pinnacle of intellectual exchange a fluid, continuous opening-up of ideas rather than a rigid, parochial closing-down? —Evan Davis

CineMetrics

CineMetrics

Film academics too rarely get involved in the online game (with the obvious exception of David Bordwell) but University of Chicago professor Yuri Tsivian has entered the Internet exchange with a wonderfully unique contribution. CineMetrics is a database that allows everyone from scholars to Joe Cinephiles to generate empirical data about shot lengths and scales in films using user-friendly (and free!) downloadable software. The well-known metric ASL (Average Shot Length) was popularized thanks to Tsivian’s efforts, who built upon Barry Salt and Bordwell’s pioneering work to generate historical and aesthetic conclusions about film style based on hard numerical data. If you ever wanted to let people know how many medium close-ups were used in Patton, or what Anchorman’s median shot length is, now’s your chance to scratch the statistical itch that’s been driving you crazy! —Evan Davis

Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader, well appointed in tailored vest, glares at you through round wire frames on the home page of his new website. With a no-nonsense formality, the visitor is offered three resources: his films, his writings, and his photos. While the filmography and collection of images are predictable fare, the real action goes down in the archives containing his film criticism. Here you’ll find the whole gamut of his hard-to-find film writing, including his recent contributions to Film Comment. By his own account, he owes everything to Pauline Kael, whom he met in New York while taking summer courses at Columbia. He sent her his college-paper movie reviews (written 1965-67 and also included on the site), and she helped him get a gig with the Los Angeles Free Press. During his time there, he wrote such notable reviews as a two-part exploration of Pickpocket, a favorable take on De Palma’s Greetings, a marvelous pan of Easy Rider, and an ode to Boudu Saved from Drowning. Later, for the short-lived Cinema Magazine, he wrote at length about Boetticher and Rossellini, two filmmakers who almost made the grade (alongside the holy trinity of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer) in Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film. —Paul Fileri

© 2010 The Film Society of Lincoln Center

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Review: Villains Serves Up Gratingly Quirky Case-and-Mouse Hijinks

Maika Monroe’s engaging performance serves only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.

1.5

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Villains
Photo: Alter

It’s emblematic of the problems with Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s blackly comic thriller Villains that by far the most compelling thing in the film is its end credits sequence. Set to Courtney Barnett’s grungy punk anthem “Pedestrian at Best,” the animated end titles are an explosion of whacked-out Day-Glo excess, suggesting a film of raucousness and acidity rather than the gratingly quirky cat-and-mouse game to which they’re attached.

Villains pits an ostensibly lovable pair of offbeat outlaws, Jules (Maika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgård), against an oddball husband-and-wife duo, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), whose impeccable manners and stuck-in-the-‘70s aesthetic belies their complete sociopathy. The film opens on Jules and Mickey haphazardly, but successfully, robbing a convenience store before promptly running out of gas not long after making their getaway. What seems like the setup for a jokey riff on the Bonnie and Clyde story takes a darker turn when the drug-addled duo breaks into a nearby house hoping to steal a car or at least siphon some gas only to find a young girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained up in the basement. Just as Jules and Mickey are deciding what to do with the kid, George and Gloria arrive home, setting off a game of brinkmanship between the two couples.

While Berk and Olsen manage a few clever twists, there’s no sense of stakes throughout, and in no small part because the four main characters feel less like real people caught up in a dangerous situation than repositories of phony eccentricities. George and Gloria’s house, furnished in the style of the late 1970s, with burnt-orange couches and an antique cathode-ray TV, is too impeccably art-directed to feel like anything other than a film set. His smooth-talking salesman patter is overwritten, robbing the character of any truly sinister edge. And while her bizarre behavior—she seduces Mickey with a burlesque routine and treats a baby doll as if it were her infant son—is supposedly motivated by her mental instability, it comes off more like the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to get a rise out of the audience.

Jules and Mickey are a bit more down to earth but scarcely more believable, mostly because Villains feels the need to keep underlining the zaniness of their criminality as, for example, they struggle to figure out how to rob a cash register and snort cocaine for energy the way Popeye eats spinach. It doesn’t help that the performances tend toward the mannered and over-the-top. Donovan and Sedgwick adopt the exaggerated Southern drawl of a televangelist couple, while Skarsgård is shouty and demonstrative. Only Monroe really strikes the right balance between the absurd and the sincere, finding a sense of vulnerability within Jules’s naïve dreaminess. But her sensitive, engaging performance stands out too sharply, ultimately serving only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.

Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Baumgartner, Noah Robbins Director: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Screenwriter: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Distributor: Alter Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Laundromat Flimsily Addresses the Panama Papers Scandal

Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the scandal, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro.

1.5

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The Laundromat
Photo: Netflix

Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the true-life Panama Papers scandal with The Laundromat, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro. Smug one-percenters Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman, speaking in an uproariously broad German accent) are the often on-screen narrators of the film. They’re the heads of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co., which provided offshore financial services to shady clientele (Wall Street types, arms merchants and dictators, Margaret Thatcher’s son, etc.) until a leak by an anonymous source, still known only as “John Doe,” brought the company down in 2016 and led to global repercussions.

From the showy first scene (Soderbergh once again serves as director of photography under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews), the dapperly dressed Fonseca and Mossack act like the wronged heroes of an ages-old saga. They pompously begin their story at the start of humanity, the two of them, like gods in tailored suits, gifting a group of cavemen the means to make fire. In the same shot, the duo descends into a gaudy nightclub where they attempt to explain, Big Short-style, the enduring power of money and the ways in which shell companies shield the super-rich from taxes. It’s a to-camera lecture that’s drier than the Sahara Desert. Though the woozy ennui that quickly sets in seems somewhat intentional, as if Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, adapting Jake Bernstein’s 2017 book Secrecy World, are making the point that schemes like this are by their nature insipid and impossible to explain. The less sense it all makes, the better protection for those massive liquid assets.

There is, of course, an ample human cost to all the wheeling and dealing. Some of the money Mossack Fonseca oversaw was connected to a low-cost insurance company that sold a fraudulent policy to Shoreline Cruises, the tourist outfit behind the 2005 Ethan Allen boat accident on Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, that claimed 21 lives. Soderbergh very effectively recreates that tragedy here, focusing in particular on retiree Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), whose husband, Joe (James Cromwell), drowns after the vessel capsizes. Ellen launches her own investigation when the insurance payout from Joe’s death proves a pittance and the “golden years” existence she hoped for slips away. (Sharon Stone pops up as an officious realtor who snatches the Las Vegas apartment of Ellen’s dreams right out from under her.) Ellen, however, is more of a recurring protagonist since The Laundromat takes a Traffic approach narratively, jumping around the globe for a series of visually color-coded vignettes that focus on different, and seemingly disparate, characters.

There’s a noirish encounter between the Ethan Allen’s bewildered Captain Perry (Robert Patrick) and the agitated go-between, Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), who bought the illicit insurance policy that’s landed Shoreline Cruises in hot water. Elsewhere, a ludicrously wealthy man (Nonso Anozie), preparing for a party in his sun-soaked mansion, navigates the fall-out from an affair by attempting to buy the silence of both his daughter (Jessica Allain) and his wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird) with a portfolio that’s ostensibly, but not actually, worth millions. But the best in a largely banal show is a gut-busting visit to a dusty south-of-the-border bar where Will Forte and Chris Parnell, playing characters credited as “Doomed Gringo #1” and “Doomed Gringo #2,” discuss Neil Diamond and run afoul of a cartel boss.

As in Soderbergh’s Traffic, all of these bits and pieces are connected, in this case to Mossack Fonseca’s underhanded business practices. And also like Traffic, The Laundromat flirts with and occasionally tips over into racist stereotyping, as in a chilly Far East vignette in which Matthias Schoenaerts plays a debonair man of mystery named Maywood who’s poisoned by a woman, Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), who has high-up connections to the Chinese government and very much acts the part of the nefarious Dragon Lady seductress.

Streep herself is involved in another kind of ethnically based narrative wrinkle, though it’s something of a spoiler to say exactly how. (Best to just note that Ellen Martin isn’t the only role that the actress plays in the film.) The particulars of this choice are staggeringly ill-advised. Though they do act as foundation for The Laundromat’s impressive coup-de-cinema finale in which Streep sheds several chameleonic skins and offers a fourth-wall-shattering call to arms—a bold climax in no way worthy of the flimsy film that precedes it.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Melissa Rauch, Jeff Michalski, Jane Morris, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Cristela Alonzo, Larry Clarke, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Nonso Anozie, Larry Wilmore, Jessica Allain, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Matthias Schoenarts, Rosalind Chao, Kunjue Li, Ming Lo, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone Director: Steven Soderbergh Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: To the Ends of the Earth Masterfully Reckons with the Nature of Fear

With his latest, Kiyoshi Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.

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To the Ends of the Earth
Photo: New York Film Festival

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films are, by and large, intensely fixated on representing the experience of fear, and the range of human preoccupations that generate it: burgeoning technological development, encroaching environmental disaster, ecological instability, the lingering presence of the dead, and, of course, our capacities and limitations as individuals. More recently, the Japanese auteur has illustrated just how foundational, and persuasive, that fear is to the human psyche through a more stripped-down aesthetic. And this approach led him to a logical terminus: 2016’s Creepy, a seemingly straightforward procedural that, in its absence of any real explanation for the violent behaviors that its characters are prone to, put forth the chilling suggestion that no less than our free will itself is innately negated by the insurmountable influence of our own fear.

Kurosawa’s latest represents an even more radical departure for the filmmaker, as he abandons his typically taut narrative framework for a film squarely focuses on character—a strategy that results in the his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrive in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and become increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior.

Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) is a diligent and unwavering TV host, and the sole woman traveling with the camera crew. When the cameras are on her, she performs energetically and enthusiastically, without hesitation—wolfing down a bowl of undercooked rice with aplomb and toughing out multiple turns on a ludicrously raucous amusement park ride, all so that her cohorts can “get the shot.” Off camera, though, a very different Yoko appears: a docile young woman whose exchanges with her director, Yoshioko (Shota Sometani), and cameraman, Iwao (Ryo Kase), are marked by an obvious impression that, as a woman, she reacts subordinately to the men who give her instructions, even when doing so puts her wellbeing at risk. Yoko’s gender likewise colors her interactions with the Uzbeks she encounters: One man bristles at taking her out in his boat, and another shows great concern for her safety when she’s on the park ride, but only in a way that infantilizes her, as he initially assumes that Yoko is “under age,” then refers to her as a “child” even after it’s explained to him that she’s an adult.

The film seems at first to position itself as a study on how gender roles inform the different ways that Yoko is treated by the countryman with whom she’s traveling, and by the local Uzbeks. But Kurosawa has only just begun to develop his underlying thesis by this point. As Yoko strikes out on her own, exploring the landscape of an entirely foreign Uzbekistan, she’s guided by both her curiosity and her considerable cautiousness, two poles of her personality that determine behavior in a variety of spaces, from the more sparsely populated residential areas, to the densely crowded marketplaces, to the sprawling plains beyond the city.

Since Yoko herself doesn’t speak the language, Kurosawa chooses not to subtitle the Uzbek dialogue spoken throughout To the Ends of the Earth, and this decision, combined with the use of a filmic grammar that often feels ported over from the director’s horror films (dramatic lighting, wide frames that emphasize an individual’s feelings of alienation, and eerie silences), serves to envelop us in the psychological space of a young woman whose emotional engagement with a foreign culture, as well as her careerist ambitions and her ability to be open with those around her, are subject to ingrained fears and anxieties.

Kurosawa elevates his film above exploitation of these feelings with a pair of sequences that gesture toward profound understanding. In the first, Yoko hears the distant sound of a woman singing, enters into an imposing building from which the voice emanates, and wanders through a series of rooms, with Kurosawa’s camera tracking behind her. Each room has its own unique design and distinctive color scheme, and as Kurosawa begins to match-cut between them, Yoko seems as if she’s being surreally transported through some unconscious space. Finally, the rooms lead to a lavish concert hall, the lights dim, and Kurosawa cuts from a close-up of Yoko’s face in shadow to a wide shot of a stage, where Yoko suddenly, and disarmingly, launches into a Japanese rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour.”

Soon after, Yoko awakes in her hotel room, unsure if what she experienced was dream or reality, and we’re left unsure as to what the liberated charge of her performance is really meant to represent. But later, a translator for Yoko and her crew, Temur (Adiz Rajabov), explains the history behind the Navoi Theater, the building that Yoko may or may not have already visited. Temur explains that the theater was built by Japanese POWs in World War II, who carefully followed the instructions of their captors in crafting six waiting rooms, each designed according to a different Uzbek regional style. Timur marvels at the story of men who “had been enemy combatants,” but who worked hard and created something transcendent. The scene concludes, with a close-up of Yoko, as she processes what she’s heard.

Just as the Navoi Theater was a catalyst for Japanese prisoners to transcend the horrors of war, the story of its construction impresses upon Yoko the possibility of liberating herself from her own deepest fears about the world. The rest of the film, then, imbues its most harrowing moments—including a chase sequence and a sudden threat to Yoko’s boyfriend back in Tokyo—with a new emotional and philosophical gravitas. This shift also serves to recontextualize Kurosawa’s horror aesthetics as a means of progressing to the film’s final moment of catharsis. “Even if the sky falls and the Earth goes to pieces/I won’t be afraid,” sings Yoko with absolute conviction—a declaration that, it cannot be discounted, also serves to punctuate a career spent crafting apocalyptic narratives depicting the ruin of humanity. With To the Ends of the Earth, Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.

Cast: Atsuko Maeda, Shôta Sometani, Ryo Kase, Adiz Rajabov, Tokio Emoto Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Harriet Turns Tubman Into a Saint at the Expense of Her Humanity

Portraying Tubman above all else as a vessel for a higher power ironically only makes her appear less tangible.

1.5

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Harriet
Photo: Focus Features

Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet is a laudable attempt at documenting all that’s been untold by history books about Harriet Tubman’s life and achievements. The prevailing image of the American abolitionist and political activist is of a proud, hard, almost unknowable woman in her dotage—an image that Lemmons and co-screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard seek to amend, if not shake from our minds, by tracing Tubman’s steeliness back to its source as a symptom of the ferocity that drove her as a young freedom fighter.

First, however, we will know her as Minty (Cynthia Erivo), the name given to her on the plantation, in Dorchester County, Maryland, where she’s enslaved. Right away, it’s evident that a burning desire for freedom animates the woman, as well as her family, a mix of freemen and slaves who have a knowledge of their rights and cling to the promise of freedom made to them by their masters’ grandfather and that their current owners will not honor.

As Harriet, Erivo radiates an intensity that shines even in the early scenes that depict the young woman’s supplication to her masters. Harriet has a hard stare that communicates her resolve even when she averts her eyes from white people, and as soon as it becomes clear that her masters will never honor their grandfather’s will, she decides to run away with her freeman husband, John (Zackary Momoh). When John is caught by Harriet’s masters, the woman flees alone, making a 100-mile journey from Maryland to Philadelphia on foot.

As much as the film stresses Harriet’s ironclad conviction, it also attributes a great deal of her fortunes as a liberator to dreams and hallucinations resulting from a brain injury she incurred as a 12-year-old, when she was accidentally hit on the head by an iron weight that was thrown at another slave by a white overseer. Routinely, Lemmons cuts away from Harriet to a dreamscape where visions of the past and future are entwined and deliver warnings to Harriet with the certainty of prophecy. It’s one thing to engage with Harriet’s sincere belief in the power of her visions, but Lemmons’s ardent devotion to her desaturated dream motif brings a supernatural quality to Harriet’s life that undercuts the many scenes that make the case that Harriet was driven above all else by deep reservoirs of inner strength and ingenuity.

Tubman made 19 trips back to the South. The first saw her raiding her former plantation in order to rescue members of her family and other slaves working the land. Many such raids followed, and by the start of the Civil War, during which she became a spy and nurse for the Union, Tubman had escorted some 300 slaves to the North by making use of the Underground Railroad. This is a staggering achievement, all the more so because she never lost a single slave on her expeditions, but Lemmons doesn’t give us a sense of the scope of that feat. By focusing so much on how Harriet was led by her visions, the filmmaker gives short shrift to all the planning that it took for the woman to organize and execute multiple rescue missions, all the while eluding ever-growing hordes of slave patrols devoted to her capture.

Harriet’s religious-political prophesies naturally recall Joan of Arc, and the film even makes this comparison when Harriet’s former mistress, Eliza (Jennifer Nettles), screams that the runaway slave should be burned at the stake. But the dullness of Lemmons’s depictions of Harriet’s second-sight powers, all frantically edited, blue-toned glimpses of slaves in flight and whites in pursuit, feel purely functional and provide no insight into Harriet’s mindset. Despite Erivo’s stoic performance, Harriet does too little to infuse its revisionist portrait of Tubman with the force it clearly wants to show in the woman. Portraying the abolitionist and activist above all else as a vessel for a higher power ironically only makes her appear less tangible. Turning her into an American saint comes at the expense of her humanity.

Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh Director: Kasi Lemmons Screenwriter: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Where’s My Roy Cohn? Stares Steadfastly Into the Face of Evil

This sharp, to-the-point portrait of the crook, fixer, and right-wing pitbull resists the urge to darkly glamorize him.

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Where’s My Roy Cohn?
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

For those wanting to stare into the face of misery personified, look no further than Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about “legal executioner” Roy Cohn. From the opening scenes of Cohn whispering in Joseph McCarthy’s ear in 1954 to clips of him denying his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis not long before his death in 1986, the man’s hollow eyes show nothing but rancor. His mouth is pursed tight, waiting to launch the next poisoned barb. He looks like a man devoured by hate, a third-string movie villain transported to real life.

According to Where’s My Roy Cohn?, his villainy was complicated in its execution but not its source. For roughly three decades, Cohn operated as a kind of nexus connecting organized crime, influence peddlers, political chicanery, and American conservatism. Through it all, he tried to cut as large a profile as possible. Raised in the Bronx by a doting mother and a father who was a powerful judge, Cohn appears to have been a mean little cuss all along. His cousin, Dave Marcus, is one of many family members to appear in the documentary, calling Cohn “the definition of a self-hating Jew.” Apart from a virulent (and possibly legitimately felt) anti-communism, there’s no clue here as to what powered Cohn besides rage and ambition.

Except for a few short flashbacks, the documentary sticks to a mostly chronological telling of Cohn’s biography. It’s a brisk and lively telling, flickering through an incident-packed life in a way that suggests the existence of whole movies’ worth of stories that Tyrnauer didn’t have time to get to. Rather than sticking with straight biography, though, the filmmaker uses Cohn’s combination of ribald corruption and destructively reactionary politics not just as spectacle, but as a foreshadowing of the current political age. An indisputably brilliant legal mind, Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20 and was soon working as a fervently dedicated prosecutor on the controversial espionage case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. One of the interviewees recalls asking Cohn later if he had any regrets about their execution in the electric chair. He replied that, if possible, he would have thrown the switch himself.

Cohn took his malice to the F.B.I., where he learned how to cripple an enemy with malicious press leaks. Recommended by J. Edgar Hoover to McCarthy, Cohn became a fixture at the Wisconsin senator’s hearings, whispering new lines of attack into the paranoid and undisciplined senator’s ear. While much of this has been reported elsewhere, Tyrnauer highlights one curious wrinkle. Cohn’s homosexuality was already an open secret. But he made the mistake of pulling strings for David Schine, a handsome aide to McCarthy who many believed was Cohn’s boyfriend, after Schine was drafted. This caused a scandal when the news came to light, leading to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Clips show a tight-lipped Cohn facing homophobic innuendo from senators about his “friendship” with Schine as some in the crowd snort and giggle. Tyrnauer doesn’t use the moment for sympathy, but rather to acknowledge that, vile or not, Cohn had no choice but to stay in the closet.

After the debacle of those hearings, which also destroyed his boss, Cohn moved into private practice. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, he became something of an obnoxious Gatsby figure, linking high society and the underworld. He blew money on fancy cars, lurked at Studio 54, and reveled in the most garish brand of success possible. Eager to be seen with famous people, he threw the kind of parties where one could meet politicos on the make, gangsters on the town, Cardinal Spellman, Andy Warhol, Barbara Walters, Halston, Donald Trump, and any number of Nordic-looking young men Cohn was most certainly not sleeping with.

Tyrnauer never tries to cast Cohn as an antihero. The picture that forms is less of a person than a black hole. A brilliant and utterly unethical lawyer who usually won his cases but stole from his clients nonetheless, Cohn used the same scorched-earth tactics whether defending a member of the Gotti family accused of murder or Trump against charges of housing discrimination: Never surrender, never apologize, attack relentlessly, leak to the press, lie as loudly and frequently as possible, and when in doubt, wrap yourself in the flag. Fortunately, the film doesn’t care to spend much time showing how those strategies were adopted by Trump, who comes off here as a flabby reflection of Cohn, without the brains.

In an excerpt from a 1970s interview that Cohn gave to journalist Ken Auletta that Tyrnauer strings out through the film, Cohn tries to recast his petulance as nonconformity. This act of Cohn’s is much the same one used by his acolyte, fellow practitioner of political dark arts Roger Stone, who pops up briefly to wax nostalgic about old Roy. More often than not, though, Cohn’s attitude played as venom for its own sake. Discussing all the times Cohn was targeted for crimes (stock fraud, insurance fraud that included possible murder), Auletta laughs that Cohn “enjoyed” the indictments, “because it gave him a platform to attack.”

The documentary’s unequivocal vision of Cohn as a dead-eyed being of pure malice could come off like hyperbole. But really it isn’t too far from the self-hating hypocrite depicted on stage by Tony Kushner in Angels in America. Sometimes, fiction gets it right first.

Director: Matt Tyrnauer Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Waves Sweeps You Up in a Formidable Current of Formalist Tricks

This is a rare case of a film that’s stronger when it colors inside the lines than radically traces outside of them.

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Waves
Photo: A24

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s Waves begins in motion, with shots kinetically circling and tracking its young characters. Along with the film’s editing—which is timed throughout to endless music cues, be they pop songs or the muffled industrial moans and staggered beats of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score—Shults is quick to establish Tyler’s (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) bona fides as a dedicated student and wrestler. The filmmaker also highlights the luxury in which the teen lives, from his huge home to the brand new cars that his parents and their children drive. Tyler immediately comes across as a kid who has it all, including the love of an adoring girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Dernie).

Efficient as it is as an introduction to Tyler, the montage that opens the film also simplifies the young man—namely, to all the good things in his life. Defining a character by what he has makes it all too easy to create the sort of drama that exists to strip all of those things away, which Waves proceeds to do in such quick and overwhelming fashion that Tyler starts to resemble a modern-day Job. A horrible muscle tear in Tyler’s shoulder threatens his wrestling career—and, implicitly, his college scholarship opportunities—while a text from Alexis that she hasn’t gotten her period sets into motion a series of events that shifts the mood of the film away from the joyful, if antic, toward something almost horror-like in its chaos.

The vivid color timing of Drew Daniels’s cinematography, which bathes every single shot in the film’s first half in some unreal shade of red, purple, yellow, or blue, first imparts a cool chic, only to then conjure an aura of oppressiveness as Tyler loses control of his life. Waves’s connections of sight and sound are initially intriguing and, by design, suffocating, but they’re often conspicuously on point. For one, Shults is prone to communicating the totality of Tyler’s misery through a series of music cues that are obnoxiously timed to moments of violence, such as the beat of Kanye West’s “I Am a God” hitting when an enraged and confused Tyler shoves his overbearing but loving father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), to the ground.

Shults at times nurtures an understanding of Tyler’s downward-spiraling life outside of the unfortunate events that dog him across the film. Ronald, who exudes the hardness of a man who had to fight for what was his, tells Tyler that they have to work twice as hard as whites to succeed. Fertile ground is created here to recast the millennial, upper-middle-class Tyler’s trajectory as a spin on Bigger Thomas’s own in Native Son. In Richard Wright’s novel, a crucible of poverty and systemic racism propels a young black man living in Chicago’s South Side to atrocity, and in Waves, Shults sees how the pressure of maintaining the precariousness of black wealth, in a society that looks for any excuse to strip it away, is a recipe for disaster.

But the film at no other point remotely explores the idea that Tyler, or anyone else in his family besides Ronald, ever exhibits any anxiety over being black in America. By and large, the forces that push at Tyler are the stuff of run-of-the-mill teen drama, from the stress of not being able to play sports to fear of becoming a parent at a young age. The latter concern is the primary motivating factor of the film’s first half, and it’s unnerving to see how much of the story is driven by Tyler’s controlling rage over Alexis’s pro-life views, even as the woman herself is portrayed as stubbornly closed to any discussion on any serious topic.

The sheer aggressiveness of Waves’s first half gradually becomes an assault on the senses that communicates nothing deeper than the despairing nature of Tyler’s setbacks. But just as the film reaches a fever pitch of violent, stylishly rendered catharsis, it shifts perspective from Tyler to his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who’s coping with the aftermath of his behavior. And this pivot is signaled by an abrupt and significant aesthetic change, as the artifice, propulsiveness, and rage that mark the film’s first half abruptly give way to a more naturalistic color palette, with the aspect ratio that had gradually narrowed as the walls closed in around Tyler opening back out into widescreen, as if Waves were starting to catch its breath.

The muted telling of Emily’s story seems to belong to an almost entirely different film. Isolated from her classmates and coping with Tyler’s actions, Emily finds some direction out of her own sadness with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a classmate nursing his own family trauma who sheepishly asks on her a date and begins a relationship with her. Throughout this section of the film, Shults mirrors some of his introductory shots of Tyler and Alexis with ones of Emily and Luke that illustrate the differences between the young couples. An early shot that spun around the interior of Tyler’s truck showed him and Alexis in a state bliss but also acting out a series of extended poses, as if they were taking Instagram selfies even when not on their phones. Their flashy, demonstrative behavior contrasts sharply with a later shot that repeats the spinning motion inside a car, but this time documents the quiet solemnity that smothers Emily and Luke as they try to take comfort in each other’s presence.

One can argue that Shults’s throttling back of his formal ambitions in Waves’s second half, and the way Emily seems as if she’s walked off the set of a coming-of-age indie, is a miss. But his pushing of the film’s aesthetic needle past its previously gimmicky contours allows us to sit with his characters in ways that feel more than just reverential. The shift in tonality strengthens the story’s narrative core, giving the characters enough space to communicate their internal worlds instead of just react to an endless barrage of horrifying external stimuli. It also fills Waves with a touch of humanity, allowing it to quite literally transcend the exploitative, unilluminating phantasmagoria that comprises its first half. This is a rare case of a film that’s stronger when it colors inside the lines than radically traces outside of them.

Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie Director: Trey Edward Shults Screenwriter: Trey Edward Shults Distributor: A24 Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Martin Eden Is a Moody Portrait of a Writer’s Need for Individualism

Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement.

2.5

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Martin Eden
Photo: Kino Lorber

Charles Baudelaire, the great French poet and intellectual, wrote in his journals, “There is no form of rational and assured government save an aristocracy. A monarchy or a republic, based upon democracy, are equally absurd and feeble. The immense nausea of advertisements. There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create. The rest of mankind may be taxed and drudged, they are born for the stable, that is to say, to practise what they call professions.”

Baudelaire became more aristocratic as he accumulated success, his views increasingly reactionary. We like to think of writers and artists as great humanists, as empathetic and caring creatures who see the world in a somehow smarter, clearer way. This is, of course, an unfair expectation, and Baudelaire, for all his indelible work, was just as human as the next person, and eventually succumbed to a common affliction: individualism.

Baudelaire is the subject of a conversation in Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, an adaptation of Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel that relocates the action to Naples, in a nebulous time period. (The details—clothes, technology, manners of speech—change from scene to scene, making it impossible to ascertain when the film takes place.) A socialite named Ruth (Giustiniano Alpi), whose skin has the gentle luminescence of fresh snow, asks the handsome, uneducated sailor Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) if he’s ever read the poet, which, of course, he hasn’t. Baudelaire represents the allure of bourgeois life, which beckons to the working-class Neapolitan. He becomes smitten with the girl—and her lavish lifestyle—and decides to become a writer, like Baudelaire, and to write in Italian, even though he isn’t fluent in the language.

Martin, fueled by proletarian ire and the fervor of love, longs to earn the respect of the upper-class literary world so that he can marry the educated Ruth. From London’s novel:

“Here was intellectual life, he thought, and here was beauty, warm and wonderful as he had never dreamed it could be. He forgot himself and stared at her with hungry eyes. Here was something to live for, to win to, to fight for—ay, and die for. The books were true. There were such women in the world. She was one of them. She lent wings to his imagination, and great, luminous canvases spread themselves before him whereon loomed vague, gigantic figures of love and romance, and of heroic deeds for woman’s sake—for a pale woman, a flower of gold…”

Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marinelli and Marcello don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character’s transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that’s about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It’s an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-‘60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film’s themes.

Martin spends most of the film trying to transcend his meager origins. He sits at his typewriter, pecking away at the keyboard, composing love poems, aspiring for greatness. He reads, he writes, he sails, he broods. His prolonged toil and Sisyphean desperation wear him down, and he develops a disdain for the rich. And yet, as he becomes more educated, he also feels ostracized from his working-class friends. The ancient Greeks were able to create beautiful works of art and engender new philosophies because their slaves did the physical labor, Martin learns, and, in turn, he begins to liken socialism to a slavish system.

Martin’s individualism, which is dichotomous to London’s own unwaveringly leftist views (London intended Martin to be his foil, the novel a damning depiction of capitalism, and of the system that allowed him to become a well-off celebrity writer). London was 33 when he wrote Martin Eden, having already found tremendous success with The Call of the Wild and White Fang. He wrote the novel during a two-year trip through the South Pacific, on a ketch he designed himself, while afflicted with bowel disease. These despondent conditions inspired the cynicism that pervades Martin Eden. For London, the story of a writer who becomes self-obsessed and learns to despise everyone around him was a personal story, one culled from his own life and his own anxieties. Marcello’s film never seems as concerned with its character or his internal tumult. “Who are you, Martin Eden?” the sailor says while gazing at himself in the mirror. Like Martin Eden himself, it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.

Cast: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Denise Sardisco, Vincenzo Nemolato, Carmen Pommella, Carlo Cecchi Director: Pietro Marcello Screenwriter: Maurizio Braucci, Pietro Marcello Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 129 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers Is a Fun Parable of Great Recession Survival

The film is remarkable for capturing a brewing conflict between women while also celebrating their connection.

3

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Hustlers
Photo: STX Films

Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers immediately announces that it’s going to be as flashy as its fur-draped, jewel-bedecked protagonists, with an extended single take set to Janet Jackson’s “Control.” “This is a story about control,” Jackson tells us, as we follow Dorothy (Constance Wu), known professionally as Destiny, from a hectic strip-club dressing room out onto the stage, where, along with a line of other women, she’s presented to potential lap-dance recipients. The assertiveness of the film’s opening long take contrasts with Dorothy’s relative timidity at this point; as we’ll come to see, she hasn’t fully adapted to survival at Moves, the high-end but still very skeezy strip club where she works. Soon, both character and camera are stopped dead, transfixed by the act that follows the parade of lap-dancers: Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), veteran Moves stripper and the film’s true center.

Ramona performs a rousing pole dance to the unexpected—but, as it turns out, entirely fitting—“Criminal,” contorting her body around the steel beam in rhythm to a bass-heavy version of Fiona Apple’s elusively sexy bad-girl lament. It’s a scene destined to be the film’s most memorable, given how overdetermined the enjoyment of pole dancing is today as both erotic spectacle and athletic performance, and given the way the scene calls attention to the physical prowess of its superstar actor. One can’t help but watch it with a kind of dual consciousness: On the one hand, there’s Ramona, Dorothy’s idol and de facto sovereign of Moves, and on the other, there’s Lopez, a 50-year-old pop icon and sex symbol, whose agile defiance of preconceptions about age, beauty, and fitness is crafted to elicit vicarious thrills.

It makes sense, then, that we don’t see another spectacular pole-dance performance from Lopez again in the film, as from this point, despite its playful approach to narrative form, Hustlers would prefer that we see her only as her character—with the exception, perhaps, of a shot of her reclining in a fur coat and one-piece that unmistakably brings the “Jenny on the Block” video to mind. The seasoned exploiter of horny men takes Dorothy under her wing, teaching her how to pole dance (the viewer is left to ponder how Dorothy got a job at a Manhattan strip club without knowing even the basics of pole dancing), and educating the Queens native about strategies for earning maximum tips from Wall Street slimeballs.

It’s 2007 and the time is ripe for dancers who service the privileged bros trading unregulated derivatives, and with Ramona’s help, Dorothy finds herself able not only to pay back the debts of her beloved grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), but also appropriate some of the wealth-signifiers of the decadent 1% she serves, like a monstrous 2008 Escalade. Scafaria accentuates this accumulation of wealth and agency in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis with no shortage of musical montages and slow-motion shots of Dorothy and Ramona striding through the club. The film dwells in the sensorial excess of high-end stripping, but also in the camaraderie that blooms between Dorothy, Ramona, and the other women at the club (a supporting cast that includes Trace Lysette, Mette Towley, Lizzo, and Cardi B as, essentially, herself).

Dorothy’s voiceover is justified by a frame narrative, in which she recounts the tale of these heady times to a journalist, Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). The film relies on this framing device for act breaks and foreshadowing, as when Dorothy makes the ominous, if somewhat incongruous, pronouncement that “Ramona wasn’t in it to make friends, she just did, but she was always in control.” The structure of the frame narrative leads Hustlers into some unnecessarily convoluted formulations, as the plot fast-forwards through the recession and later catches up with Ramona’s activities between 2008 and 2011 in flashback—a flashback embedded within a flashback that feels like extraneous stylistic flair. It’s one of many sequences in which Ramona usurps the authorial voice in the film, as if the force of her personality had pushed Dorothy out of the way. Scarfaia is clearly more interested in the strength and charisma of Lopez’s ambitious, alluring dancer than in her neophyte main character.

It’s after the financial crash that the titular hustle begins, with Ramona recruiting Dorothy, now the mother of a toddler, and two fellow dancers, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), to help her drug men, cart them back to the club, and coerce them into handing over their credit cards. The cons that follow are presented with a vibrant sense of humor, relishing the way the women take advantage of the men’s oblivious horniness, their defenses lowered by the women’s nakedly performed obsequiousness. Recurring punchlines around Annabelle’s compulsive nervous vomiting and Mercedes’s ambivalence about her prison-bound boyfriend (“3-5 years is a serious commitment,” she says at one point) serve to lighten the mood around their commission of rather serious crimes.

Hustlers takes the intense bonds formed between the women in these unlikely circumstances as its driving theme. The film is remarkable for capturing a brewing conflict between women while also celebrating their connection, avoiding the trap of styling an argument between strippers as a petty catfight. This is true even if the dialogue sometimes falls back on repetitive proclamations about the group of nascent felons being a “family” or “real sisters,” and if the editing relies too much on pop-music montages that also grow repetitive (surprisingly, though, the soundtrack features more Chopin than it does comeback-era Britney). The film proves to be a fun parable of Great Recession survival, its barely submerged subtext being the communal strength of women of color, the population most affected by the crash.

Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Julia Stiles, Trace Lysette, Cardi B, Lizzo, Wai Ching Ho Director: Lorene Scafaria Screenwriter: Lorene Scafaria Distributor: STX Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Motherless Brooklyn Captures the Look but Not the Spark of Noir

The film revives many noir touchstones, but never the throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre.

1.5

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Motherless Brooklyn
Photo: Warner Bros.

Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by writer-director Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films.

Norton retains the central gimmick of Lethem’s book: a gumshoe protagonist with Tourette’s syndrome. Lionel Essrog (Norton) works as a private investigator for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who accepts his mentee’s issues and very much appreciates his photographic memory. On the page, Lionel’s condition makes thematic sense, as his clear, observational, intuitive internal monologue, a staple of detective fiction, contrasts sharply with his uncontrollable outbursts, which shatter the image of the laconic private-eye hero who sees much but tells little. It’s problematic no matter how you slice it, but one can at least see the logic.

On screen, however, the story’s reductive, stereotypical depiction of Lionel’s various conditions becomes impossible to ignore. Norton sees his character as a live wire, compounded out of explosive twitches and explosive outbursts. In voiceover, the actor speaks with a low, gruff voice befitting an old-school movie detective, but when speaking aloud he has a high, almost childlike tone, one that uncomfortably casts Lionel as some sort of innocent naïf, despite consistently being the smartest and shrewdest man in the room.

When Frank is killed in a clandestine meeting with unknown clients, a heartbroken Lionel resolves to find his friend’s killer. Lionel, introduced in on-the-nose fashion as he tugs on a thread from a soon-to-be-unraveled sweater, digs so deep into the mystery that he begins to uncover a vast, Chinatown-esque conspiracy involving New York’s corrupt city planner, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). A tyrannical bureaucrat with a Randian complex, Moses has concocted an elaborate trail of red tape to force poor, predominantly black residents out of the city to turn affordable housing into ritzy, modern blocks for the wealthy.

It’s here that the film’s altered time setting is most fascinating: By tackling gentrification in the ‘50s, Norton makes the argument that it isn’t a byproduct of late capitalism, but rather a core component in the history of city planning, a project that spans decades of careful molding of demographics and social hierarchies. But the racial angle of Lethem’s novel, more bracing for being set in the present, is mostly just period-appropriate window dressing in the film, not any more upsetting than any of the other openly racist policies of the era. What the material gains in a long-term view of social engineering it loses in specificity.

There are moments where Motherless Brooklyn succeeds as a loving homage to noir. The scenes where Lionel acts more like a determined, unflappable gumshoe—nicking a reporter’s press badge to pose as a journalist, piecing together disparate clues with reflex-fast deducing skills—hit all the right genre beats. And his relationship with Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a housing fairness activist who responds to Lionel’s kind soul, spark with chemistry that’s less sexual than affectionate. But even those moments in the film that could pass for something out of an actual noir find Norton riffing on the genre’s tropes rather than expanding on them.

Visually, Motherless Brooklyn is bathed in dirty smears of yellow light that mimic chiaroscuro technique, but Norton’s cutting patterns are distinctly modern-seeming, rife with seemingly endless shot-reverse shots that throw off the rhythm of the pulp dialogue by so obsessively cutting to each individual speaker. Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of the film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre.

Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Michael K. Williams, Leslie Mann Director: Edward Norton Screenwriter: Edward Norton Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 144 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come Exudes the Respect of a Guest in the World

Laxe’s film refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm.

3

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Fire Will Come
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape.

This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. The movements and intentions of the film’s camera, philosophy, and rhythms bear a lyrical kinship to Trás-os-Montes, a portrait of the eponymous region in the north of Portugal, not far from Galicia.

But filmmakers Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis juxtapose serene contemplation with unabashedly theatrical interventions in their landscape. Laxe, on the other hand, is largely happy to extract drama from the disarmingly un-posed ordinariness of his actors’ faces and sharp sounds of their environment. Raindrops hitting dry soil, toppling trees, the fog that turns the entire frame into an abstract canvas—all conspire toward a refusal to tell a story through something other than the meticulous observation of the world at hand. It’s a world teeming with dogs panting, cows mooing, roosters crowing, twigs breaking, chainsaws gashing trees. And, of course, fire burning almost as ardently as the many things that remain unsaid by characters too disillusioned to bother engaging with one another beyond the absolutely necessary daily tasks: eating, collecting milk from a cow’s udders, or attending a funeral.

Except when music plays, from Antonio Vivaldi to Leonard Cohen, at which point Laxe gets too close to stylizing an ecosystem that’s already polished enough, and forcing a dialogue that reticence articulates with much more refinement. A car scene where a veterinarian, Elena (Elena Fernandez), plays Cohen’s “Suzanne” to Amador, for instance, works as a coded declaration of love interest. Amador tells the woman he doesn’t understand the song’s lyrics. She’s clearly trying to get close to him and says he doesn’t need to understand a song in order to like it. Here, Fire Will Come loses its commitment to opacity and nuance, as Laxe juxtaposes Cohen’s song to images of the landscape and close-ups of a cow, distancing himself from art cinema’s froideur in favor of a kind of music-video sentimentality.

The film is much more in synchrony with the haziness of its imagery when it preserves the awkwardness between characters, the impossibility for anything other than life’s basic staples to be exchanged. In a scene where Amador is drinking beer alone in a pub, Elena approaches him as if to invite him to go somewhere, or to avow her feelings in some acceptable fashion. By then, we know Fire Will Come’s inhabitants to be too emotionally unavailable for any desire to find a way of manifesting itself. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that all that comes out of the veterinarian’s mouth is: “What I wanted to ask you is how your cow is doing.”

It’s a wonderful, and wonderfully pathetic, moment, because Laxe doesn’t try to craft a metaphor around it or translate the true intentions behind the characters’ inability to see emotion as something other than foreign luxury. He simply lets the ecosystem function, observing without clarifying. That is, accepting the filmmaker’s position ultimately as that of respectful guest in the world he has created and which has developed a life of its own.

Cast: Benedicta Sánchez, Amador Arias, Ivan Yañez, Inazio Abrao, Rubén Gómez Coelho, Elena Fernandez Director: Oliver Laxe Screenwriter: Santiago Fillol, Oliver Laxe Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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