With the arrival of the 20th anniversary, 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, what I’d like to convince you of is that the film watered down, significantly, the soul of the novel from which it was based (and we’re talking about a Michael Crichton page-turner for Christ’s sake). Instead of being the kind of decadent, lost-in-the-jungle, labyrinthine cinematic fever dream it could’ve been—one in which the production of the film would’ve eerily re-enacted and factually re-performed the hallucinatory chaos of what it was trying to fictionally record (a la Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and their respective making-of docs, Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams), Spielberg’s Jurassic Park instead played it safe, and did so in a way that was slick, corporate, and patronizing to its audience. And one of the ways it punted artistically was to almost entirely purge from Crichton’s novel its heavy theorizing about chaos theory and fractals, which, in those days (the late ‘80s/early ‘90s), had just made its way into the intellectual mainstream. I’d like to briefly make the point that this was a grievous mistake (for the movie), because chaos theory and fractals have everything to do with scary movies, and horror and terror and the kind of man-eating monstrosities Spielberg and his team put so much goddamned time and money into making look realistic.
Jurassic Park, the novel, published in 1990, was a work of cautionary sci-fi horror, in the spirit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. The billionaire genius John Hammond, who’s responsible for the idea of a freak show amusement park stocked with genetically modified dinosaurs, is himself rapacious and reptilian and says things like, “Personally, I would never help mankind.” Given that the novel is a cautionary tale with a moral to tell, and that moral is that there’s a price to pay for meddling with nature and for placing profit and knowledge and experimentation on a higher shelf of priorities than humble human well-being, things end badly for Mr. Hammond. He gets his comeuppance in the fourth-to-last chapter, via a pack of pygmy-sized Procompsognathus dinosaurs that tackle him to the ground and eat him alive.
But in the movie version, the malevolent CEO version of Hammond has been made over into a lovable-but-misguided grandfather figure (played by Richard Attenborough and the gap in his teeth), who hobbles unharmed at movie’s end into a shiny corporate helicopter, and seems almost pathologically impervious to both the spiritual guilt and the legal liability he’ll soon be facing, given the multiple grisly fatalities that have just occurred at his experimental Caribbean theme park.
In Crichton’s novel, the intellectual foil to the greedy Mr. Hammond is the Ian Malcolm character, played in the movie by Jeff Goldblum in an all-black, latter-day Hamlet-type getup. Malcolm is a rogue mathematician who works “almost exclusively with nonlinear equations, in the emerging field called chaos theory.” Chaos theory was getting popular as Crichton worked on the novel. Chaos: A New Kind of Science by James Gleick came out in 1987, and Mathematics and the Unexpected by Ivar Ekeland came out in translation in 1990. Crichton lists both those authors in his “Acknowledgements” section at the end of Jurassic Park, and Goldblum talked to both of them in preparing for his part as Malcolm.
It’s from chaos theory that the fractal images that decorate the start of each section in the novel, like so, are derived:
All these “Iterations” are the phases of what’s known as a Dragon Curve, which is a fractal that’s created by taking a line and then applying a couple of simple transformations to it, then doing that over and over again until a really complicated structure emerges—one that’s more than the sum of its parts and that couldn’t have been predicted, given the straightforward instructions necessary to draw the thing.
In the novel, the Dragon Curve is a metaphor for Hammond’s futile wishes to keep his dinosaurs well-behaved and locked-up in their pens, and to not be reproducing or leaving the island. This is what, in the movie, Goldblum’s Malcolm was trying to explain to Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler with the whole drop-of-water-running-down-your-hand-in-different-directions thing. However, in that little slice of dialogue, chaos theory is reduced to about nothing more than the idea that, well, shit’s unpredictable. In the novel things are deeper than that, and here’s what Malcolm says to Dr. Grant in the book’s version of the same riding-relaxedly-in-the-SUV-before-the-shit-hits-the-fan scene:
“But we have soothed ourselves into imagining sudden change as something that happens outside the normal order of things. An accident, like a car crash. Or beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We do not conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as built into the very fabric of existence. Yet it is. And chaos theory teaches us…that straight linearity, which we have come to take for granted in everything from physics to fiction, simply does not exist. Linearity is an artificial way of viewing the world. Real life isn’t a series of interconnected events occurring one after another like beads strung on a necklace. Life is actually a series of encounters in which one event may change those that follow in a wholly unpredictable, even devastating way.
Of course, it was a also an example of punting artistically for Crichton to have one of his characters bash and criticize linearity in fiction, and bash and criticize the illusion that events can follow one another like beads on a string, when Malcolm himself is just a bead on a fictional string as linear as anything out of Euclid. Regardless, for the movie to have been so dismissive and uninterested in chaos theory and fractals was a lost opportunity to do something thematically graceful and interesting. (Crichton said in aninterview with Cinefantastique in 1993 that, “A movie like Jurassic Park is not the format to have extended discussions on the scientific paradigm.” He was paid $500,000 to collaborate on the screenplay and, one presumes, to allow the teeth to be pulled from the ideas of his novel.) And by “thematically graceful” I’m talking about trying to link up the ideas of chaos theory and fractals with the tradition of the monster movie/horror film.
What the novelized Malcolm said above about “sudden, radical, irrational change”—couldn’t that be a way to describe what a monster is? A monster is change you can believe in. A monster is that thing which violently disrupts your everyday harmony and contentedness, and which pulls you (or your girlfriends, boyfriends, siblings, pets, parents, neighbors, etc.) over the threshold and onto the Other Side (death, nothingness, the infinite, the eternal, the void, etc.). It’s what causes you or your loved ones to disappear, disintegrate, and turn into dust and die. Isn’t that what’s going on with the shark in Jaws or the crows in The Birds or the aliens in Aliens or the spiders in Arachnophobia? Or the oversized, upright reptile in Godzilla? Or Anton Chigurh or Hannibal Lecter or Freddy Kreuger or Michael Myers? Or good old Count Orlok in Nosferatu or Bob in Twin Peaks or Pennywise in It? With the proto-monster being, perhaps, the Grim Reaper, who takes, pulls, steals, or reaps you from the world of life and into the world of death and eternity?
The point I’m trying to make here is that monstrosity, terror, and horror all correspond in some way to chaos in both its old-fashioned, traditional sense (craziness, darkness, destruction, upheaval, and the sundering, merging, and losing of identities), and with chaos in its scientific sense, as developed in physics and math departments from the 1960s onward, and as expounded upon by Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. And I think you can actually see this connection in, for instance, the ukiyo-e print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” that chaos theory/fractal geometry pioneer Benoit Mandelbrot discussed in his recent memoir The Fractalist:
Doesn’t the wave (monstrous, horrifying, destructive) and that curling, branching white foam that’s about to crash down on and probably kill those poor fishermen look an awful lot like the Dragon Curve from the Jurassic Park novel in its Seventh Iteration?
And what is this shape? It’s a spiral, isn’t it? And hasn’t it shown up in some other movies? Especially some movies that we might, for lack of imagination, classify as “psychological thrillers,” but yet don’t contain any ugly, seething, aggressive monsters at which we can easily point our fingers? What about in, say, the opening credits of Vertigo?
Or what about in Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, Pi?
Of course, in Pi, the spiral is discussed in terms of the Fibonacci sequence, and not as a fractal or as a visualization of a chaotic system. But, for my money, it’s all related. And why might this be? Why does this swirling and looping fractal structure have a lot to do with scary movies? Well here’s something David Foster Wallace wrote about Blue Velvet, and about how, in David Lynch’s movies, the chaos and the wickedness sort of flow through their worlds in a way that’s ambiguous and disturbing:
“Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts. It pervades. Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ’lurking below’ or ’lying in wait’ or ’hovering on the horizon.’ Evil is here, right now. And so are Light, love, and redemption (since these phenomena are also, in Lynch’s work, forces and spirits). In fact, in a Lynchian moral scheme it doesn’t make much sense to talk about either Darkness or about Light in isolation from its opposite. It’s not just that evil is ’implied by’ good or Darkness by Light or whatever, but that the evil stuff is contained within the good stuff—encoded in it. You could call this idea of evil Gnostic, or Taoist, or even neo-Hegelian, but it’s also Lynchian, because what Lynch’s movies are all about is creating a narrative space where this idea can be worked out in its fullest detail and to its most uncomfortable consequences.”
Doesn’t Wallace’s line about the “evil stuff” being “contained within the good stuff—encoded in it” sound like what Malcolm, in the Jurassic Park novel, is quoted as saying to Dr. Grant during their SUV ride, about chaos being “built into the very fabric of existence”?
Here’s Wallace again:
“If a movie is structured in such a way that the distinction between surface/Light/good and secret/Dark/evil is messed with—in other words, not a structure whereby Dark Secrets are winched ex machina up to the Lit Surface to be purified by my judgment, but rather a structure in which Respectable Surfaces and Seamy Undersides are mingled, integrated, literally mixed up—I am going to be made acutely uncomfortable. And in response to my discomfort I’m going to do one of two things: I’m either going to find a way to punish the movie for making me uncomfortable, or I’m going to find a way to interpret the movie that eliminates as much of the discomfort as possible. From my survey of published work on Lynch’s films, I can assure you that just about every established professional reviewer and critic has chosen one or the other of these responses.”
So, notice how Wallace says that, in Lynch’s movies, Good and Evil are “mingled, integrated, literally mixed up.” Now here’s a quote from Benoit Mandelbroit’s The Fractalist about how he came up with the word “fractal”:
“When my soon-to-come-out book was still tentatively titled, in French, Concrete Objects of Fractional Dimension, the publisher, Flammarion, was horrified and asked for something better. Friends concurred. ’You have written about a brand-new idea. You are entitled—in fact, obliged—to give it any name you want. Make it snappy.’ I could have given a new meaning to some already overloaded old word (think ’catastrophe’ or ’chaos’). But I chose to coin a new word—one not directly evocative of anything in the past. I wanted to convey the idea of a broken stone, something irregular and fragmented. Studying Latin as a youngster taught me that it is a very concrete language. My son Laurent’s Latin dictionary confirmed that the adjective ’fractus’ means ’broken’ or ’shattered.’ From this adjective, I thought of the word ’fractal.’”
If a fractal is a model for a system that’s unsteady and rough and on the verge of collapse, if a fractal is, geometrically, between dimensions (trust me on this), then maybe what makes a scary movie scary is that it shows people whose lives/psyches are on the verge of collapse—whose lives are being pulled down into a vicious cycle (a spiral), at the bottom of which they’ll be crushed/swallowed/flushed into the abyss, for either external reasons (hungry large animals, colonizing armies, inclement weather, etc.), internal ones (unfulfilled sexual perversions, unrelenting mathematical genius, drug addiction, etc.), or some combination of both. And a really scary movie—like, in my mind, Mulholland Drive, Requiem for a Dream, or Children of Men—is one that finds a way to show how day-to-day reality, everywhere, all the time, is on this same existential edge, and has that principle of chaos, evil, predation, and perversion swirling through it fractally, at all scales, in all moments, be them banal or dramatic. It’s inside you and everybody you care about, and it’s only because of a very thick veil of illusions that we pretend otherwise.
Jurassic Park, of course, as a scary/monster/horror movie, is about as tame as it gets. There are some screams. There are some creepy and hungry monsters. But it’s a slick corporate product. It’s not meant to disturb you or to make you doubt yourself. It’s meant to reassure you and to encourage further participation in the linear, orderly, steady and civilizing process, via your consumption of the movie and its elaborate associated apparel, and via the fancy technological progress that made the movie’s special effects possible.
Both the novel and the film pay lip service to chaos theory, but neither of them had the artistic sac to let that spiraling, recursive, jagged structure of the fractal dictate the flow of the plot or the division within it between good and bad. You only have to watch the incredibly lame and tame “The Making of Jurassic Park” (hosted, oddly, by James Earl Jones), or read EW’s equally lame and tame “Welcome to ‘Jurassic Park’: An Oral History” to see that the creation of this movie was an act of financial calculation and myopic computerized obsessiveness, with a bit of “dinosaurs are cool!” boyish curiosity sprinkled on top. And you only have to compare those testimonials to what Francis Ford Coppola says at the beginning of Hearts of Darkness to know what it’d be like to make a movie in which the line between fiction and reality was as fucked-up as a fractal, i.e. to make a movie on the edge, which is the only place, for my money, from where good movies come:
“My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money. Too much equipment. And little by little we went insane.”
Review: Body at Brighton Rock Is a Horror Film in Desperate Need of Thrills
Appearing to recognize the flimsiness of her material, Roxanne Benjamin overcompensates with insistent direction.1.5
Roxanne Benjamin’s Body at Brighton Rock briefly exudes a daffy comic pulse as it traces a park ranger, Wendy (Karina Fontes), showing up late to a meeting. Wendy’s boss and co-workers lecture her for being locked up in her own head, but it’s to seemingly little avail. Fontes plays the moment with likeable aplomb, and Benjamin succinctly establishes the social dynamics of the park office, though these scenes turn out to be a form of misdirection. Seeking to prove herself, Wendy accepts an assignment out in the woods surrounding the fictional Brighton Rock peak, against her co-workers’ protests. At this point, Benjamin’s film leaves the office and supporting characters behind, becoming a two-hander between its protagonist and a theoretically fearsome setting.
Compared to the setting of The Blair Witch Project, or even of a comparatively polished film like Backwoods, the forest of Body at Brighton Rock feels tamed. In fairness, this is partially the point: Wendy is a ranger lost in a park after all, and Benjamin clearly wants us to feel the danger of a place that’s touristy on the surface yet is still ultimately wild and chaotic. Benjamin also sets most of Body at Brighton Rock in the bright sunlight, deliberately playing against horror-movie clichés of dark and spooky woods at night. That ambition is both admirable and regrettable, as a film this conceptually thin can use all the gimmickry it can get.
Most narratives about people out in the wild pivot on a macho idea of pampered individuals learning to conquer their weaknesses and connect with their primordial nature. Benjamin mostly resists this conceit, recognizing its hoariness, but doesn’t replace it with anything, leaving a hollowness at her film’s center. Wendy doesn’t have to come of age, but there should be some sense of her emotional progression as she finds a dead body, spends a night in the woods, and hallucinates a variety of repetitive scares. Instead, Wendy is simply presented as an avatar for the audience, and so the plot becomes a collection of stuff happening to her.
Though clocking in at a lean 87 minutes, Body at Brighton Rock feels padded out. Appearing to recognize the flimsiness of her material, Benjamin overcompensates with insistent direction. For instance, Wendy’s climb up a rock wall is goosed with quick cuts when a sustained shot of her against the rock would’ve been more frightening. And the score is always attempting to will nonexistent tension into being, conjuring a frenzy that simply isn’t on the screen.
One scene does linger in the memory. When Wendy encounters a bear, Benjamin underscores both the woman’s fear and the graceful poignancy of the hungry animal. This moment lacks the show-off gruesomeness of the bear attack in The Revenant and is all the better for it. Benjamin imbues her set piece with docudramatic immediacy, which lends authenticity to the film’s one insane flourish: Wendy turning a can of bear spray into a blowtorch in an act of self-defense. The largely buttoned-down Body at Brighton Rock could use more moments like that.
Cast: Karina Fontes, Casey Adams, Emily Althaus, Miranda Bailey, Matt Peters, John Getz Director: Roxanne Benjamin Screenwriter: Roxanne Benjamin Distributor: Magnet Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The White Crow Sees Art As Being Above and Beyond Politics
Ralph Fiennes’s film too conspicuously avoids an overt political perspective.2
Director Ralph Fiennes’s The White Crow, which tells the true story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s 1961 defection to France, opens in a small office in Leningrad, where ballet instructor Aleksander Ivanovich Pushkin (Fiennes, speaking lightly accented Russian) is assuring a security-apparatus bureaucrat that Nureyev’s defection isn’t political. “It’s about dance,” the soft-spoken Pushkin says. “He knows nothing about politics.”
We might consider that a manifesto for The White Crow itself, because throughout the film, the West, as embodied by thriving, early-‘60s Paris, is identified “apolitically” with individual freedom and artistic expression. Pushkin’s interview with the nameless bureaucrat serves as a framing device, within which the film cuts between three different timelines in Nureyev’s (Oleg Ivenko) life, culminating in his decision, under duress from the KGB, to defect to France.
The first of these timelines concerns Nureyev’s bleak childhood in Siberia. Famously, the dancer was born on a train, a scene that the film articulates in shorthand, with color-drained, blue-gray footage it will use for all its scenes set in war-torn Russia. Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare construct a correlation between Nureyev’s natal mobility and his adult need to go places, cutting from the train to the Mariinsky Ballet Company’s flight to Paris in 1961. In Paris, the arrogant Nureyev carelessly pushes the boundaries set by the company’s KGB chaperones, leaving the hotel before dawn to spend the morning in the Louvre, and staying out all night at gay clubs and cabarets with Westerners.
On the Paris social scene, he befriends Clara Saint (Adéle Exarchopoulos), a beautiful socialite whose main attraction for Nureyev appears to be that she’s recently bereaved (her fiancé recently died in a car accident). It’s here the film articulates one of its major themes, and one of Nureyev’s fascinations: the creation of beauty from ugliness. In the Louvre every morning, Nureyev contemplates Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, a Romantic depiction of death and suffering. So too, does Nureyev’s expressive dancing—traditionally feminine in its naked passion, according to him—turn the ugliness of his childhood into something beautiful.
Ultimately, the film suggests, the fiercely individualist Nureyev will defect because the West makes this transmutation of pain into beauty—that is, the expressive freedom of the individual artist—possible. It’s an historical argument that has basis in fact but which is troublesome here in its thoroughgoing de-politicization of art in the West. Unlike Paweł Pawlikowski’s masterful Cold War, which problematizes cultural authenticity in both communist Poland and ‘50s Paris, The White Crow presents Paris as the gateway to a realm of pure, unmediated self-expression. In reproducing the romantic cliché of the artist as tortured genius, this biopic is certainly not alone nor even the worst sinner, but its representation of art as a realm above and beyond politics is too idealized. It functions to make the West seem an aesthete’s utopia, even as the film appears to avoid an overt political perspective.
The film’s third timeline begins six years prior to the trip to Paris, with Nureyev’s arrival at the Mariinsky school in Leningrad. There, Nureyev insists on taking classes from Pushkin rather than from his assigned teacher, and he and Pushkin develop a personal friendship. The friendship is complicated by Nureyev’s barely concealed affair with Pushkin’s wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), and made all the more awkward by the young man’s clear sexual preference for men (it’s also implied that Pushkin himself is a closeted gay man).
Fiennes’s Pushkin ends up feeling one-note, always wearing the same tender expression, with affected gestures one suspects are meant to denote the grace of a former ballet dancer but seem all the time like the strategic choices of an actor acting. Ivenko, by contrast, disappears into his role, lending a depth to his ambitious and irascible character that makes the man sympathetic even as he thoughtlessly insults Clara and betrays Pushkin.
Despite Ivenko’s convincing performance, The White Crow is weighed down by its multifold flashback structure, particularly the monochromatic vignettes from the dancer’s childhood. While these flashbacks provide a psychological rationale for Nureyev’s incorrigible individualism and barely suppressed inner conflict, the digital color draining of these scenes increasingly feels like a cheap way of connoting the dire conditions of postwar Russia. Rather than merely oppressive, these flashbacks start to feel redundant, a quality one might attribute to the film’s overly elaborate narrative structure as a whole.
Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphaël Personnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin, Calypso Valois, Louis Hoffman, Olivier Rabourdin Director: Ralph Fiennes Screenwriter: David Hare Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 127 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: J.T. LeRoy Is a Scarcely Subjective Telling of Great Literary Hoax
It’s disappointing that so much of the film feels like mere tilling of the soil.2
J.T. LeRoy was known as the author of three books across the late 1990s and early aughts. A reclusive, HIV-positive trans man, LeRoy was hailed as a wunderkind upon the publication of Sarah, which the San Francisco Chronicle boldly called “comically Dickensian.” In actuality, LeRoy never existed, as he was a persona, or avatar, willed to vivid life by writer Laura Albert as a means of saying what she felt she couldn’t say as herself.
As co-writer and director Justin Kelly’s film J.T. LeRoy begins, demand for LeRoy is at a fever pitch, perhaps even at a breaking point, as Albert (Laura Dern) is seen desperately recruiting her younger sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), to play the part of this persona in public, with Albert assuming the role of LeRoy’s overbearing handler, “Speedie.” It’s a spectacular ruse that the pair managed to sustain for six years.
It’s hard to not look at such a weird set of circumstances and see its resultant mold-breaking controversy as foreshadowing, perhaps even enabling our present-day social-media moment and obsession with identity politics. As an examination of the power of celebrity and the easily muddled nature of truth, the film seems to implicitly understand that the creation and eventual exposure of the LeRoy hoax speaks to something deep in the heart of a culture in the midst of an identity crisis, but based on what’s on screen, it’s hard to say exactly what that is.
Highly aware of its own meta-textual richness, the film, adapted by Kelly and Knoop herself from her memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, is at its most interesting when it feels like its inhabiting rather than telling LeRoy’s story. When Speedy and LeRoy engage with fans and press in a haphazard fashion, there’s suspense in the spectacle of every question and answer that’s exchanged—that a grand ruse will be exposed at any moment.
Dern and Stewart convince us that such a stunt could be pulled off not so much in spite of but thanks to its utter absurdity, and among many standout details in the film is a moment when Speedy and LeRoy greet a collaborator (Courtney Love, one of many real-life celebrities who were enmeshed in the real-life saga) with a gift bag consisting of mini-onions, baked beans, and a neck pillow. Such details feel too strange to not be true, and they lend a sublime authenticity to the climactic images of Stewart, as LeRoy by way of Knoop, at the Cannes Film Festival—a cinematic black hole of sorts, with the spectators at the event horizon.
It’s disappointing, then, that so much of J.T. LeRoy feels like mere tilling of the soil. Cursive on-screen text and a ponderous, recurring voiceover lend the film the quality of a notebook doodle. Worse, though, are Kelly’s flat compositions and the script’s impersonal adherence to the beats of biopic storytelling. Aesthetically and narratively, the film lacks the fire—the slippery subjectivity—that we associate with the explosiveness of the J.T. LeRoy saga.
Though successful in presenting how something so outlandish could happen with such apparent ease, J.T. LeRoy fails to sufficiently probe the deeply personal needs of both authors and consumers that drive creation. Dern and Stewart do such a fine job of telling us how it feels to be someone else that you wish for the filmmaking to meet them at their level.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jim Sturgess, Courtney Love, Diane Kruger Director: Justin Kelly Screenwriter: Justin Kelly, Savannah Knoop Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Content Group Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, Starring Will Smith, Gets Official Trailer
Ang Lee’s three-year marriage to the 120fps format appears to be in strong shape.
Ang Lee’s last film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was praised on these pages for astoundingly animating the mind of its young soldier. The film, shot in 3D at a resolution of 4K, was supposed to be some kind of game-changer. But its 120fps format, which is almost three times the 48fps that Peter Jackson used for The Hobbit, annoyed just about everyone for resembling a soap opera or football game.
Nonetheless, Lee’s has remained committed to the format. His latest film, Gemini Man, tells the story of an aging assassin (played by Will Smith) who’s being chased by a younger clone of himself. Admittedly, the hyper-real textures of the film look more convincing than those of either Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk or The Hobbit. But you can make your own assessment from the two-minute trailer that Paramount Pictures released today:
Paramount Pictures will release Gemini Man on October 11.
Review: Avengers: Endgame Is, Above All Else, a Triumph of Corporate Synergy
Every serious narrative beat in the film is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling, or by faux-improvised humor.1.5
“Let’s get that son of a bitch,” says Captain America (Chris Evans) near the beginning of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, the supposed big-screen finale to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we now know it. Cap, that sacred symbol of American might, is of course profaning Thanos (Josh Brolin), the purple colossus whose hand of fate, bedecked with the six Infinity Stones, erased half the world’s population during the cliffhanger climax of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. The victims included many among the superheroic, several of whom have movies on the docket. So there’s no way the remaining commodities—I mean, Avengers—are going to go down without a fight.
It’ll take a while to get to the final showdown, of course. About two hours and 45 minutes of the three-hour running time, to be exact, all of it filled to bursting with goofy one-liners, aching stares into the middle distance, and lots and lots of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey digressions. Almost all of the Avengers’s founding team members are on hand, with a considerably more grizzled and cynical Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) providing most of the pathos. Also in attendance are Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) and Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson), the latter of whose won’t-take-no-guff brashness is especially endearing to a certain gruff, hammer-wielding Asgardian.
I’d tell you more about the film, but then I’d have to kill myself at the spoiler-averse Marvel Studios’s behest. Even noting certain elements out of context—like, say, “Nerd Hulk” or “Lebowski Thor”—might be considered too revealing by the powers that be. So, let’s dance around the narrative architecture and instead ruminate on whether this 22nd entry in the MCU serves as a satisfying culmination of all that’s preceded it.
That’s a firm no, though the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely certainly lean hard into the dewy-eyed, apocalyptic sturm und drang. You’d think they were putting the finishing touches on the Bible. There are allusions to The Leftovers, J.G. Ballard’s The Terminal Beach, and Picasso’s Guernica, though there’s never a sense, as in those works, that society is truly in irrevocable decay. It’s all good, even when it isn’t: Death is a mostly reversible ploy, and sacrifice is a self-centered concept, a burnish to the ego above all else. It’s telling that, in one scene, Captain America stops to admire his own ass.
There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Frank Grillo, Winston Duke Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 181 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More
In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.
Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.
See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.
Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:
Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)
Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)
Yves (Benoît Forgeard)
Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)
Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)
Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)
Third Annual ACID Trip
Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)
Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise
The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.3.5
The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.
Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.
Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.
This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.
Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.
These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.
Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture
Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.4
Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.
Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.
One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.
Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”
Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.
Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.
These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.
Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992
Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow
Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.2.5
Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.
In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.
Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.
Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.
Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.
In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.
Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography
The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.2
More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.
Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.
If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.
Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.
At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.
Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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