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Review: Milk

3.0

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Milk

We can speculate all we want about the caginess of Milk‘s promotional campaign, whether the film’s clear-headed sense of protest could have been used to fight Proposition 8 in California had Gus Van Sant’s biopic about Harvey Milk been released, say, a month or two earlier, but Milk himself wouldn’t have wanted us to dwell on what could have been. Instead, he would have urged us to focus on what lies before us, and if Van Sant’s film gets anything right, it’s the manner in which it acknowledges and celebrates the slain activist’s social, spiritual foresight, his fierce desire for change and refusal to be dogged by defeat, his understanding that his day in the sun would eventually come.

How great it must have been for queers in San Francisco’s Castro district to know and hang with Milk when he first set up shop in the bourgeoning gayborhood, opening a camera store with his boyfriend Scott Smith. Milk reveres that beginning, but if Van Sant’s film doesn’t exactly mark an artistic leap forward for the director, it doesn’t have to: If Gerry, Elephant and Last Days were all ruminations on death, Milk is a celebration of life. Still, the film is full of lush flourishes that strikingly articulate the sense of freedom that was in the air in San Francisco back in the 1970s, as in a shot of the camera pulling back and up into that air—call it a rising—to reveal Milk (Sean Penn) and Smith (James Franco) smooching in front of their store, celebrating their lack of shame, making one feel how this place was the beginning of a significant new chapter in the modern gay rights movement.

Van Sant also gives expression to the fear that gripped gays living in the Castro back in the day, curiously shooting an exchange between Milk and a police officer over the body of a murdered gay man entirely through the reflection cast by a discarded whistle, which gays used to alert each other of potential bashers in their midst. The shot is jarring given the otherwise unaffected tenor of the film, but Van Sant does interesting things with reflections throughout, as in a scene of Milk’s fellow assemblyman, Dan White (Josh Brolin), staring at a television that reflects not only the image of Milk beaming about the passage of one of his propositions but also White’s own visage. White, who would subsequently murder Milk and San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garger), may be insufficiently characterized, but this image creepily, poetically, succinctly conveys the struggle of people like White to see themselves on the same plane as gays.

Mercifully, Milk is closer in artistic temperament to Bill Condon’s undervalued Kinsey than it is to, say, Ray and Walk the Line. No histrionic, color-saturated flashbacks to reveal who Milk was before he came to San Francisco, who or what he may have been afraid of or running from—the type of visual clutter that’s typically contemptuous of audiences and would have been unnecessary here given the complex window Penn’s great performance opens into Milk’s emotional and psychological character and convictions. If you must, call it a stellar impersonation—fans of Rob Epstein’s great The Times of Harvey Milk no doubt will—but don’t liken it to the more technical thesping of, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. This is a less finicky performance, and through quick, haunted allusions to Milk’s past, like a reference to his never having had a boyfriend who didn’t want to kill himself, Penn helps us to understand something very essential about this great activist: his will to create a world without closets.

Clearly Van Sant struggled to deliver something as conventional as he has, but if his visual digressions aren’t exactly subversive, they affect a feeling of angst that’s very much in sync with the time period depicted in the film. Beyond Milk, the characters barely qualify as real people—his boyfriends, for one, are unimaginatively portrayed as “wives” frustrated by Milk’s commitment to his political career (the less said about Diego Luna’s embarrassing, miscalculated performance the better)—but Van Sant reveals different facets of the gay community through his quick depictions of Milk’s foot soldiers. If these portraitures are flat, you could argue these men (and one woman) represent placards: one, Emile Hirsch’s Cleve Jones, a representation of the queer who wishes to benefit from the political process without contributing to it (Milk’s commitment to change eventually rouses him to action); another, Joseph Cross’s Dick Pabich, an example of those whose selective out-ness is of no help to their gay rights crusade; and those, like Stephen Spinella’s Rick Stokes and Zvi Howard Rosenman’s David Goodstein, who are actively in bed with the enemy.

Like Brokeback Mountain, Milk flatters enlightened sociological views, and as such its merits are bound to be overstated by the same cult that rallied behind Ang Lee’s dull awards darling. For sure, without Penn’s performance or Van Sant’s occasional aesthetic detours, Milk probably wouldn’t matter too much, but there’s no doubt that it does a body good, casting a chilling spell in the wake of Proposition 8. Through rousing use of archival footage and recreations of Milk’s fight against Proposition 6, which sought to ban all openly gay persons (and their straight friends) from working in the public school system, Van Sant not only illuminates the fear of gays forced to live as second-class citizens but the great tool Milk used to humanely cut through the bullshit of monsters like Anita Bryant and John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) who used their religious beliefs to legislate morality: the man’s kvetching sense of humor.

Milk was an opera queen and the film strangely plays up his relationship to his favorite music, until he attends a performance of Tosca on the day before his murder and Van Sant connects the opera’s subject matter with Milk’s belief that he would never see the age of 50. Throughout the film, the music plays only in the background, almost as if it were a projection of Milk’s imagination, as opposed to something playing on a record player. But then, the music stops creeping and rages to the fore, becoming a reality, and as Tosca falls to her death on stage, so too will Milk fall to his in the political arena. Fault the film for playing it too straight too much of the time, but don’t lambaste it as hagiography, because queers who came to know Milk in the ‘70s, or through Randy Shilts’s seminal The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, understand and respect the man as a martyr who died calling for revolution.

Upon his death, Milk was scattered to the wind near the Golden Gate Bridge, and in the wake of Proposition 8, his spirit is no doubt restless, but Van Sant would argue that Milk is likely cracking wise over what happened on November 4, when San Francisco’s Castro cried twice in one day: first in jubilation over their state helping to usher a decisively different direction for the United States, then in agony over the irony of their friends and neighbors having kicked a symbolic door open for minorities while shutting it closed on others. Remember, this was the man who once said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” That famous line is enshrined in this very heartfelt and rousing film that celebrates Milk’s understanding that there is victory even in defeat. Somewhere he’s saying: “Yes we can.”

Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabeel, Brandon Boyce, Zvi Howard Rosenman Director: Gus Van Sant Screenwriter: Dustin Lance Black Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 128 min Rating: R Year: 2008 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Rambo: Last Blood Wears Its Muddled Ethos Like a Purple Heart

The Looney Tunes nature of Rambo’s murder spree tempers much of the script’s ideological offense.

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Rambo: Last Blood
Photo: Lionsgate

When we last saw battle-scarred Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), he was walking toward the dusty homestead of the father, and the metaphorical American fatherland, that he left behind several decades prior. That was at the end of 2008’s Rambo, a film released early in the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency. Dubya’s war-mongering doctrine was well-complemented by this tale of a steroidal white savior getting savage with big bad Burmese rebels. Body-disintegrating bullets and longing bro-ish gazes said everything words couldn’t. Mission fuckin’ accomplished! It was completely offensive and totally awesome—as long as you could key in to the undercurrent of virile camp.

Give credit to Rambo: Last Blood, capably helmed by Adrian Grunberg, for tapping that gleefully repellent vein one (apparently) final time. Rambo is still on his dad’s ranch, though the old man has departed this mortal coil, leaving behind Maria (Adriana Barraza), who has worked the farm for decades, and Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), a college-bound 17-year-old who Rambo treats like his own flesh and blood. Gabrielle has hopeful dreams of the future and loves riding horses with her “Uncle John.” But before she heads off to school, she wants to face the abusive father (Marco de la O), now living in Mexico, who abandoned her many years ago.

Mexico, full of what our current commander in chief might term “bad hombres,” is portrayed here as a cesspool of drug addicts, sex traffickers, and violent hedonists, in addition to a single crusading journalist, Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega), because some Mexicans, we assume, are good people. Before we’ve hit the 15-minute mark (the film itself runs an exploitation-flick-friendly 89 minutes), Gabrielle finds herself in the clutches of two evil pimps, brothers Victor and Hugo Martinez (Óscar Jaenada and Sergio Peris-Mencheta), who oversee a back-alley prostitution empire. Time, then, for John Rambo to go all Taken on these mofos.

That he does, though you may be surprised to learn that the kidnapping plot is resolved by the halfway point, after which Last Blood becomes a hilariously gore-splattered variant on Home Alone, with Rambo using all of his survivalist skills to exact revenge on the brothers and their innumerable disposable henchmen. You better believe his iconic compound bow is an integral part of the plan, though his even more characteristic red headband and greasy/stringy Fabio mullet are, sadly, lost to time. In a film filled with all manner of elating kills (sawed-off shots to the head, razor-sharp machetes to the ankles and throat), nothing is more exuberantly cold-blooded than Rambo blasting the Doors’s “Five to One” as a diversionary tactic.

The Looney Tunes nature of the murder spree tempers much of the ideological offense of the screenplay, though the Rambo films have always been incoherent texts—propagandistically gung-ho in some moments, peculiarly upstart and rebellious in others. There’s a scene here in which Rambo drives up to a border fence on the Mexican side, briefly glances at the English sign warning him off, then floors the accelerator and crashes through the barbed wire. Boundaries mean nothing to Rambo; after this scene, he shuttles between the U.S. and Mexico as if he were popping down to the local grocery store. Though it’s only right to ponder whether lone-wolf actions such as this are more on the side of righteous or regressive fury.

The latter seems more likely, in no small part because of how often Rambo has been co-opted by hawkish powers-that-be. After seeing 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, the second film in the series in which Rambo rescues American POWs in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan was heard to remark, “I know what to do the next time this happens.” And Reagan is alluded to in both the fourth and fifth film via the initials of the name on the family farm mailbox: R. Rambo.

Yet there’s still the matter of Stallone himself, who at 72-years-old has become even more of a gloriously sinewy sight gag, one that tends to cut against any serious ambitions or ideas that these films, this one in particular, might harbor. The degree to which he’s aware of his own absurdity is debatable; never forget that he boasts a 160 Mensa I.Q., so the joke could very well be on us. Intentional or not, he consistently courts the ridiculous to touch the sublime, and that’s certainly true in Last Blood, which he stalks through like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s a lizard-brain thrill to his single-mindedness, and a stab, such as it is, at emotional complexity when Rambo’s killing spree culminates in a literally heartrending gesture. This is followed by a scene set on a sun-dappled country porch that draws equally on the multifaceted mytho-poeticism of John Ford and the jingoistic stupidity of John Wayne circa The Green Berets. That neither sensibility fully overwhelms the other is testament to the Rambo series’s consistently wandering convictions—a muddled ethos worn as proudly as a Purple Heart.

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Adriana Barraza, Yvette Monreal, Genie Kim aka Yenah Han, Joaquin Cosio, Oscar Jaenada Director: Adrian Grunberg Screenwriter: Matthew Cirulnick, Sylvester Stallone Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

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The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on November 28, 2016.

Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. In each case, the supposed science of the issue at hand is often short-circuited by impatience. Lest the comparison seem too glib, Almodóvar’s entire filmography is, to varying degrees, about the performance of taste, where characters often relate to one another not through their minds, but through their fingers, eyes, and teeth. Sweet tooths are more than a matter of dental hygiene; they’re a means of defining personal placement within the broader spectrum of vivid characters and self-serving interests. The bright color scheme of Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène redoubles these matters by problematizing realism as a dissenting faction amid otherwise psychologically defined characters, whose motivations are typically for sustenance of a rather short-order sort. On that note, Almodóvar’s oeuvre, and the characters that comprise it, can perhaps be best summarized by Carmen Maura’s character in Matador, who says near the film’s end: “Some things are beyond reason. This is one of them.” Clayton Dillard

On the occasion of the release of Almodóvar’s latest, Pain and Glory, we ranked the Spanish auteur’s films from worst to best.


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

21. I’m So Excited! (2013)

The broad comedy of I’m So Excited! stays too comfortably on airplane mode throughout the film’s brisk runtime. It’s a deliberately frivolous, tossed-off effort, with middling jokes about barbiturates and musical numbers that pander, and too nakedly appeal, to camp impulses. These shortcomings are partially assuaged by the film’s sheer pep, especially as it becomes evident that actors like Javier Cámara and Carlos Areces are having a great deal of fun in their roles as unperturbed flight attendants. Still, these fairly meager pleasures are unsatisfying consolation prizes when stacked against Almodóvar’s finest films, where there’s no evidence of an in-flight creative nap. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

20. Julieta (2016)

Arguably the most conventional film of Almodóvar’s career, Julieta consistently renders its titular character’s recollections in explicit terms as those of a conflicted woman whose life has been spent in the throes of filial grief. Lacking an exuberant production design, the film settles for a predictably varied visual palette that, at this point, operates only as a commercial selling point for Almodóvar’s directorial style. The screenplay’s unimaginative frame narrative isn’t helping matters either; instead of reconfiguring memory into emotionally resonant bursts or revelations of desire as in All About My Mother, Almodóvar opts for template melodrama, with cutaways to Julieta (Emma Suárez) literally scribing her recollections in the present tense. In a career defined by inventive methods of access to his characters’ lingering duress, Julieta is an unfortunately flat-footed step toward complacency. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

19. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

More compelling in theory than practice, What Have I Done to Deserve This? finds Almodóvar forgoing the punkish abandon of his earlier work for a calmer, if still rambunctious, domestic drama starring Carmen Maura as Gloria, a housewife whose husband and children have little respect for her. Almodóvar regular Chus Lampreave stands out as Gloria’s cupcake-hoarding mother-in-law, whose mitigating presence within the patriarchal family recalls a similar figure in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House, but several of the gags, whether a lizard being the only witness to a murder or a man’s demand for “elegant, sophisticated sadism…like in French films,” don’t resound with the same resourcefulness of those from Almodóvar’s sharpest farces. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

18. Broken Embraces (2009)

After the popular and critical success of Talk to Her and Volver, Almodóvar opted for a decidedly reflexive opus (Broken Embraces boasts the longest runtime in his oeuvre at 127 minutes) of self-indulgence, guided through time by the memories of Mateo (Lluís Homar), a blind filmmaker whose newfound creative partnership with the much younger Diego (Tamar Novas) breeds a series of episodes detailing past love affairs. Unwieldy by nature, Broken Embraces is in some sense the most sprawling presentation of Almodóvar’s telenovella revisionism, but the narrative net is cast so wide, and with such a decided but superficial emphasis on the tortured process of an artist, that few of the passages, let alone characters, are given the necessary affective space to blossom. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

17. Kika (1993)

By the early 1990s, the stakes of both Almodóvar’s perceptions on contemporary sexuality and intertextual play with film history had necessarily reached a point of no return. If the director’s films were still going to be capable of shocking or at least surprising audiences, they would require a refreshed template, one informed by but not beholden to his films of the past decade. The first of those three efforts was Kika, a wholly postmodern experiment that collages bits and pieces of classical Hollywood with Almodóvar’s fearless bid to fuse rape, cunnilingus, and the music of Bernard Herrmann into a whirligig of excesses. While there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the film’s sheer energy, there’s also a fundamental hole at its emotional core, with flattened characters and meandering visual motifs. Dillard

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Review: James Gray’s Ad Astra Is a Deeply Felt Existential Space Odyssey

Balancing humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, the film is inextricably of its moment.

3.5

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Ad Astra
Photo: 20th Century Fox

James Gray’s Ad Astra envisions what human civilization might look like when our notion of a globalized capitalist order turns into something more galaxy-sized. Set in the near future, this bleakly premonitory film imagines the moon and Mars as mere arms of the same techno-corporate nightmare-scape we’ve concocted here on Earth. And Gray immediately homes in on an esteemed astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s a beleaguered functionary of this newly expansive human flow, his regular trips to and from planetary pit stops haunted by contemplations of the same old “fighting over resources” he’s accustomed to from our terrestrial origin point, or even grimmer summations like “we go to work, we do our jobs and then it’s over.” As an unspecified enemy’s lunar rovers mount a hostile attack on Roy’s fleet during an outing on the moon, puncturing the wheels of his AAA-sponsored rover, killing a crew member, and wounding his sage envoy, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), there’s a distinct sense that nothing ever changes for the better.

Ad Astra’s sobering prophecy of a future where Subway still peddles foot-long subs in the far reaches of outer space is casually and succinctly expressed through the subjectivity of Pitt’s cerebral hero, who’s tasked with his great assignment—locating the remnants of an aborted deep-space mission—in an early dialogue scene that represents one of Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross’s few concessions to sci-fi movie cliché. Roy’s higher-ups intimate to him that his famed father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), long thought dead after pioneering the Lima Project to Neptune, may still be alive, tinkering with dark matter and unknowingly setting off destructive power surges throughout the universe. Identified as one of the few astronauts physically fit and emotionally stable enough to execute such a tremendous undertaking, Roy—fixed in his belief that his father is long gone and uninterested in dredging up painful old memories without good reason—accepts his duty ambivalently.

For the first time in his body of work, Gray renders the innermost thoughts of his protagonist as an ongoing narration track that will garner comparisons to the whispery monologues in Terrence Malick’s films, though the thoughts expressed here are less poetic than functional. Coloring in Roy’s personal backstory (his floundering marriage, recollections of growing up with a domineering father) and telegraphing his emotional state (“I’m looking forward to the day my solitude ends”), the occasionally on-the-nose voiceover might seem at first like a studio-mandated device to bring clarity and sympathy to an otherwise opaque central figure.

But Pitt’s utterances quickly become a jet stream of anxiety that throws into relief the image of the strong, stoic masculinity that Gray presents in Ad Astra, and it’s this dichotomy of ambition and self-doubt that the filmmaker thrives on. As a requirement of his daredevil occupation, Roy is subject to frequent automated therapy sessions designed to monitor his psychological fitness to perform his space work, and it’s telling that a rare emotional response on his part, triggered by a high-security session on Mars where he attempts to communicate by radio with his father, is what costs him his job and sets the film into full swing.

The Lost City of Z similarly treated personal passion as a virtue nonetheless seen by the wider society as a disqualifying liability to professionalism, and Ad Astra’s narrative again charts a leap into the unknown precipitated by an almost foolhardy display of initiative. When Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a native of Mars and fellow descendant of Lima Project royalty, gets wind of Roy’s dismissal, she personally sees to it that he finds his way onto the Neptune-bound shuttle, a code breach that sparks panic and ultimately a string of casualties.

Soon the mission is Roy’s alone, at which point the film’s portrait of a consummate professional ambivalently going through the motions of his job yields to something more soul-searching, with the reverberations of Roy’s past gradually superseding the hassles of his present. It all leads to a father-son confrontation near the rocky rings of Neptune—one that swiftly sidesteps the expected tone of reconciliation in favor of a startlingly bitter reunion performed by Pitt and Jones as a dance between casual hostility and repressed longing, and imaginatively staged by Gray so that Roy must literally ascend to his father’s level.

It’s here, in the anguished lack of catharsis, that Ad Astra is unmistakably revealed as James Gray’s creation. In a film that has all the hallmarks of epic science-fiction filmmaking (state-of-the-art special effects, elegant world-building, an A-list cast), yet feels distinctly small-scale in its emotional spectrum, Gray’s reckoning with the burden of a father on his son carries with it the subtext of a contemporary Hollywood auteur contemplating the legacy of those that came before him. Alongside Roy’s insecurity, Clifford represents pure, unbridled ambition, the kind that defined a director like Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey is unavoidably in conversation with Ad Astra. As an astronaut, Roy commands respect and admiration but nonetheless feels a gaping disconnect from his father’s era of interstellar exploration, a time when, he imagines, there was a greater sense of danger and a higher capacity for discovery, given that modern man’s technological reach has managed to turn outer space into little more than an elaborate highway system.

Ad Astra is a beautiful, lovingly wrought film, from Hoyt Van Hoytema’s impeccably unfussy cinematography (much of it centered around Pitt’s restrained visage) to Max Richter’s ethereal score, but it seems fair to say that the film doesn’t possess, and arguably isn’t reaching for, the moments of jaw-dropping spectacle that epitomized 2001 or, more recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. What it does have is a palpable honesty and humility, not only with regard to the genre it’s occupying, but also in relation to the cosmos and the future of humanity. In a future where the plagues of civilization have only evolved into new shapes and sizes, it asks, in a roundabout way, if there’s anything worthier of exploration than our own relationships. Balancing this humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, Ad Astra is a film inextricably of its moment.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Natasha Lyonne Director: James Gray Screenwriter: James Gray, Ethan Gross Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: PG-13 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 122

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Review: Judy Finds a Paint-by-Numbers Drag Revue at the End of the Rainbow

Renée Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting eludes her.

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Judy
Photo: Roadside Attractions

“Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland?” said Judy Davis when she played the supremely talented and tragedy-prone actress-singer in the 2001 miniseries Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Difficult, indeed. The woman born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922 is damn near inimitable. Davis’s natural neuroticism suited her high-strung, unsentimental interpretation of Garland; even the scenes in which she lip-synced to original recordings had an energy that came close to capturing the Old Hollywood starlet’s raw-nerve essence. No such vigor exists in director Rupert Goold’s Judy, a declining-years biopic that details the on- and off-stage drama during the London residency of Garland’s sold-out 1968 concert tour of Britain (less than a year before she died of a drug overdose at age 47) and mainly serves as a meager star vehicle for Renée Zellweger.

That’s not to say that Judy, adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s fanciful, to put it kindly, stage play End of the Rainbow, is entirely without merit. Of course, it takes some time for the single point of admittedly meta interest to emerge: A prologue and several subsequent flashbacks set during her prolific MGM years situate the young Garland (Darci Shaw) as both a wide-eyed innocent in Edenic Tinseltown and, via several sinister interactions with imposing studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a sacrificial forbear of the #MeToo era. Yet none of these scenes jibe with the mawkish main narrative in which Zellweger, leaning hard into tic-laden mimicry, plays the broke and barbiturate-addicted 46-year-old Garland.

Zellweger’s performance is all-surface—uncanny at a glance (the close-cropped wig and the anxious gestures, especially), though rarely evocative or lived in. This is acting that seems contrived to impress and to garner cheap sympathy even when the character is at her most difficult. In the early going, Garland has a belligerent blow-up with her ex-husband and manager, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), over the well-being of their two children, as well as a swooning first meeting with eventual fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a musician and entrepreneur whose big-picture promises are mostly hollow. Money, however, proves the biggest issue. So, with financial security nonexistent, and the custody of her kids at stake, Garland accepts an offer to do a headlining season at the Talk of Town nightclub in London.

There’s a tense lead-up to opening night, since Garland fails to show up at call time and her handlers have to bend over backward to right a seemingly sinking ship; unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only time this occurs. Then, when Garland finally takes the stage, a film going through all the expected motions suddenly becomes a shade more intriguing.

This isn’t because of Zellweger’s singing, all of which she does herself, every note of course failing to emulate or equal Garland’s uninhibited authority. Compare Zellweger’s technically accomplished performance of Garland staple “By Myself,” which she croons here in full, with the real deal’s Kabuki-maniacal rendition of the same song in her final film role in Ronald Neame’s great musical melodrama I Could Go On Singing from 1963. The contrast is damning, and not just because the actual Garland, in I Could Go On Singing, has the added background benefit of a ceiling-to-floor-length crimson curtain straight out of Twin Peaks’s Red Room.

Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting—the sense that, at every moment, she’s drawing on some deep, dark recess of feeling and experience raggedly shaped by a life in the spotlight—eludes her. Yet there’s still something to her efforts that goes beyond simple awards-baiting or audience ingratiation. Like a drag queen doing a desperately full-on deconstruction of an idol that she knows she can never touch, she’s so committed to trying to be Garland that her failure to do so becomes the main allure.

Is that conceit a bit too Borgesian for a film that’s otherwise cloyingly paint-by-numbers? Take your interest where you can because you won’t find it elsewhere. Not in Garland’s many doomed or thwarted attempts at a normal romantic or social life. Not in Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) tossing some in-jokey, exasperated shade Mom’s way during a swinging-‘60s shindig. And certainly not in the extended scene in which Garland goes home with a fannish gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) for some teary talk, amid copious Judy memorabilia, about homosexual persecution. The latter sequence is particularly egregious, a feint toward pop-cultural-cum-sociopolitical significance that plays like the ultimate in blinkered wish fulfillment. That is, until an even more shameless finale in which the same two queer acolytes lead the anguished Garland’s last-ever audience in a serenade of “Over the Rainbow.” Friends of Dorothy represent and all, but this is ridiculous.

Cast: Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Darci Shaw, Royce Pierreson, Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Cordery Director: Rupert Goold Screenwriter: Tom Edge Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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New York Film Festival 2019

If cinema is, indeed, the domain of freedom, then the festival doesn’t see Netflix as the villain in that struggle.

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Varda by Agnès
Photo: Netflix

“Cinema is the domain of freedom, and it’s an ongoing struggle to maintain that freedom,” said New York Film Festival director and selection committee chair Kent Jones in a statement last month accompanying the announcement of the films that will screen as part of the main slate of the 57th edition of the festival. And depending on who you ask, Netflix is either the hero or villain in that struggle.

More than half of the 29 titles in the main slate enjoyed their world premiere earlier this year at Cannes, where Netflix had no film in competition, as its battle with festival director Thierry Frémaux, who requires a theatrical run for any Cannes entrant, continues unabated. (The streaming giant did walk away from the festival with acquisition rights to Jérémy Clapin’s I Lost My Body and Mati Diop’s Grand Prix winner Atlantics.) There’s no right or wrong here per se, though it’s clear that Frémaux’s edict is an extension of his nostalgia for the golden age of cinema, which he sees as sacrosanct as the length of the theatrical window, and just how steadfastly he sticks to his guns may determine the fate of the world’s most important film festival.

The New York Film Festival opens on Friday, September 27 with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated The Irishman, almost one month to the day that it was announced that Netflix could not reach a distribution deal with major theater chains, including AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. The film will drop on Netflix less than a month after opening in some theaters across the country—a non-traditional distribution strategy that will continue to be seen as short-circuiting a Netflix film’s best picture chances at the Academy Awards, at least until one comes along and does what Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma couldn’t last year.

It remains to be seen if The Irishman will be that film. But this much is also clear, and the New York Film Festival is making no bones about it: This streamable movie is very much a movie, and to be able to see a new Scorsese film that might not have run three hours and 30 minutes had it been released by a traditional distributor is very much a win for freedom—or, at least, a certain stripe of cinephile’s idea of freedom.

In addition to The Irishman and Atlantics, Netflix also has Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, at the festival (the centerpiece selection no less). Baumbach’s divorce drama bowed last month at the Venice Film Festival, alongside Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s first feature since Lost and Beautiful, and The Wasp Network, which marks Olivier Assayas’s 10th appearance at the New York Film Festival. Among the returning auteurs are Kleber Mendonça Filho (Bacurau, co-directed with Juliano Dornelles), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), Albert Serra (Liberté), Arnaud Desplechin (Oh Mercy!), Pedro Almodóvar (Pain and Glory), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Young Ahmed), and the greatest of the great, Agnès Varda, whose Varda by Agnès premiered earlier this year at Berlinale alongside Nadav Lapid’s Golden Bear winner Synonyms and Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…

Among the festival’s noteworthy sidebars are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Tim Robbins (45 Seconds of Laughter, about inmates at the Calipatria State maximum-security facility taking part in acting exercises), Michael Apted (63 Up, the latest entry in the filmmaker’s iconic, one-of-a-kind British film series), and Alla Kovgan (Cunningham, a 3D portrait of the artistic evolution of choreographer Merce Cunningham); the MUBI-sponsored Projections, which features the latest films from Éric Baudelaire (Un Film Dramatique) and Thomas Heise (Heimat Is a Space in Time); and a Special Events section that includes Todd Phillips’s surprise Golden Lion winner Joker and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club Encore, which brings the 1984 period film back to its original length and luster. Ed Gonzalez

For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. And check back in the upcoming weeks for reviews of First Cow, The Irishman, Saturday Fiction, and Wasp Network.


Atlantics

Atlantics (Mati Diop)

Starved for work after the depletion of Senegal’s local fishing industry, thousands of young men take to the sea every year aboard pirogues, or small boats, fleeing their country for Spain. Those who have emigrated, died, or been incarcerated as part of the “pirogue phenomenon”—referred to colloquially as “Barcelona or death” in Senegalese communities—are the ghosts that haunt Atlantics. The forms those spirits take in the film represent just some of what’s so extraordinary about Mati Diop’s first feature as a director, a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength. Atlantics transitions into oblique genre fare in a manner reminiscent of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, with electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri’s multifaceted score adding ghostly strings and pop guitar riffs over spiritual, syncopated Middle Eastern arrangements. Despite its wild narrative leaps, the film is undergirded with a holistic mix of serenity and trauma that recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour. Christopher Gray


Bacurau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac



Beanpole

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole



Fire Will Come

Fire Will Come (Olivier Laxe)

Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape. This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. Diego Semerene



A Girl Missing

A Girl Missing (Kôji Fukada)

Throughout his 2016 film Harmonium, Kôji Fukada favored ambiguous, emotionally charged tableaux over narrative mechanics, and he continues that emphasis in A Girl Missing to ambitious, evocative, and troubling effect. The film is a story driven by kidnapping that’s almost entirely disinterested in the motivations of the kidnapper and the pain of the victim and her family. Instead, the film is attached, to a consciously insular degree, to a nurse, Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), whose life is ruined peripherally by the kidnapping due to one peculiarly bad choice on her part. As austere as Harmonium could be, the characters were in their way dynamic and made sense. With A Girl Missing, Fukada may believe that he’s transcended the melodramatic strictures of a regular crime film or of the kind of woman’s martyr vehicle in which Joan Crawford used to specialize. Instead, he’s fashioned an occasionally haunting art object with miserable stick figures. Chuck Bowen



I Was at Home, But…

I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)

Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… take a fairly simple premise and builds a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function. The film is at its in moments when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between the story of Hamlet and a troubled fortysomething mother’s (Maren Eggert) life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving a dog and a donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut. Carson Lund



Liberté

Liberté (Albert Serra)

As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund



Marriage Story

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. But as the initially amicable split between a playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come. But even at its most blistering, the film contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place. Cole



Martin Eden

Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)

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



The Moneychanger

The Moneychanger (Federico Veiroj)

Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger charts the prosperous, morally rotten career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Handler), a prominent money changer for all manner of ne’er-do-wells. Much is made of gestures like hand-tailoring suits to transport money, but the movement of cash—from client to Humberto to various far-flung locations around the globe—is by and large curtly presented. The film eventually verges on the farcical, with Humberto engaging in a Force Majeure-esque act of cowardice during a shooting while driving with his wife (Dolores Fonzi) in Argentina and a rushed scheme to steal from a dead man before he’s interred, among other indiscretions. While these scenarios are somewhat absurd and funny, they feel calculated in their attempts to stress just how pitiful Humberto has become that he has to turn to such pathetic ploys to stay afloat. It’s apparent that Veiroj disdains no one so much as Humberto, but the film makes little of the man’s undoubtedly twisted psyche. Throughout, The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity. Peter Goldberg



Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)

Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films. Throughout, Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of his film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre. Cole



Oh Mercy!

Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)

Based on a 2008 documentary, Oh Mercy! follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases. Throughout, director Arnaud Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There’s a sense here of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels. Before the authorities in Oh Mercy! can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Presiding over the madness is a police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), who’s a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level. Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Bowen



Pain and Glory

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined Law of Desire and Bad Education. Still, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever. Mac



Parasite

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Parasite finds Bong Joon-ho scaling back the high-concept ambitions of Snowpiercer and Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people. Parasite is an excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture, mounted by Bong with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. The film is also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent. Mac



Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes that’s also a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Sciamma isn’t out to question the gazes exchanged between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), but to point out that one gaze is always met by another, and what’s most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma’s script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. Where her prior films have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away. Gray



Sibyl

Sibyl (Justine Triet)

Justine Triet uses the relationship between the creative process and the work of psychoanalysis, or its simplified cinematic version, as raw material for her latest dramedy. Sibyl follows the madcap efforts and subterfuges that the eponymous alcoholic therapist (Virginie Efira) deploys in order to finally write a novel. And the first step she takes is to get rid of most of her patients—most, not all, so that there’s always a lifeline connecting the new Sibyl to the old one. That is, so Sibyl never has to truly let go of anything at all. This tactic, beyond mere plot device, is the first crucial clue, or symptom, that Triet discloses about Sibyl as the filmmaker smartly humanizes the figure of the therapist as someone in desperate need of a therapist herself. The initial line in Sibyl’s (non-)emancipatory equation, to start anew by keeping her old life handy, is one of the film’s many instances of mirroring, as some viewers will easily recognize in Sibyl’s pursuits their own tendency to make half-decisions. Which is to say, the way we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re pursuing something whereas we’re secretly pursuing something else—something less avowable. Semerene



Synonyms

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms doesn’t hew to a steadily progressing plot. The attraction Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) feel to Yoav (Tom Mercier), and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after the film takes a circuitous route through Yoav’s brief employment in security at the Israeli embassy; his friendship with a militant Zionist who tries to provoke fights he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. A certain calculated inconsistency in style and pacing also makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but that’s most likely the point. Certainly one concern of Synonyms is the irrational sickness that’s nationalism: At times it appears that Israeli nationalism has driven Yoav mad, given him his detached affect and his habit of obsessively reciting synonyms in the street. Funny, frustrating, and stealthily sad, Synonyms is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another. Pat Brown



To the Ends of the Earth

To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

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



The Traitor

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

Though Pierfrancesco Favino plays Sicilian mob boss turned informant Tommaso Buscetta with the stern poise of a criminal boss, the gangster easily, almost comically buckles under the slightest pressure from the state. But it’s in director Marco Bellocchio’s depiction of the “Maxi Trial” in a heavily fortified courtroom in Palermo that The Traitor completes its metamorphosis from a grisly, stone-faced drama about mob violence into an almost farcical satire of Italy’s justice system. Unfortunately, as is often the case with contemporary Italian genre pieces, the film is too brutish by half, as well as 40 minutes too long. The comic brio of Bellocchio’s staging of the “Maxi Trial” invigorates The Traitor, but he surprisingly wraps up that arc with close to an hour left in the film’s running time. The extended final act, which follows Tommaso and his family as they enter into American witness protection before ultimately returning to Italy for a series of follow-up trials, drifts along without clear purpose, unevenly oscillating between the comedic and the somber. Cole



Varda by Agnès

Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda)

Agnès Varda’s final film is essentially a lecture, with the iconic filmmaker’s talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre. Throughout, she shares the underlying inspiration for films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and details her creative process. While her other documentaries (among them The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places) have often explored the intersection between art and life, Varda by Agnès finds the filmmaker far less able to extend her gaze beyond her own work. She allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the film’s main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights, should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Varda’s bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of “sharing” not borrowed from her previous work. Brown



Vitalina Varela

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects writer-director Pedro Costa wishes to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters. Yet the film is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Cole



Zombi Child

The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is nested with twists that place corrupt Bucharest policeman, corrupt Bucharest policeman, further and further from discovering who’s manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within on La Gomera, the “pearl” of the Canary Islands. Cristi’s inability to make sense of his place in the very case he’s investigating is just one of the film’s cruel, quite funny jokes. Another is Silbo, a whistled register of the Spanish language that inspires the film’s title. Composed of a half dozen notes that each represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet, the ancient language has been used by natives of La Gomera for generations. Throughout, Porumboiu largely handles The Whistlers’s persistent strain of artifice masterfully, hurtling his narrative ahead even as he’s jumbling timeframes and lingering in moments of ironic menace. Though the film is sometimes too liberal in its arsenal of references, Porumboiu executes his plot with a persistently low-key swagger, coaxing his actors into memorable but perfectly blank performances. Gray



The Wild Goose Lake

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)

Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but it’s up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn’t otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn’t be acceptable from a “realistic” drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what’s essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac



Young Ahmed

Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

In many of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people’s lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. But in Young Ahmed, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine an aspiring radical’s inner life. Initially, the Dardennes don’t exactly engender pity for Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. They maintain a distance from the Belgian teen as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to a signifier of their virtue. Yet Ahmed’s seduction by a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), is still fleetingly “explained” with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don’t dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they’ve applied to this subject matter. Bowen



Zombi Child

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Mac

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Film

Review: Loro Mostly Signals Paolo Sorrentino’s Fealty to Wealth Porn

Like most of Sorrentino’s films, Loro is closer to a stylistic orgy than an existential rumination on Italy’s heritage.

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Loro
Photo: Sundance Selects

Paolo Sorrentino’s films are closer to stylistic orgies than existential ruminations on Italy’s heritage. Most of his productions are consumed in debauchery for the better part of their running times, and capped by obligatory lambasts against said behavior, which is meant to inform the narratives with “deeper” meaning. Sorrentino is so devoted to tracking shots of beautiful female bodies, to montages of drug abuse, to brief explosions of loveless, commercialized sex, that the particulars of his characters, settings, and plots are essentially interchangeable. In Loro, Sorrentino’s regular leading man, Toni Servillo, may be playing the controversial Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but the actor could just as easily be reprising his fictional writer from The Great Beauty for all that actually matters.

If Sorrentino were to confront the fact that he’s essentially a sensationalist, his films might achieve a kind of nihilistic purity. Loro initially promises such an about face, as its opening 45 minutes have a hard and lurid pull. At first, its protagonist appears to be Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a hustler who moves to Rome and builds a harem with promises of TV roles and mountains of cocaine. Sergio is a handsome and charismatic wild man, and Sorrentino characteristically fetishizes the character’s life of anonymous sex and endless partying. The point of Sergio’s networking is vague, as he references wanting to get in the same room as “him.” This desire is realized by the beautiful and mysterious Kira (Kasia Smutniak), who urges Sergio to set his act up within eyeshot of Silvio’s sprawling property. Dramatizing these negotiations, Sorrentino stages the film’s one legitimately erotic sequence: Kira dry-humping Sergio as she talks with a power broker on her phone. This moment elegantly underscores Sorrentino’s initial interest in the intersection of power, sex, and money.

One is primed, then, for a battle of the charismatic crooks, in which Sergio falls in with Silvio—a melodramatic hook that Sorrentino leaves dangling as the film devolves into a series of disconnected sketches. (It bears mentioning that this 158-minute cut was edited down from a much longer one.) Instead, Loro switches protagonists, homing in on Silvio as he attempts to become prime minister again after the leftist party has ousted him. We learn virtually nothing about Silvio’s politics or business machinations, as Sorrentino turns the figure into another of his tortured symbols of the decadence of classist culture. At a certain point in the film, Silvio decides to flip six leftist senators over to his side so that he can regain power, a potentially fascinating process that Sorrentino reduces to one (vivid) scene and a montage. What Sorrentino doesn’t skimp on, however, is the endless pillow shots and self-conscious bids for Fellini-esque surreality. The film’s title is Italian for “Them,” potentially referencing Silvio’s demonization of the liberal press, but the plot is hermetic and sentimental.

Servillo is magnetic as always, and he has a few startling moments in which he replicates Berlusconi’s smug and wax-like smile, but his kinship with Sorrentino leads the film astray. It’s distasteful and baffling to see a reactionary strongman utilized as a lonely romantic figure, which probably happens because Sorrentino’s love for his actor muddies his view of Berlusconi. The filmmaker turns the politico into a Gatsby who prowls his land fighting with his estranged wife, Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci), who voices the film’s trite lessons on the shallowness of rich and horny old men—sentiments which ring hollow given the stature of Servillo’s presence and Sorrentino’s ongoing fealty to wealth porn.

Cast: Toni Servillo, Elena Sofia Ricci, Riccardo Scamarcio, Kasia Smutniak, Euridice Axen, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Roberto De Francesco, Dario Cantarelli, Anna Bonaiuto, Giovanni Esposito, Ugo Pagliai Director: Paolo Sorrentino Screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 158 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Promare Finds Studio Trigger Spinning its Anime Wheels

The film often feels like a maximalist season finale trimmed of any build-up.

2.5

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Promare
Photo: GKIDS

Loud, chaotic, and borderline nonsensical, Promare is the logical result of anime studio Trigger creating what amounts to a feature-length extension of its prior work. Set in a future where high-tech firefighters clash with pyrokinetic humans called the Burnish, the film pays explicit tribute to anime series like Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, and others in everything from names to character and robot designs to basic personality types. The film leaves you with the sense that director Hiroyuki Imaishi, writer Kazuki Nakashima, and their frequent collaborators could create it in their sleep, both because they’re clearly great at what they do and because their ultimate product scarcely departs from established formula.

The film’s bombast is present even in its individual character introductions, which use giant block letters to name everyone from the supporting cast up through pivotal players like protagonist Galo Thymos (Kenichi Matsuyama), a blue-haired firefighter with boundless energy and determination. His long-held truth, that the world is neatly divided into firefighters and Burnish terrorists, is shaken over the course of the film as he fights the slender, melon-green-haired Lio Fotia (Taichi Saotome), who leads the rebel Burnish.

Promare is immediately striking to look at, with a style that favors a cool color palette, minimalist backgrounds, and abstract geometric shapes; fire, for one, is frequently rendered as purple triangles. The characters are drawn in pleasantly smooth lines, and they pilot chunky, ice-shooting robots whose siren lights send out solid beams of red and blue. The camera tracks each action scene, every zoom through the scenery and every collision of a fist with a face, in roving close-ups with thrilling precision. Everyone screams their feelings aloud over and over again (“Only your soul should burn!” cries Galo as he crosses swords with Lio at one point), albeit against a typically regrettable score from Hiroyuki Sawano, who leans so heavily on songs with cheesy vocals that they swiftly become a distraction.

Mixed metaphors and baffling plot twists ensure the film doesn’t totally hold up to scrutiny, but its escalating weirdness is part of the fun. All the same, its loudly repeated message remains clear: Rather than douse a fire, sometimes you need to let it burn as bright as possible. Promare is a mix of themes from Nakashima and Imaishi’s prior collaborations, wrapped up in a pat “the Other is a person, too” premise used for a familiar inspirational conceit. Galo, in looks and personality, is a clear analog for Gurren Lagann’s Kamina, who perishes early in the series so that other, less static characters may wrestle with his ideals. Leaving such a character as the hero in Promare exemplifies its rather straightforward trajectory.

While the film’s propulsive, slapdash plotting provides no shortage of frantic action, it leaves little room for the personalities, actions, and philosophies of its peripheral characters to sink in through gradual escalation. Promare often feels like a maximalist season finale trimmed of any build-up, a climax that’s outstanding to watch yet empty beyond its pure spectacle. And in this context, the fact that so many designs echo Studio Trigger’s prior work feels less like a fun reference than a concession that Imaishi and company are spinning their wheels.

Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Taichi Saotome, Masato Sakai, Ayane Sakura Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi Screenwriter: Kazuki Nakashima Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Blu-ray Review: Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? on Arrow Video

Arrow’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Lado’s elegiac giallo.

4.5

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Who Saw Her Die?

The early 1970s brought us two thrillers with all of the following elements: an estranged couple mourning the tragic death of a daughter; a grief-stricken sex scene crosscut with glimpses of its doleful aftermath; a series of murders occurring against the backdrop of Venice in the offseason; and a canal-bound funeral in a black-draped barge. The more famous, of course, is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The other is Aldo Lado’s less acknowledged giallo film Who Saw Her Die? But the real surprise here, given the Italian film industry’s not entirely undeserved reputation for the quick cash-in and cheapjack rip-off, is that Who Saw Her Die? actually came out first.

The film opens on a ski slope in France, as a young redheaded girl runs away from her nanny, only to have her head bashed in with a rock by a shadowy figure in black, a sequence seen largely through the killer’s subjective POV. Since violence against children is exceedingly rare in the giallo, even by the bloody standards of the genre, this is an especially shocking set piece. Indeed, the best point of comparison is with Lucio Fulci’s brilliant and disturbing Don’t Torture a Duckling, which came out the same year as Who Saw Her Die?

Both films feature a murderer who’s ultimately revealed to be a priest (or at least a man masquerading as one), whose bizarre motive for murder is to “save” the children from the moral pollution of modern society. Doubtless this coincidence has something to do with the shifting moral climate in Italy at the time, with the recent legalization of divorce and an increasing permissiveness toward depictions of sex and violence in popular culture. Who Saw Her Die? treats this broadmindedness with notable ambivalence, seeing as how its wealthiest and most cultured characters uniformly turn out to be deviants and sexual predators.

Lado introduces us to two of his main characters through a clever bit of visual trickery. We first see Franco Serpieri (George Lazenby) as he waits to greet someone among a group of arriving plane passengers. The camera picks up a pretty brunette woman, and crosscuts between the two as Franco proffers a heartfelt greeting. Only then do we hear an unexpectedly girlish voice in response, as the woman continues on, and Franco stoops down to hoist his daughter, Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi), into shot. Given her striking resemblance to the girl in the film’s prologue, you would not be altogether mistaken if you suspected that this does not bode well.

Throughout the first act, Lado uses his wintry Venetian locations to optimum atmospheric effect. He continually frames Roberta against eerie, nearly empty streets, bridges, and squares. (It doesn’t help that the caring, yet somewhat negligent Franco often leaves her to her own devices, either to pursue work or more personal pleasures.) The sense of foreboding that Lado carefully builds throughout Who Saw Her Die? is cleverly encoded even into the children’s games that Roberta participates in, none more so than the uncanny round dance whose chant supplies the principal motif for Ennio Morricone’s unsettling score. Lado shoots this whirling rondeau with a dizzying verve that would make Brian De Palma proud.

Roberta’s inevitable disappearance is signaled through an adroit visual metonym: the loud shutting of a local butcher shop’s doors. A subsequent shot of the charwoman mopping up a blood-spattered floor leaves little doubt about Roberta’s ultimate fate. Franco, like many a giallo hero before him, takes on the role of amateur detective once Roberta’s body turns up floating face down in the Venetian lagoon. (Female protagonists usually must battle against some sort of attempted gaslighting.) Because Franco is a struggling sculptor, most of the list of suspects happen to be members of his inner circle. Such emphasis on the artistic demimonde is an element of the giallo that was inaugurated by Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the film that almost singlehandedly revamped the genre for the ’70s.

The amount of bloodshed in the film’s murderous set pieces is fairly chaste when compared to other giallo titles, which isn’t to say these sequences aren’t executed with distinctive visual aplomb. The standout killing, via a pair of scissors, takes place against the sterile white preserves of an indoor aviary. And Lado even goes in for a bit of meta filmmaking when one potential eyewitness is garroted in a darkened movie theater. But the most spectacular moment comes when the child murderer finally gets his just desserts, a fiery finale Lado plays out several times over, with Morricone’s music swirling up into the stratosphere, before the killer finally—and rather rudely—comes to ground. Only a producer-imposed final line of dialogue serves to blunt the impact of this chilly, surprisingly elegiac giallo film.

Image/Sound

Arrow Video’s new 2K presentation of Who Saw Her Die? represents a marked improvement over previous SD releases dating back to the film’s home-video debut as part of a 2002 Anchor Bay giallo box set. The Blu-ray image reveals more information on the right-hand side, appears darker overall, with less harsh whites, and displays far greater depth and clarity of detail. The English LPCM mono track is quite good, though it’s a shame that former 007 George Lazenby didn’t loop his own voice on the track. For the first time on domestic home video, the Italian-language track has been included. As always, it’s interesting to study the differences in dialogue between the two tracks. Fortunately, both of them do justice to one of the film’s strongest assets: a haunting score from Ennio Morricone that prominently features a heavily reverberated children’s chorus chillingly chanting the film’s Italian title over and over again.

Extras

Although it’s only infrequently scene-specific, author and critic Troy Howarth’s commentary covers a lot of giallo-related ground, from the give-and-take relationship between Italian genre filmmaking and more hifalutin arthouse cinema, to the evolution of the giallo genre over the years, arising as an idiosyncratic witches brew out of the cauldron of film noir, the Hitchcockian thriller, and the German krimi films. Howarth also extensively covers the careers of the principal cast and crew. In the featurette “I Saw Her Die,” director Aldo Lado discusses his early years working as assistant director for Bernardo Bertolucci, working on his other giallo-related titles (Short Night of Glass Dolls and Night Train Murders), the personal and professional vicissitudes behind being assigned to Who Saw Her Die?, the ethics of casting the film, and handling child actors. Lado also expresses his personal antipathy for the clergy and the changes to the film’s ending that were mandated by the producers.

The featurette “Nicoletta, Child of Darkness” provides a career-overview conversation with child actress Nicoletta Elmi. When it comes to What Saw Her Die?, Elmi really only remembers playing around both on- and off-set with Lazenby, as well as her one scene with the sterner, more imposing Adolfo Celi. Elmi relates an amusing anecdote about working with Dario Argento on Deep Red, decries the need for censorship (with regard to the themes of Who Saw Her Die?), and describes her own fraught relationship with the horror genre. “Once Upon a Time, in Venice…” features Francesco Barilla, the film’s charmingly opinionated co-writer, talking about his career as writer and occasional director, crafting bizarre secondary characters like the table tennis fanatic in Who Saw Her Die?, blending together various subgenres to optimum effect, and how he would have directed certain sequences in the film (including some very specific costume changes). Lastly, giallo authority Michael Mackenzie delves deeply into the film’s genre bona fides for “Giallo in Venice,” including the particularly gruesome flourish maestro Ennio Morricone built into his evocative score.

Overall

Arrow Video’s sterling Blu-ray presentation should serve as an excellent character witness for Aldo Lado’s elegiac giallo.

Cast: George Lazenby, Anita Strindberg, Adolfo Celi, Dominique Boschero, Peter Chatel, Piero Vida, José Quaglio, Alessandro Haber, Nicolette Elmi, Rosemarie Lindt Director: Aldo Lado Screenwriter: Francesco Barilli, Massimo D'Avak Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1972 Release Date: September 17, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: I Was at Home, But… Pushes Narrative to an Elliptical Breaking Point

Angela Schanalec’s film configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut.

3

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I Was at Home, But...
Photo: Cinema Guild

Writer-director Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…, in the spirit of Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, is technically a domestic drama—albeit one that takes its time revealing the nature of the fractured family at its center and frequently departs from their home. As in her prior feature, 2016’s The Dreamed Path, the German filmmaker has taken a fairly simple premise and built a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function.

Grief is the unifying thread of I Was at Home, But…, though Schanalec gives us the lingering air of despondency well before identifying its source. In the first of many sudden, unexplained spasms of emotion in the film, a woman sprints through a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to embrace a boy being held in some kind of child services office—a scene cut into precise visual fragments by Schanalec’s stiffly choreographed style. After being offered many a context clue, we come to understand that this woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), is the mother of this child, Phillip (Jakob Lassalle), who’s earlier seen emerging from the woods at dawn, his dirtied yellow jacket and look of stone-faced torpor indicating a prolonged absence from his mother’s life. Phillip has a little sister, Flo (Clara Möller), who observes this zombified return, and together the three of them occupy a white-walled, high-ceilinged modern apartment in a gentrified part of Berlin, a home reverberating with the aftershock of a recently deceased patriarch.

These are the concrete details of the film’s scenario, but before they all have a chance to register, Schanalec offers a number of puzzling diversions: a scene of a dog hunting a rabbit before falling asleep in a barn alongside a donkey; a grade-school rehearsal of Hamlet, performed in an affectless, Straub-Huillet-evoking manner from a version of the play translated by Schanalec’s late husband, Jürgen Gosch; and an episode of Astrid purchasing a secondhand bicycle from a man (Alan Williams) who talks through a voice box. Each of these threads recur throughout the film, with the latter in particular amounting to something of a comically elongated red herring as the bike proves faulty and Astrid hassles the man for her money back—all of which can only be said to circuitously tie into Astrid’s emotional arc. Even less logically related to the film’s apparent central narrative is another subplot concerning the deteriorating relationship between Lars (Franz Rogowski), a teacher overseeing Phillip’s reintegration into school, and the man’s girlfriend, Claudia (Lilith Stangenberg).

The manner in which these various threads weave in and out of the scenes sketching the family relationship, commanding equal attention in the way Schanalec, working as her own editor, partitions screen time, makes it tough to call anything the “primary” focus of the film. Throughout I Was at Home, But…, its destabilizing ellipses and odd points of emphasis—a scene of Astrid at a supermarket, for instance, focuses only on her dog as it diligently waits outside with the shopping carts—discourage the viewer from fixating on anything beyond the present moment and its complexity, so that any natural impulse to chart the narrative’s larger trajectory or the psychological development of the characters is frustrated.

Fortunately, Schanalec’s staging is rarely less than compelling. Never as grandiose with her deep-focus master shots as Ruben Östlund, the filmmaker nonetheless shares with the Swedish auteur a preference for subtly off-kilter compositions, chilly soft light, and slick modern architecture, while her exacting use of sound—punctiliously ADR’d and selective—is what most closely aligns her with her frequently cited forebear: Robert Bresson.

This stark cinematic language, combined with a severe acting style in which even a dry cleaner’s assessment that a coat might not wash properly is spoken like a terminal diagnosis, makes I Was at Home, But… a decidedly austere affair. But this is less a pose of artistic seriousness on Schanelec’s part than a strategic leveling of affect to make key moments register with the sharpness of real-life trauma. In the film’s most harrowing scene, Eggert unleashes a torrent of Method naturalism as her character violently recoils from the unwanted attention and embraces of her despondent children, whose company she’s gradually replacing with a tennis-playing boyfriend, Harald (Thorbjörn Björnsson). Later, Schanelec grants Astrid redemption in the heartbreakingly tender image of the woman holding Flo in an empty locker room after a swim practice, their damp bodies intermingled as one.

Similarly ameliorating the film’s air of formal severity is its subterranean sense of playfulness, which casually reveals itself in the background of frames, the silent pockets of conversation, and the latter halves of Schanelec’s long takes. Whether sliding a pair of student fencers into a frame as a somber conversation plays out in the foreground or observing as an already-malfunctioning bicycle topples over its flimsy kickstand, Schanalec periodically indulges a kind of drawn-out physical comedy, though it’s a dialectical joke in the film’s centerpiece that seems to have been most carefully engineered. In an extended tracking shot, as Astrid walks alongside a filmmaker (All the Cities in the North director Dane Komljen) and berates him over what she interprets as his film’s ethical malpractice of casting actors alongside real hospital patients, it becomes clear that she’s displacing her own pain about her husband and son, who’s troubled by a case of sepsis brought on by his disappearance. But the irony is that her withering critique of acting as a false façade arises in one of the film’s more commanding instances of capital-A acting. The scene closes with the nearest Schanalec gets to writing a howler: “Unbearably bad cinema,” she says, “but I still hope you get the professorship.”

The film is at its best in such instances, when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between Hamlet and Astrid’s life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving the dog and the donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut.

Cast: Maren Eggert, Jakob Lassalle, Clara Möller, Lilith Stangenberg, Franz Rogowski, Thorbjörn Björnsson, Lucas Confurius, Wolfgang Michael Director: Angela Schanalec Screenwriter: Angela Schanalec Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Midnight Traveler Is a Harrowing Document of a Family’s Escape

The documentary doesn’t preclude itself from finding something like poetry in its subjects’ struggles.

3.5

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Midnight Traveler
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Afghani filmmaker Hassan Fazili’s documentary Midnight Traveler has the insular feel of a home movie, but at the same time, the family saga that it recounts can’t avoid placing itself within a larger geo-political context. The film, shot using three mobile phones, captures Fazili and his wife Fatima’s flight from war-torn Afghanistan to the West, along with their young daughters, Nargis and Zahra. The depiction of their journey across 3,500 miles does more than humanize the plight of refugees, so easily spoken of in the terms of mass demographics in the political discourse of Europe and America. It also gives this family’s desperate situation experiential weight, emphasizing the time and the spaces that define their struggle to reach an unknown destination in Europe.

A filmmaker whose documentary film about a Taliban leader has made him a wanted man in Afghanistan, Fazili brings a director’s eye to what may be taken as a representative experience for hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa: the clandestine trek across multiple borders on the path to a Western democracy, reliant at times on seedy smugglers and untrustworthy bureaucrats. Despite the nocturnal intrigue implied by its title, Midnight Traveler takes place mostly during the day, and focuses less on tension than on texture. The first-person camera takes in the details of a life indefinitely in suspense, the transitory homes the family fashions out of goat-inhabited basements in Afghanistan, shady enclaves in the Bulgarian woods, and the squalid rooms of a refugee camp in Sofia.

Balancing rough-edge verité with highly composed images and a meticulous structure, Midnight Traveler doesn’t preclude itself from finding something like poetry in its subjects’ struggles. A memorable scene has the bespectacled Nargis standing on the rocky shore of the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, reacting giddily to the cool water splashing against her feet. We see what may well be Nargis’s first encounter with the sea through her father’s eyes, the boundless potential he sees in her reflected by the nearby expanse of the Black Sea.

The unsteadiness of mobile-phone video lends Midnight Traveler’s imagery an acute sense of intimacy, but we aren’t totally constrained to the perspective of the family’s patriarch. Fazili occasionally cedes control of his camera (and the voiceover narration) to Fatima or Nargis, who use it to log their own reactions to the family’s travails. Nargis weeps as she recounts witnessing right-wing Bulgarians pelt rocks at a group of refugees that includes her mother; in a lighter moment, Fatima tells the story of how she, an artist and filmmaker in her own right, turned Fazili, the son of a mullah, into an open-minded, secular man.

The documentary’s final act depicts the family’s life in a Serbian camp as they wait through an arcane asylum-application process—an experience that could be described as Kafkaesque but more in the style of the author’s short “Before the Law” parable than of his labyrinthine nightmares. Dreary boredom accompanies a sense of dread as the family waits for over a year to hear whether their application will even be reviewed. Committed to his project, Fazili shoots everything, not even putting down the camera throughout an argument he and Fatima have over his compliment of another female refugee. All the same, Fazili professes to struggling with applying his artistic ambitions to his family: When his youngest daughter, Zahra, goes missing in Serbia, he admits in voiceover that he considered recording as he searched for her through bushes, half expecting to find her dead body.

Although written text on screen periodically appears to fill in the inevitable narrative gaps of a documentary shot on the run, Fazili’s project draws a circle around his family and their immediate conditions. It’s a narrative approach reflected in the shallow focus of a Samsung phone’s camera. Glimpses at the outside world are oblique, perhaps sometimes intentionally vague: Faces of fellow refugees are blurred, and Midnight Traveler never zooms out to give us a sense of the grand, sheer sprawl of Istanbul or Sofia. We’re left feeling as lost and isolated as the Fazilis, in unfamiliar settings—anonymous city streets, goat-inhabited basements, Bulgarian forests—that we perceive only from their embodied perspectives.

The tight focus on the family’s travails belies a structuring absence in Midnight Traveler: the cause and history of the conflict that Fazili, Fatima, and their daughters are fleeing. There’s discussion of the Taliban but not of the other major force at play in war-torn Afghanistan: the United States-led coalition force that’s been fighting in the country for nearly two decades. That NATO now forces refugees from the destabilized region into legal limbo—that seeking help from the U.S., the leader of the coalition, doesn’t even appear to be within the realm of possibilities—may be the unspoken point of this harrowing film.

Director: Hassan Fazili Screenwriter: Emelie Mahdavian Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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