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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: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody

Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.

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Duet for Cannibals
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”

Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.

The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.

Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.

His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.

Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.

Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969

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Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.

2.5

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.

For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.

Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.

If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.

The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.

Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment

Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.

In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.

In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.

Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.

More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.

Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land

All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.

Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.

The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).

Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.

Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.

One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.

In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era

In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.

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The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The LaundromatThe Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.

The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.

It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.

Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.

The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.

It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Creepshow

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Misery

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.

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Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve

There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

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Last Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.

Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.

The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.

Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.

Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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