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Review: Knight and Day

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Knight and Day
Photo: 20th Century Fox

By now, one expects contemporary films that purport to love ‘80s genre films to be contrived. So many of today’s studio-produced love letters to properties of that earlier time are misappropriated fan service, and hence knowingly purposeless. While Knight and Day isn’t a sequel, comic book movie, or adaptation, it does recall the bygone days when almost every generic TV show and movie was defined by the buddy system. In those wild and wooly days, it seemed like every cop, lawyer, private investigator, bounty hunter, and truck driver teamed up with someone that was his or her polar opposite. In Knight and Day, she’s a delicate, even precious, tomboy and he’s a deranged spy. That’s all the setup you need and all the setup you get.

Though buddy films are laughed at now as the epitome of an era of genre entertainment, Knight and Day announces its intentions to channel that same chintzy kind of opposites-attract and sparks-fly logic in is title, which sounds like a TV show that should be screening after Sapphire and Steel. Thankfully the film never mimics any other genre staples of the period that spawned that subgenre or any specific characters. While it’s refreshing to see screenwriter Patrick O’Neill and director James Mangold channel that spirit without trying to draw attention to their influences, neither man knows how to get the tone of their pastiche right. O’Neill and Mangold’s approach is hyper-mannered, never really cuts loose. They know what they want to say and it’s all on screen in some form or another, but the film’s set pieces, banter, chase scenes, and central power dynamic between its male and female leads are all so ill-conceived and flat that the film never really pulls itself together.

One of the biggest mysteries of Knight and Day is figuring out who exactly the film is primarily for, seeing as how O’Neill indecisively and mercilessly jerks the film’s focus between its dueling lead protagonists. Ditzy tomboy June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is our gateway to the frenetic, or, more accurately, busy world of secret agent Roy Miller (Tom Cruise). Miller projects the image of a suave face in the crowd, doing his best to flirt with her and keep her calm by acting as calmly as possible while he takes out a handful of ruthless government agents that he claims are not who they appear to be. Those agents have another story, of course: Agent Fitzgerald (Peter Saarsgard) tells Havens that Miller is mentally unbalanced and working for the other side. Then again, Miller warns Havens that that’s what they’ll tell her. Miller is after all a can-do, know-it-all badass. His man-of-action attitude theoretically makes him the person the film’s plot should orbit around. At the same time, Havens is still very much the fish out of water that guides us through Miller’s world. She’s alternately confused by the discrepancy between his violent actions and his implacable facade of sweet words and toothy smiles. I’m sure that’s what Oprah thought too, right before Cruise stormed her couch.

That push-and-pull dynamic created by the plot’s alternation between Havens’s inability to either feel comfortable empathizing or being seduced by Miller, and Miller’s own habit of killing faceless grunts and driving around in luxury cars (sometimes he does both at once!), makes the film feel like a weird cross between French Kiss (especially thanks to its cheesy, accordion-heavy score) and Ronin, creating a Frankensteinian film out of ill-fitting used parts. Clearly O’Neill and Mangold are trying to give viewers what producers would undoubtedly like to sell as “something for everybody,” but there’s no consistency to the thing and no chemistry whatsoever between Cruise and Diaz, making the alternating tug-of-war between girly and manly elements of the film seem extraordinarily forced.

Granted, Mangold handles Miller’s macho world a lot better than he does the one ruled by Havens’s fears and neuroses (while she powders her face in an airplane bathroom, she frets so much about catching Miller’s eye that she doesn’t even hear him violently beating up a cabal of baddies in the film’s worst, most Greengrass-esque action sequence). Still, that’s not saying much considering that most of the action and chase sequences in the film look like they were aped from video games like SpyHunter. In fact, O’Neill has Havens make a joke when she breathlessly tries to explain to Rodney (Marc Blucas), her ex and a small-town boy next door, that her life since meeting Miller has turned into something out of Grand Theft Auto. It’s spy action and violence straight out of the most garish and unremarkable playbooks and yet, because Mangold wants to give the film a respectable facade, abusing his usual tendency to shoot conversations entirely in close-ups using grainy but high-end digital photography, everything surrounding those scenes suggest that you’re about to get something sleek and stylish. In other words, something he just can’t deliver, especially considering that some of the actions so clearly want to look like car chases from a John Frankenheimer film by way of the last two Die Hard movies, but once again, the clash of those two styles doesn’t produce anything more than an indecisive series of misfired generic cues.

More importantly, O’Neill and Mangold don’t know how to make a smart and approachable romantic subplot, probably because they have no idea who Evans should be from one scene to the next. One moment she’s a small-town girl that knows how to take a car apart and can defend herself in a fist fight and the next moment she’s a needy ditz clinging to her white knight’s arm. When given a truth serum by one of Miller’s enemies, she inappropriately blurts out that she wants to have sex with him while the pair is still under fire from more faceless goons that have contracted Storm Trooper Syndrome. At one point she tells Miller that he brings out a more self-reliant, tough side to her otherwise indecisive demeanor, but again, she says this right before giggling about wanting sex during a gunfight after having been injected with truth serum. This could be a clever way for Mangold to make a strong female protagonist out of Havens, who appears to be a stereotypical flighty blonde from the start, but if that were true, she wouldn’t need Miller to emasculate her.

To top it all off, she has a nasty habit of being drugged by Miller, among other people. Over the course of the film, she’s drugged three times and knocked out three times. This would almost be cute if Mangold didn’t include a severe scene shot from Evans’s POV one of the handful of times she’s under the influence. It’s one the most evocative scenes in the movie and yet it’s also hilariously inappropriate in how serious it is about making various locations blend together as a result of some highly effective date rape drug. Nothing says romance quite like blackouts and blurred vision—right, ladies? The tables are apparently turned by the end when Evans drugs Miller, so no hard feelings, I guess. Still, in what universe are roofies a valid substitute for foreplay?

There are hints throughout the film that O’Neill and Mangold understand and even really want to temper the flamboyance of the two dueling plot threads. But honestly, that doesn’t really matter in a film that vacillates between a dumb (but tough!) blonde and a fittingly charming but sleazy guy’s guy as poorly as this one does. The filmmakers appear to have gotten so caught up in figuring out how to treat the film’s frequent druggings seriously or how to more realistically zoom in on Cruise’s pearly whites that they forgot to address the film’s more pressing problems. If only that weren’t par for the course.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Jordi Mollà, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Falk Hentschel, Marc Blucas, Lennie Loftin, Maggie Grace Director: James Mangold Screenwriter: Patrick O'Neill Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 110 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2010 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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