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Review: Mr. X

For a life beyond mere DVD supplementary material, the film could use a dose of rigor to balance out its steady stream of congratulatory pit stops.

2.5

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Mr. X
Photo: Carlotta Films

The interview subjects strewn throughout Tessa Louise-Salomé’s lovingly and elegantly produced Mr. X—connoisseurs, promoters, and collaborators of French film director Leos Carax, whose enigmatic pseudonym accounts for the film’s title—are introduced in slumber with flickering light projected onto their faces, a likely nod to the surrealist opening of 2012’s Holy Motors in which an auditorium of filmgoers sits somnambulistically before a movie screen. If Carax’s film was suggesting that cinema consumption naturally rests somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, Louise-Salomé’s goes a step further in implying image-seduced hypnosis to be a specifically Caraxian trait, a phenomenon linked not only to viewing his movies, but also to coming in contact with this mysterious figure. “Genius,” “poet,” “the essence of cinema,” and “the shooting star of French cinema” constitute some of the high-flown terminology lobbed regularly into the ring in this auteurist documentary survey, a pretty clear sign that, whatever you think of Carax’s cinema, he’s now been officially and strategically asserted into the canon. No questions asked, please.

In the history of film criticism, such poetic proselytizing bears immediate associations with the rapturous missives of Godard and Truffaut for Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1960s. Mr. X’s reverent tone recalls this embryonic era for auteurism, a fitting echo given the young Carax’s warm welcome into film culture in the 1980s as a spiritual heir to the adventurous French New Wave directors. That the film’s structure, a chronological journey through Carax’s filmography spiked with anecdotes and detours, puts special emphasis on the filmmaker’s introductory one-two punch of Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang attests to the overarching notion of a genius bursting, fully formed, out of the woodwork. The man himself is witnessed here only through interview fragments and clips from his select feature-film cameos (in admirer Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely and Sharunas Bartas’s underseen The House, for instance), though as many commentators agree, Carax is already omnipresent in his body of work, albeit refracted across his various antiheroes in the spectacular form of Denis Lavant. As critic Kent Jones observes, “It’s almost like you’re seeing someone project their dreams onto this other poetic self.”

Amid a fairly standard brew of talking heads, film clips, and playfully chosen behind-the-scenes snippets, Louise-Salomé’s key recurring visual trope—an animation of floating orbs filled with distorted images from Carax’s films, all backlit by a beaming ray of light—reinforces her film’s conception of Carax’s body of work as a universe unto itself, operating according to its own celestial logic and gravitational principles. For the Carax fan, this cinephilic immersion is comforting, but the film makes little room for thoughtful dissenters, rehashing (though eloquently) the praise already circling the director: his visionary aesthetics, his affectionate cine-references, the perception of his work as indirect autobiography. For a life beyond mere DVD supplementary material, Mr. X could use a dose of rigor to balance out its steady stream of congratulatory pit stops.

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Michel Piccoli, Denis Lavant, Kylie Minogue, Kent Jones, Richard Brody, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Harmony Korine Director: Tessa Louise-Salomé Screenwriter: Tessa Louise-Salomé, Chantal Perrin-Cluzet, Adrien Walter Distributor: Carlotta Films Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 2014 Buy: Video

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Review: Wildfire Vibrantly Entwines Personal and Political Trauma

The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation.

3

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Wildfire
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

The archival footage of the Troubles that opens Cathy Brady’s Wildfire constitutes a remembrance of an era that’s barely bygone. Indeed, as celebratory clips of the peacemaking Good Friday Agreement replace images of gunsmoke, fire, and post-bombing rubble, the film smash cuts to more recent news footage about Brexit and its possible impact on the Irish border, a reminder that the past, and certainly this one, is never past.

The uncertainty surrounding the border of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland is evident in Kelly’s (Nika McGuigan) belabored entry into the latter at the start of the film. Stopped for a heightened security search, the shabbily dressed woman must empty everything out of her camping backpack and strip before being let go, as well as told that it’s been a year since she was reported missing. Comparatively, her journey to her hometown on the Northern Irish border goes significantly easier, but as she slips into the country, the ease of her passage is undermined by the worry that future crossings could be more fraught.

The legacy of the Troubles and the wider history of British colonialism hangs heavy over the film’s early stretches. Kelly crosses the border next to a sign welcoming people to Northern Ireland, but someone, in a unionist gesture, has spray-painted “One” over the “Northern.” In contrast, she encounters Union Jack flags blowing in the wind as she walks down the street, even a building plastered with a giant loyalist motto: “Prepared for Peace. Ready for War.” Yet these omnipresent reminders of national violence give way to more personal legacies of trauma when Kelly heads to the home of her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who had all but given her up for dead. Lauren has struggled to deal with Kelly’s disappearance, and her return conjures ghosts from their past, including the long-repressed memory of their mother’s death.

The sisters’ denial regarding their family history is reflected in a Northern Ireland working to leave its own past behind. Lauren works for an Amazon-esque company that epitomizes post-national globalism; she spends her days in a warehouse so massive that the end of the building disappears at the vanishing point of the frame, suggesting the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A generational divide also reflects how quickly tragedy is forgotten. Lauren’s younger co-workers came of age after the Troubles, and as such they’re completely removed from its horrors, sniggering at the prosthetic leg of a manager who lost her limb in an explosion as those old enough to remember the constant terror of the time fume at the show of insensitivity. And the sectarian nature of that history of violence is subtly born out in the judgmental whispers about whether Lauren and Kelly’s mother died by suicide, a reminder of the influence still exerted by religion and dogma on people who seem otherwise secular.

Slowly, though, the film’s focus shifts away from its social backdrop and toward the increasingly raw emotions that McGuigan and Noone evoke as they chart their characters’ frayed relationship. McGuigan (who passed away of cancer soon after completing the film) emphasizes Kelly’s wild, fatalistic spirit, as if she had inherited it from her mother, always nervous and casting one eye toward the exit even as she attempts to repair her relationship to her sister. Noone, meanwhile, captures the rage of someone who’s learned to accept the loss of a loved one, only to have that person re-enter their life and reignite all the anger and pain that they learned to compartmentalize. Lauren’s veneer of stability starts to crumble almost immediately, as she simultaneously unleashes her fury at her sister and anyone who dares to gossip about her. The sisters each embody a wildly different response to trauma (flight versus fight), though neither approach truly confronts the underlying tragedies that shaped them.

The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation, as Brady has Kelly and Lauren follow a realistically erratic trajectory. Indeed, no sooner does Lauren reunite with Kelly than she screams for her sister to leave, only to then share a moment of fond nostalgia before bristling again at the memories that Kelly revives. Mutual and individual efforts to make good are constantly thwarted, while occasional moments of joyous interaction between them speak to a lifelong bond that not even decades-suppressed agony can undo. In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, the sisters suddenly cut loose and dance to Them’s “Gloria” inside a seemingly empty pub, working up an ecstatic sweat before it’s ultimately revealed that the space is filled with befuddled onlookers.

Lauren and Kelly’s tumultuous confrontations with their pasts and each other naturally has echoes in the film’s nods to Ireland’s fraught, and by no means settled, modern history. Yet Wildfire crucially never reduces itself to allegory, instead living through the unpredictable, jagged arcs of its characters as they work toward an understanding of themselves and each other. The militarized social strife that informed Lauren and Kelly’s childhoods is but one piece in a larger tapestry of horrors that must be dealt with, and Brady suggests that it’s only through reconciling personal conflicts that a populace can improve its political future.

Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, Kate Dickie, Aiste Gramantaite, David Pearse, Joanne Crawford Director: Cathy Brady Screenwriter: Cathy Brady Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: The Truffle Hunters Warmly Regards a Disappearing Way of Life

The film’s reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is delivered with tact and subtlety.

2.5

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The Truffle Hunters
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The boom in farm-to-table cuisine over the past decade, in both fine-dining circles and more modest gastropubs, has led to restaurants pointing out on their menus the suppliers and farms from which their ingredients have been sourced. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters taps into this cultural conversation, tracing a line from the food on the plate back to the laborers who harvest it, and yet what it implies is that even with the increased transparency around food sourcing, there remains an essential mystique that must go unpunctured when it comes to certain foods.

Profiling a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region, the film tries to thread the needle between shining a light on its subjects’ niche trade and not spoiling their secrets. It does so by placing the emphasis on the people themselves over the treasures they dig up, a strategy that aligns the film more with the cine-portraits of Les Blank than, say, Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

Unlike Blank’s nonchalantly matter-of-fact films, though, The Truffle Hunters is shot in a painterly visual style that creates a degree of distance from its subjects. Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of these devoted practitioners and their resistance to nosy profiteers, Dweck and Kershaw seem driven by a desire to enshrine the men in timeless tableaux, the likes of which you might see hung on the walls of a museum next to a Vermeer. To this end they’ve made a lovely film, one teeming with punctilious frames in which everything has been arranged just so. But it also prompts the assumption that the filmmakers took their fair share of liberties with the art direction in the hunters’ homes, which, despite being well within their rights as artists, keeps the film from ever feeling truly spontaneous.

The Truffle Hunters concerns itself with a handful of characters: a few expert foragers; their beloved fungi-sniffing canines; an urban buyer who’s always chasing the suppliers’ elusive secrets; and a crotchety gourmand who samples the delicacies brought his way by other such buyers. Dweck and Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between these different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic.

The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forest and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself.

This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. The highlight of The Truffle Hunters is the hilarious rapport between one persevering scavenger and his grumpy wife, who’s fed up with her husband’s imperiling trips into the woods at night—and for good reason, as several scenes illustrate just how physically taxing the process can be for an ailing body. These sketches of domestic life are rich with lived-in authenticity, and the proximity they grant us to a unique, off-the-grid way of life recalls a similar quality that defines Blank’s films about gumbo sorcerers in the bayou. It’s hard not to wonder how much more of that magic could have been captured had Dweck and Kershaw not bothered to so carefully compose and light their shots.

Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Concrete Cowboy Is Detail-Rich for What’s Basically an Afterschool Special

Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity.

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Concrete Cowboy
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy is based on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club of Northern Philadelphia, where African-Americans teach potentially troubled children to ride and care for horses as a way of avoiding the temptations of the streets. The reveal of this club is gracefully handled by Staub, as the film’s young protagonist, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), is dropped off on the doorstep of his father, Harp (Idris Elba), after his mother has given up trying to rein in the delinquent teen. This drop-off occurs at night, and Harp clearly doesn’t live in the best part of town. Scared, Cole asks a neighbor about his father’s current whereabouts and is directed to the nearby “stable,” which sounds in this context like a bar. Cole follows a street and a slum opens up into a literal stable, carved out of dilapidated buildings, with a field where horses roam while cowboys bullshit over a fire and beer. Staub stages this scene with offhand matter-of-factness, allowing us to feel the magic of Cole’s discovery—of a hopeful place existing where it, by all odds, should not.

Adapted from G. Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the film is involving when Staub and co-screenwriter Dan Walser stick to the particulars of Harp and the other cowboys’ lives as well as the general working culture of the stable. The horses are kept behind a brick wall in a building that was once suburban, which is rich in cobwebs that bring to mind Miss Havisham’s mansion in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Before he can ride a horse, Cole must of course pay his dues, shoveling horse shit out of the stable into a dumpster across the street. Staub fashions an entire, richly specific sequence out of this single action, offering a tribute to the pride of diligent work, especially when it’s servicing passion rather than mere survival. Some of the cowboys are also played by their actual counterparts, and their conversation is similarly detailed, rooted in the legacy of Philly and the Fletcher Street club.

Sadly, these details aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of the narrative, existing instead as window dressing for what amounts to an Afterschool Special. Too much of the film’s runtime is devoted to a shopworn conflict: Will Cole turn to dealing drugs or will he stick with the club? We know the answer to that question 10 minutes into the film, and so the perfunctory scenes of Cole riding around and surveying late-night parties and drop-offs feel like an unnecessary distraction from the cowboys. And Concrete Cowboy grows less detailed as it progresses. We’re not told how the cowboys barely subsidize their lifestyle (based on the news, the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club appears to be more organized, and funded), or if they work other jobs. The cowboys’ relationship to their surrounding community is also glossed over in the film, more or less dramatized by a single celebration sequence.

The delicacy of the film’s early scenes is regrettably missing from other moments that have the potential to be moving. When Harp fashions a special saddle so that a paralyzed cowboy may ride a horse again, we don’t need derivative slow-motion and music to comprehend the poignancy of such a gesture. We also don’t require expository dialogue to tell us that Cole feels excluded in this moment from a father who’s never shown him such generosity, as we glimpse this embittered yet admiring heartbreak in the boy’s face. However, Cole’s wound is cauterized in another wonderful scene, when Harp plays John Coltrane on vinyl and explains to Cole that he was named after the jazz legend. Again, Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity, avoiding what the New Yorker literature critic James Wood recently defined as our original sin: cliché, which, according to Wood, blocks our apprehension of reality.

Cast: Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Method Man, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, Swen Temmel, Byron Bowers, Lamont Fountain, Liz Priestley Director: Ricky Staub Screenwriter: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Pieces of a Woman Is a Patchy but Well-Acted Portrait of Unravelling Lives

When the film’s actors are given space to etch their characters’ feelings, they turn in strikingly naturalistic performances.

2.5

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Pieces of a Woman
Photo: Netflix

Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman swiftly and neatly—perhaps too neatly—establishes its core characters and their relationships to one another. Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a construction worker, is the gruff but loving husband. His wife, Martha (Vanessa Kirby), is the expectant mother who’s eager to start her maternity leave. And her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), is your stereotypical mother-in-law, buying the couple a new minivan just to spite Sean, who pointedly grumbles at one point that he can afford to support his family. These are familiar tensions that the audience is primed to expect will come to a head as husband and wife blissfully await the next stage in their lives.

Prior to the arrival of Martha and Sean’s midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), as golden light reflects off of the white walls of their home, Martha’s water breaks and Sean calms her with affirmations and silly jokes. This will be understood as the calm before the storm of Martha’s labor, which is captured in a single unbroken take. At first, the shot resolutely focuses on the characters’ faces, registering how Martha’s breathing quickens as her contractions grow more pronounced, and how Sean’s façade of stoicism drops whenever his wife takes her eyes off of him, allowing himself to fully feel the panic of a man about to become a father.

But soon, as the increasing chatter between characters starts to produce a current of tension, the protracted steps of the home birth compound the anxiety of the scene. By the time Eva prepares for the final pushing stages and reveals that the baby’s heart rate isn’t meeting normal levels, the tone of the sequence becomes more fraught. And just as things finally seem to build to a happy conclusion, the sound of a ragged breath causes Eva’s face to freeze, and a fade forward in time to a dour autumnal cityscape hints at the newborn’s fate.

It’s at this point that Pieces of a Woman’s narrative splits itself in two. On one side, we follow Martha and Sean as they struggle to cope with their loss, their relationship barely hanging together by a few threads. The focus remains mostly on Martha, who Kirby plays as trapped between poles of numb detachment and rage. As both Martha and Sean turn to others for physical comfort and escape, it’s Kirby who captures the full range of pain’s dissociative properties, stumbling around Boston in a fugue state, searching for some kind of meaning.

The other half of the narrative concerns Eva being brought up on charges of negligence. As a coroner informs Martha and Sean, the baby showed no signs of defects, and that few cases of infant mortality have satisfactory explanations. But friends make comments in which they hope that Eva faces “consequences,” while Elizabeth is determined to put the woman in prison. That the same long take that made Martha’s birthing process feel so immersive also showed how quickly Eva sprang into action to alert a hospital removes any ambiguity about her professional conduct. As such, her legal case becomes nothing more than a way for the bereaved to lay the blame at someone’s feet for a tragic but natural fact of life.

The trial makes sense as a manifestation of that aspect of the trauma process, particularly in a climactic scene where Martha finally weighs in on a legal action that everyone has taken on her behalf. But the time given over to the question of the case’s outcome too stiffly weds a film that’s at its best when living with characters’ emotional torpor to a conventional plot.

When Pieces of a Woman’s actors are given space to etch their characters’ feelings, they turn in strikingly naturalistic performances. Kirby walks a tightrope without collapsing into histrionics, and she conveys Martha’s increasing outbursts less as a show of a loss of control than of slowly regaining it. Elsewhere, LaBeouf soulfully charts the struggle of a man desperately trying to tamp down his sorrow over the death of his child in a last-ditch effort to hold onto the one person left in his life. Even when Sean is scheming behind Martha’s back with her mother or having an affair out of loneliness, LaBeouf stresses the man’s vulnerability and desire to pull his marriage out of the ditch in the face of inevitability. And in a monologue late in the film, in which Elizabeth forcefully explains what life experiences hardened her, Burstyn impressively pushes her character past cookie-cutter status. It’s a show-stopping moment that communicates far more than anything in the last-act coverage of Eva’s trial, which simplistically highlights breakthroughs that are more tacitly conveyed elsewhere.

Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails, Ellen Burstyn Director: Kornél Mundruczó Screenwriter: Kata Wéber Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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New York Film Festival 2020

There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival.

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New York Film Festival 2020
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Film festivals, like the rest of us, are still adapting to the unique challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, with major ones drastically scaling back their lineups or devising a hybrid physical-virtual screening schedules. The 58th New York Film Festival will kick off on September 17 with simultaneous screenings of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock at two drive-in theaters in Brooklyn and Queens (the festival will also be using another drive-in in the Bronx for further screenings). Lovers Rock is the first episode of McQueen’s five-part Small Axe miniseries, set among London’s West Indian community; the “film,” along with two others in the anthology (Mangrove and Red, White And Blue) will also be available to ticket-holders for designated four-hour windows online. After the cancellation of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s been encouraging to see so many festivals coping with the impacts of the pandemic, even if it seems somewhat antithetical for a film festival like this one to be effectively dispersed across the globe rather than concentrated in a single communal event.

The festival’s socially minded main slate features a wealth of new works from master documentarians like Fredrick Wiseman (City Hall), Jia Zhang-ke (Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue), and Gianfranco Rossi (Notturno). And particularly notable among the works of nonfiction in this year’s slate is Garrett Bradley’s Time, a stirring look at 21 years in the life of a family that’s been irrevocably altered by the prison-industrial complex. On the fiction side, the lineup is no less auteur-friendly, with the festival presenting the latest works by Christian Petzold (Undine), Tsai Ming-Liang (Days), Hong Sang-soo (The Woman Who Ran), Cristi Puiu (Malmkrog), and more. And this year’s much-anticipated centerpiece selection is Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider, Nomadland, about a woman (played by Frances MacDormand) who lost everything in the Great Recession and travels the country in a camper in the wake of her husband’s death.

This mix of socio-politically engaged documentaries and auteurist cinema also marks the festival’s Spotlight section. There, you’ll find new films by Pedro Almodóvar (the short drama The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton), Sofia Coppola (On the Rocks), and the prolific-in-death Orson Welles (Hopper/Welles), as well as David Dufresne’s The Monopoly of Violence, about police violence in France, and Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus’s All In: The Fight for Democracy, which is concerned with the history and current activism against voter suppression and is based around interviews with American politician Stacey Abrams.

Elsewhere, 59 films with a more experimental bent, interweaving fiction and nonfiction, will screen as part of the Currents program. Of particular note is the latest from Nicolás Pereda (Fauna) and another dispatch from beyond the grave by Raúl Ruiz (The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, co-directed by his widow and collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento). And among the notable titles slotted in the Revivals section, which “connects cinema’s rich past to its dynamic present through an eclectic assortment of new restorations,” are Béla Tarr’s Damnation, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, and Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct.

Right now, even the films most engaged with reality can feel out of date if they happen to have been shot more than eight months ago; seeing everyday people on screen shaking hands or standing in lines can have an uncanny effect. But then, watching art flicks at a drive-in might serve as a constant reminder to festivalgoers how much stranger the world has gotten than last year’s already-unnerving status quo. There’s something equal parts twisted and romantic about the left-for-dead format of the drive-in theater uniting with theater-killing streaming technology to preserve the institution of the film festival. It’s like temporal streams have been crossed, the mid-20th-century society of the auto hybridized with the 21st-century society of the mobile phone. The erstwhile downsides of these formats—the isolation of the home theater or hermetically sealed family car—turn out to be their primary advantages in our current context. Pat Brown

For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. Capsule reviews of films in the main slate appear below; check back as more titles are added, with links to full reviews.


Beginning

Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili)

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this opening’s blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force. David Robb


The Calming

The Calming (Song Fang)

The meticulousness and control of Song Fang’s feature-length directorial debut, Memories Look at Me, gave the film a specific conceptual focus. The Chinese actress and filmmaker’s follow-up feature, The Calming, places a similar emphasis on technique, but its scrupulously shot and staged compositions tend to suck the life out of every frame. The narrative is simple, and again loosely autobiographical: Song surrogate Lin Tong (Qi Xi), a documentary filmmaker who we learn early on has recently been through a breakup, drifts between Japan, China, and Hong Kong—locations with stated sentimental value to Song, who drew on her memories of visiting them during the film festival run of Memories Look at Me. That sense of personal meaning is meant to be conveyed through a film’s worth of immaculate long takes of Lin inhabiting different spaces, from bustling cityscapes to minimally furnished apartments, to lush, sprawling natural environments. But as a result of Song’s seeming unwillingness to give us much understanding of this character and her limited formalist vocabulary, The Calming is left unable to connect angst to anything significantly deeper. Sam C. Mac


City Hall

City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)

Frederick Wiseman never steps in the same river twice, though the methods of this prolific, preeminent documentarian are, with rare exception, unchanging. So it is with City Hall, Wiseman’s formidable and incisive exploration of local government in Boston, Massachusetts. Non-diegetic score and identifying on-screen titles are eschewed throughout, while the film’s duration is well past the feature-length norm—in this case, four-and-a-half engrossing hours. The camerawork, courtesy of Wiseman’s longtime collaborator John Davey, is mostly fly-on-the-wall, swish-panning between or settling for extended periods on a given scene’s subjects. Mundanities that many other artists would turn away from are manna to Wiseman. He gets as much poetic and provocative mileage out of a budget meeting that projects the fiscal year to come as he does a glass skyscraper reflecting a magic-hour sunset. The film’s provocations can seem savage at a glance, but they emerge from an observational tranquility that is uniquely Wiseman’s own, and which leave room for individual interpretation. What each of us sees is what each of us gets. But how do we arrive at our respective ideological terminus? City Hall isn’t an incitement, so much as an invitation to serenely reflect on and think through systems of power that are, like the people who labor within them, constantly evolving—for better and for worse. Keith Uhlich


Days

Days (Tsai Ming-liang)

Centered on the quotidian lives of two unnamed men (played by Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy), Days finds Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang reflecting once again on people’s unspeakable loneliness and alienation in a world lacking in reciprocity. In a series of tableaux vivants, where the camera remains mostly still and sound is entirely diegetic, the uneventful days of the two men unfold, or, considering the film’s meticulous attention to such elements as water and fire, you could say that they burn slowly. Indeed, the younger man (Houngheuangsy) stokes the embers of a fire so he can methodically make his lunch, washing vegetables and fish in buckets inside his bathroom and concocting a makeshift stove by placing a pot on top of the other one containing the embers. The older man (Lee), in turn, is seen taking a bath, stretching his sore body in the woods, and staring out a window for what feels like an entire afternoon, as he listens to the sound of water. Were Lee facing the lens, the sequence would belong to the same documentary universe of Wang Xiaoshuai or Sergei Loznitsa—of evidence through dogged visual persistence. Diego Semerene


Gunda

Gunda (Viktor Kossakovsky)

On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead. The newborn piglets in the film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human. Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. And by the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths. Keith Watson


Isabella

Isabella (Matías Piñeiro)

Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, a cubist riddle composed of elliptical scenes that hint at conflict, finds the Argentine writer-director sliding further into abstraction than ever before. The film cloaks its muted, wispy narrative in symbolic digressions and repetitive formal gestures that imply some grand design just beyond comprehension—a fitting analogy given the recurring presence of an overhead shot of hands arranging a puzzle consisting only of differently shaded notecards. Piñeiro remains a superlative director of actors and a careful modulator of rhythm, and part of the film’s longueurs have to do with an effort to provide respite from just how fast everyone talks and walks. But the drama of external turbulence and internal reckoning being sketched in the film, particularly as it relates to emerging motherhood, feels emotionally distinct from the amorous entanglements that Piñeiro was reveling in just half a decade ago, and if he’s indeed entering a phase of middle-aged concerns, it’s easy to feel primed for something deeply moving to come next. If that’s the case, then Isabella feels like a stylistic and thematic trial run. Carson Lund


Lovers Rock

Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

One of three episodes from his upcoming miniseries, Small Axe, that will world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is nothing if not a mood piece. For McQueen, who’s of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent, the series is his most personal project to date, weaving together various stories within London’s West Indian community in the 1980s. Set largely over one night at a house party and gently tracing the growing attraction between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and the mysterious Franklyn (Micheal Ward), Lovers Rock lovingly captures the sense of community that’s fostered within the house right out the gate, as the musicians set up the sound system and the jolly cooks in the kitchen start banging out curry goat and ackee and saltfish. The film’s centerpiece, set to Janet Kay’s lovers rock hit “Silly Games,” plays out across a sea of polyester, beautiful Black bodies rapturously entwined. The social world that McQueen envisions is lived-in, tactile, and especially wondrous across scenes that fixate on the temperature of a song (from Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” to the Revolutionaries “Kunta Kinte”) turning the dial up on people’s libidos. Luckily that’s the better part of Lovers Rock’s 70-minute runtime, because whenever it follows Martha out of the house and puts her in the crosshairs of a potential threat or generally catches her in a moment of confusion about some incident that feels every bit as alien to us, it’s difficult to not see the film’s episodic roots. Ed Gonzalez


Isabella

Isabella (Matías Piñeiro)

Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, a cubist riddle composed of elliptical scenes that hint at conflict, finds the Argentine writer-director sliding further into abstraction than ever before. The film cloaks its muted, wispy narrative in symbolic digressions and repetitive formal gestures that imply some grand design just beyond comprehension—a fitting analogy given the recurring presence of an overhead shot of hands arranging a puzzle consisting only of differently shaded notecards. Piñeiro remains a superlative director of actors and a careful modulator of rhythm, and part of the film’s longueurs have to do with an effort to provide respite from just how fast everyone talks and walks. But the drama of external turbulence and internal reckoning being sketched in the film, particularly as it relates to emerging motherhood, feels emotionally distinct from the amorous entanglements that Piñeiro was reveling in just half a decade ago, and if he’s indeed entering a phase of middle-aged concerns, it’s easy to feel primed for something deeply moving to come next. If that’s the case, then Isabella feels like a stylistic and thematic trial run. Ed Gonzalez


Malmkrog

Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air. That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Ben Flanagan


MLK/FBI

MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard)

Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is an impressive reassessment of an American icon, approaching sensational material in forthright terms and without devolving into sensationalism. Based largely on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow’s 2015 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, this knotty and compelling documentary threads together the story of the F.B.I.’s obsession with finding compromising secrets about King with an unusually frank accounting of what some of those secrets were. When Garrow published a blockbuster story in 2019 alleging that King had witnessed or potentially even taken part in a 1964 rape at a hotel, it caused a brief flutter but was largely overlooked in the mainstream media. Pollard handles this explosive issue with restraint and intelligence. The film shows no illusions about the extent of King’s affairs. But it also refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving his personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality. Pollard also deals carefully with Garrow’s most damning allegation, giving the thinly documented charge its due but carving out space around it for uncertainty. While the film doesn’t try to elevate King’s pedestal any higher, it also doesn’t try to knock him off of it. Chris Barsanti


Night of the Kings

Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)

Inside the La MACA prison in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a newly arrived prisoner (Bakary Koné) becomes a “Roman,” a storyteller tasked with spinning yarns as entertainment, with the threat of being hung on an iron hook if he fails to hold everyone’s attention. This unlucky Scheherazade-like character thus finds himself at the center of an explosion of activity as the other prisoners prepare for this ritualistic evening. The most striking aspect of Night of the Kings is the way in which the prisoners begin to act out Roman’s story, voicing characters and even engaging in interpretive song and dance as if possessed by the spirit to act. The camera regularly shifts away from Roman to move in lockstep with the prisoners’ contortions and twirling movements, resulting in a poetry of motion that illuminates his improvised tale better than the actual depictions of it. Despite its bleak context, the film is a celebration of oral traditions as a means of giving purpose to even the most hopeless of lives. That a film so frequently harrowing can so often feel joyous without every trivializing the state of its characters’ imprisonment is a testament to the way that writer-director Philippe Lacôte resolutely finds the meaning embedded within ritual, and how the activities of the inmates, however strange, constitute routines every bit as normalizing as the daily tasks of those living their lives outside the walls of the prison. Jake Cole


Nomadland

Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

“I’m not homeless,” Fern (Frances McDormand) says in response to the concerned query of an old friend in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. “I’m just houseless.” And she says it in a distinctly sharp, guarded, and prideful tone that McDormand expertly deploys throughout the film. I’m fine, her voice and slightly narrowed eyes say, but don’t come any closer. Her standoffishness points to the pride of a van-dwelling and only occasionally employed woman who spurns pity while trying to carve out a place for herself in a society that doesn’t leave space for people not defined by steady careers or well-rooted homes. Using a minimal and improvised-feeling script that emphasizes interaction and happenstance over story, Zhao places Fern and the gorgeous landscapes she travels through at the forefront of the film. There are times when Joshua James Richards’s sweeping cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s gently emotive music point to a far more romantic vision than that suggested by Fern’s hard-bitten attitude. But by juxtaposing beautiful vistas filled with promise, a rotted social safety net, and the scrappy itinerant workers navigating the space in between, Zhao generates a gradually swelling tension underneath her film’s somewhat placid surface. In the end, whether Fern roams the desert or returns to housed life, the unfulfilled promise of America will keep pushing her back to the horizon. Barsanti


Notturno

Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi)

The common understanding of documentaries is that they’re intended to inform in particular ways: candid footage often complemented by explanatory text and graphics, testimony of witnesses and experts who frame and flesh out the events in question, contemplative pans across archival evidence, and, in the age of reality TV, extended interviews with the subjects themselves in close-up, providing a kind of running interior monologue. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentaries, though they take on topics of great socio-political import, eschew virtually all of these conventions and thus demand a different kind of engagement—one rooted in empathy for the experiences of his essentially anonymous human subjects. His refusal to firmly place the segments of life that he captures within an explicit broader framework might be seen as an effort to keep his images resolutely in the present. The unpredictable power outages and food shortages in major cities, the unsettling presence of foreign armies, the mental and physical suffering of children whose families and neighbors have been slaughtered by ISIS—the dreadful beauty of Notturno’s experiential approach to cinema emphasizes that these aren’t impersonal events on a timeline, but the current life as lived by millions in the Near East. Brown



The Salt of Tears

The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)

Despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Scenes from a Marriage to A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Philippe Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity. Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc (Logann Antuofermo), he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride. Semerene


Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhang-ke)

Divided into 18 titled chapters, Jia Zhang-ke’s documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is a quietly reflective, intermittently rambling rumination on an explosively momentous period in history. In the film, a 2019 literary festival in Jia’s home province of Shanxi is the springboard for three writers’ takes on how China has been transformed since the 1940s. Although the style and manner of the writers vary widely, they each describe a time of radical change, particularly how small villages like Jia’s were rocked by the tumult of the Communist Party takeover in 1949, then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and then the turbo-charged urbanization of the new millennium. Taking a quieter and less barbed approach to addressing the state of modern China than fans of his work are likely used to from such politically pointed dramas as A Touch of Sin, Jia refers to the documentary as a “symphony.” As such, it features discrete movements and some repeated themes, like the beautiful interludes in which farm workers recite short snippets from the books being discussed. What it doesn’t have, however, is much of a crescendo. Barsanti


Time

Time (Garrett Bradley)

In 1997, Robert Richardson was convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole. Time doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. That’s because director Garrett Bradley has the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time. Brown


The Truffle Hunters

The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw)

Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of their subjects—a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region—and their resistance to nosy profiteers, The Truffle Hunters seems driven by a desire to enshrine the men in a timeless tableaux. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between the film’s different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic. The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forests and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself. This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. Lund



Undine

Undine (Christian Petzold)

Throughout his increasingly formidable oeuvre, Christian Petzold has nested stories of doomed love in surveys of his home nation’s reaction to economic or historical upheavals. Though at once lighter and stranger than any of his earlier work, Undine makes the melodramatic trappings of the director’s previous films its explicit subject, questioning the fixed nature of human behavior in a world whose borders are constantly shifting. It’s ironic and puzzling, then, that Undine’s eponymous character (Paula Beer) is both human and a water sprite. As this typically compact but deceptively rich film moves along, flashes of dislocation proliferate, undermining its seemingly contemporary setting and leaving us to wonder whether love and logic are compatible. As Petzold ushers his lovers toward doom, the film almost seems to rewind, revisiting most of its settings and turning sites of passion into mausoleums of aching and regret. “Form follows function,” Undine says at one point, and with minor alterations in framing and presentation Petzold fundamentally shifts our sense of these locations. Apparently the first in a trilogy of modern stories based on fables, Undine is a striking change of pace that sacrifices none of the director’s intellect or ambition. Christopher Gray



The Woman Who Ran

The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)

Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran is defined by absences: by who isn’t in the frame and by what isn’t said throughout conversations that appear to be determinedly trivial. Returning to Seoul after years away, Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) reconnects with a trio of female friends, and they talk of the food they eat and indulge in local gossip, repeating observations with a fervor that feels obsessive and mindless, as if these women have gotten too calcified in their own lives to utter anything but mantras. Yet Hong and his actors communicate the disappointment and sadness that’s being suppressed by well-practiced politeness, offering anecdotes that abound in pointed loose ends. Throughout, you may recall that audacious sequence in Grass in which a woman repeatedly went up and down a flight of stairs, as Hong fashions a similar yet subtler portrait of stasis with his latest. Many Hong films examine romantic pressures from the POV of a surrogate for the director himself, while The Woman Who Ran suggests Hong’s fantasy of how women discuss him when he’s not around. Chuck Bowen

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Review: The Nest Is a Morality Tale Caught Between Black Comedy and Horror

Sean Durkin’s sweated-over filmmaking tediously lifts a familiar tale of domestic dysfunction to the level of myth.

2

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The Nest
Photo: IFC Films

Like real estate, cinema is all about location, location, location. Sean Durkin has picked the right one with The Nest, while his characters have most certainly picked the wrong one. Often feeling as though it were reverse-engineered around a deluxe location hookup in Durkin’s native England, The Nest wrings tension out of the cavernous hallways and stygian shadows of the countryside manor where white-collar stooge Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) has brought his family on the promise of a financial windfall. Nearly every exactingly framed establishing shot in the film creeps toward the action at a snail’s pace, implying the presence of some malevolent force at work in the floorboards and walls themselves. But while the film adopts the semantics of a horror film, it’s really just a gussied-up domestic melodrama, its skewering of the father-knows-best ethos calling to mind midcentury classics like Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life or Vincente Minnelli’s Home from the Hill.

The Nest is set in Ronald Reagan’s ‘80s, a period whose individualist economic philosophies have polluted Rory’s brain to such a degree that the quaint slow-growth attitudes of his old-money colleagues in London start to look preferable by comparison. Having fallen hook, line, and sinker for the illusion of upward mobility after a stint in the American suburbs (where the film begins), the English-born Rory’s business ambitions lead him back to the exurbs of London, where he hopes that he can corner the market on globalizing prospects in the home country. His wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), a horse trainer who so gamely sees through her husband’s bullshit that it’s a bit hard to believe she keeps going along with it, hates the move at face value, and her immediate and increasing distaste of the ghoulish, Gothic-like property is telegraphed by the accelerating rate of her portentous chain smoking.

As in his acclaimed debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin favors an aesthetic of frigid calculation reminiscent of the work of frequent collaborator Antonio Campos: a color palette evoking soil and pine overseen by German cinematographer Mátyás Erdély; close-ups used more for graphic punctuation than vicarious engagement; and hard-edged compositions that make pointed use of blurred negative space and vanishing points. The narrative is unfurled as a volley between Rory’s exploits among the London financial elite and the unraveling order back at the homestead, with razor-sharp edits timed for maximum unease to bridge the two spheres. His disaffected teenage daughter, Samantha (Oona Roche), starts amassing enough cigarette butts to rival her mother when she realizes that she’s being shunned by Rory in favor of her docile younger brother, Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), who’s been enrolled in a fancy private school in a show of Daddy’s favoritism. Meanwhile, the neglected Allison escapes the pressure of her husband’s mounting debts by caring for her beloved horse—an outlet that’s cruelly vacated when the animal inexplicably drops dead.

Durkin’s sweated-over filmmaking tediously lifts a familiar tale of domestic dysfunction to the level of myth. More compelling are the diversions to London high-rises and white-tablecloth soirees, where Durkin, who grew up outside the city in the era depicted in the film, offers a caustic take on the fusty value system of the upper classes—which Rory first conforms to and later rebels against. The scenes between Law and Michael Culkin, playing Rory’s old stuck-in-his-ways boss, Arthur, alight with the sense of two actors energized by their combative material, with Law leaning into his knack for bratty selfishness as his character tries to strong-arm his steely superior into a deal that’s evidently not in his interest. Rory does a similarly groveling act when he entertains his associates at dinner parties, which gives Allison a chance to balk at her husband’s Janus-faced insincerity. Such scenes point toward a culture-clash black comedy that The Nest never fully embraces, as it’s too busy flirting with intimations of paranormal activity, from creepy silences to doors mysteriously opening.

Of course, these gestures toward otherworldliness aren’t an accident, but rather a considered metaphor, as the only thing haunting this family is their own internal strife. The figurative demons are exorcised in a histrionic third act that intercuts between three different breaking points: Samantha’s takeover of the house for a rowdy high school bash, Allison’s escape into London side streets to liquor up and dance away her frustration, and Rory’s dark night of the soul, a humiliating evening of failed transactions that finds him trudging down a dirt road at dawn in a tracking shot that quotes Sátántangó. Durkin remains a filmmaker of clear skill and promise, but The Nest too often strains for effect, saddling the actors, especially Law, with groaner dialogue that underlines the story’s subtext. “I had a shitty childhood and I deserve this and I deserve a lot more,” hisses Rory when confronted by Allison on his delusions, reinforcing the already self-evident theme of this dreary morality tale: that worshiping wealth is an illness. Odds are good that the freaks who don’t already know that will not see this film.

Cast: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Culkin, Adeel Akhtar Director: Sean Durkin Screenwriter: Sean Durkin Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: I Care a Lot, Before Losing the Thread, Is a Barbed Satire of Capitalism

Throughout, J Blakeson crafts sharp, curt dialogue that makes a fashion statement out of contempt.

2.5

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I Care a Lot
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

J Blakeson’s I Care a Lot initially cuts to the heart of one of many American sicknesses. A legal guardian, Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), tells us at the start of the film that notions of playing fair were invented by the rich to sucker the poor, and anyone who’s paying attention understands that in our country only viciousness is rewarded. This claim serves as a screenwriter’s baldly articulated thesis while reflecting Marla’s self-rationalization as well as the simple truth. We quickly learn that Marla has concocted a scam so inventive and heartless it might even make our commander in chief blush with envy.

Working with a doctor, Amos (Alicia Witt), the head of an assisted living home, Sam Rice (Damian Young), and a clueless judge, Lomax (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Marla conspires to have aging people falsely declared mentally incompetent so that she may become their legal guardian, imprison them in the home, and gradually liquefy their belongings, from which she takes a large cut. Blakeson’s script initially mines our fears of exploitation, giddily indicting a national health care system that serves as a huge, faceless, unsympathetic profit center that intersects with other profit centers such as the judiciary and incarceration systems. Marla clearly feels that her elderly targets are going to be fucked over anyway, so why not grab a piece for herself, prying it away from an infrastructural monolith?

Blakeson crafts sharp, curt dialogue that makes a fashion statement out of contempt, and it’s particularly nightmarish to see chic, slick Marla ransack the home like some yuppie conqueror or vampire. Marla represents the zero-sum mentality of capitalism, but she’s also meant to suggest fear of castration. She emasculates the unkempt (read: beta) son of one of her charges early on, and continues to confront and outwit men on various rungs of the social ladder (one of whom is played with indelible sleaze by Chris Messina), until finally meeting one who matches or exceeds her ruthlessness: a mysterious gangster named Roman (Peter Dinklage).

Roman’s entrance into the film represents a disappointment and a coup. As Marla and Roman go to war over the fate of Marla’s recent victim, Jennifer Preston (Dianne Wiest), I Care a Lot drifts toward escalating and increasingly conventional acts of thriller-movie cruelty. However, Blakeson springs a good sick joke with Roman, as this sex-trafficking, murdering outlaw scans as a more sympathetic antihero than Marla. Roman, in his attachment to Jennifer, who’s been mercilessly tormented by Marla, occasionally displays recognizable emotions, while Marla remains mercenary until I Care a Lot goes soft in the last act.

Marla nevertheless grows tedious, as filmmakers have become too comfortable utilizing Pike as an embodiment of suppressed female wrath. The scenes meant to indicate that Marla is capable of vulnerability, opposite her equally ruthless associate and lover, Fran (Eiza González), are perfunctory, while Roman’s rage and desperation deepen his stature, allowing him to arise as a monster with a degree of pathos. Perhaps Dinklage is more capable of surprising us than Pike, investing mundane commands (like “make it look organic”) with weirdly poignant comic menace. Marla doesn’t even flinch when she’s on the verge of being tortured to death, and she eventually becomes an action hero by the dictates of the plot—a white-collar crook who can turn ridiculously on a dime into a blue-collar bad ass.

Quoting Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 2, it appears that Blakeson means for us to champion Marla as a feminist icon for a while, though he deflates this potential moral idiocy with an ironic ending. Blakeson does lose track of the health-care hook, though, to the point that Jennifer, who’s played cunningly by Wiest, is essentially forgotten. Of course, the notion of an elderly person locked away, invisible, while younger people eat one another alive for her spoils is certainly resonant in its own right.

Cast: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Macon Blair, Alicia Witt, Damian Young, Nicholas Logan, Liz Eng, Celeste Oliva, Georgia Lyman, Moira Driscoll, Chris Messina Director: J Blakeson Screenwriter: J Blakeson Running Time: 118 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: MLK/FBI Is a Compelling Look at J. Edgar Hoover’s Anti-King Crusade

The film refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving King’s personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality.

3

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MLK/FBI
Photo: IFC Films

Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI is an impressive reassessment of an American icon, approaching sensational material in forthright terms and without devolving into sensationalism. Based largely on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow’s 2015 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis, this knotty and compelling documentary threads together the story of the F.B.I.’s obsession with finding compromising secrets about King with an unusually frank accounting of what some of those secrets were.

With Garrow, a handful of other historians, and a couple of King colleagues (Andrew Young and Clarence B. Jones) providing voiceover, Pollard unspools a stream of grainy archival footage to illustrate J. Edgar Hoover’s years-long anti-King crusade. Long obsessed with the idea that a “Black messiah” who could stir America’s Black population into political action was a central hazard to the nation, Hoover not unsurprisingly saw this threat manifested in King’s stirring moral authority. The discovery that one of King’s closest advisors, Stanley Levison, was a longtime fixture in Hoover’s other bugaboo, the Communist Party, just fed the F.B.I. director’s paranoia. Hoover then aimed the agency’s COINTELPRO project at King and his civil rights group, the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, to do what it did best: infiltrate, disrupt, and dig up dirt. Much of the dirt they uncovered concerned King’s extramarital affairs.

Much of this is familiar territory, though Pollard lays it out with dramatic panache—footage from cornball films like The FBI Story provides comedic evidence of the titular agency’s carefully nurtured image—that doesn’t sacrifice nuance. The film paints a harrowing portrait of Hoover’s monomaniacal fixation on destroying King: tailing him, tapping his phones, and bugging his rooms (King refused for a while to believe this, insisting that the F.B.I. had better things to do and actual criminals to catch). Garrow pushes back on the popular conception that the F.B.I. was a rogue agency under Hoover, arguing that as idiosyncratic as the director was, his determination to cut down anything that threatened white male capitalist Christian hegemony was strictly in line with the American power structure at the time.

When the discussion of F.B.I. tactics turns to one of its most scurrilously strange plans—the 1964 mailing of tapes with graphic audio of King’s affairs to his wife, Coretta Scott King, along with a letter advising King to kill himself—former F.B.I. director James Comey appears briefly to describe it as “the darkest period of the Bureau’s history.” His point isn’t hard to argue with, given that Hoover’s frustration with King appeared to stem mostly from personal animus and prurience. The tape tactic was apparently used after a whisper campaign passing rumors about King’s infidelities to church leaders and the media caused nary a ripple of interest.

MLK/FBI addresses another widely ignored charge against King. When Garrow published a blockbuster story in 2019 alleging that King had witnessed or potentially even taken part in a 1964 rape at a hotel, it caused a brief flutter but was largely overlooked in the mainstream media. Given the horrific nature of the charges and Garrow’s status—he won the Pulitzer for his 1986 biography on King—the muted reaction was somewhat surprising. It’s possible that this had something to do with the critiques some historians leveled at Garrow for hanging his entire case on a few handwritten notes on an F.B.I. transcript from the agency’s bug in the hotel room. But the disinterest of most media organizations and the general public in the story can more likely be chalked up to a preference for leaving certain icons mostly as they are.

Pollard handles this explosive issue with restraint and intelligence. The film shows no illusions about the extent of King’s affairs. But it also refrains from any dubious moral calculations by giving his personal deceptions the same weight as his public morality. Pollard also deals carefully with Garrow’s most damning allegation, giving the thinly documented charge its due but carving out space around it for uncertainty. While the film doesn’t try to elevate King’s pedestal any higher, it also doesn’t try to knock him off of it.

Director: Sam Pollard Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: As Pulp Fiction, The Secrets We Keep Never Goes into Overdrive

The film is ultimately too tidy to embrace anything truly startling or unexpected, either stylistically or narratively.

2.5

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The Secrets We Keep
Photo: Bleecker Street

Set in an archetypal American suburb in the 1950s, Yuval Adler’s The Secrets We Keep centers the wartime trauma of a Romanian woman, Maja (Noomi Rapace), who’s convinced that a recent transplant to the neighborhood, Thomas (Joel Kinnaman), is the Nazi who raped her and helped execute her family during the war. Playing out primarily as a modest three-hander, with Maja’s husband, Lewis (Chris Messina), essentially functioning as the arbitrator between his wife and Thomas, the film is initially fixated on probing the thorny nature of a woman’s memory, so tinged with remorse and anger.

The film is at its most taut during its opening act, when Maja’s initial assumption about Thomas leads her to assault and kidnap the man, leaving him tied up in her basement to be interrogated and, potentially, murdered. Here, Maja’s emotional instability gives way to an encroaching doubt, which is only further intensified by Lewis. Although he knew his wife suffered from nightmares about the war, he was unaware of the details about her horrific experiences, and thus hesitates to believe that Thomas is the man that she thinks he is. Adler and Ryan Covington’s script glistens with delicate ambiguities during these early stretches, not only bringing into question the moral rectitude of Maja’s vigilante tactics, but also the logical, though perhaps disloyal, steps taken by Lewis to mitigate the damage caused by his wife’s recklessness, as well as the potential innocence of the bewildered Thomas.

When the film homes in on the rising tensions between Maja and Lewis as they struggle to determine the endgame to their self-made quagmire, it remains a penetrating examination of a marriage that’s suddenly thrust into the irresolvable anguish of the past. As the helpless husband—stuck between fully supporting his wife’s bloodlust and ensuring himself that Thomas, a seemingly mild-mannered Swiss man, is the monster she says he is—Messina brings a crucial mix of empathy and pragmatism to his role, helping to ground an otherwise outlandish scenario. And Thomas’s pushback against Maja’s gung-ho yearning for retribution complicates what could otherwise have been a straightforward revenge tale, both in terms of the effects that her decision has on their entire family, including their son (Jackson Vincent), and the trust issues that arise when Lewis learns the secrets of her traumatic past.

But as The Secrets We Keep opens itself up to peer at the world outside of Maja and Lewis’s home, it not only begins to really stretch the plausibility of its scenario, it also focuses more unwaveringly on the mystery of whether or not Thomas is actually a Nazi in hiding. The meddling of a next-door neighbor (Jeff Pope) and a police officer (David Maldonado) offers little more than cheap suspense as to whether or not Maja and Lewis will be found out. And the late-in-the-game arrival of Thomas’s wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), exists for no other reason than to highlight her fast rapport with Maja, as well as, in a distasteful attempt to make us further question Thomas’s guilt, to reveal that she, too, is Jewish.

These supporting characters are so thinly sketched that they come to feel like expats from some stereotypical drama about ‘50s suburbia. And while the film uses them as a means to suggest that Maja and Lewis’s illegal acts, and the dirty little secret hidden away in their basement, are representative of the dark underbelly of post-war America, it’s an impression that doesn’t transcend triteness. Adler flirts with pulp, particularly during Maja’s more violent interrogation sessions with Thomas, but the film is ultimately too tidy to embrace anything truly startling or unexpected, either stylistically or narratively. And as The Secrets We Keep settles into the predictable trajectory of a more traditional mystery, Maja’s once intense rage and indignation is stifled as all clouds of uncertainty are conveniently cleared away.

Cast: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jackson Dean Vincent, Madison Paige Jones, Jeff Pope, David Maldonado, Ed Amatrudo Director: Yuval Adler Screenwriter: Yuval Adler, Ryan Covington Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Devil All the Time Offers a Surplus of Southern-Fried Misery Porn

Throughout, the characters aren’t allowed to reveal themselves apart from the dictates of the plot.

1

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The Devil All the Time
Photo: Netflix

The title of Antonio Campos’s The Devil All the Time proves to be an all too honest one. Over the course of 138 numbing minutes, Campos springs a catalogue of cheap horrors, offering a riff on the Psycho device of killing the protagonist unexpectedly—on repeat. So many potential heroes or antiheros die “unexpectedly” that the film becomes a kind of riff on the story of Abraham, crossed with the notion of the sins of the father coming to visit his children regardless of what the bible says. This patchwork theme might’ve had a ghoulish tang if Campos had a sense of humor or interest in his characters. Instead, the filmmaker fashions redundant misery porn steeped in Southern-fried clichés.

The Devil All the Time is adapted, by Campos and brother Paulo Campos, from a 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who narrates the film. Campos is probably aiming for a poignant alienation effect, giving voice to characters who barely know their own feelings, a la Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Todd Field’s Little Children. For Kubrick, this device was a wicked joke on repression that grew devastatingly moving. For Field and Campos, it’s a way of signaling rarefied intentions that imparts already evident information. The characters in The Devil All the Time are so instantly, easily known that Pollock’s pseudo-profound Faulkner-by-way-of-Billy-Bob-Thornton prose becomes merely one of many failed indulgences. The lurid, shopworn events in this film are ludicrously unfit for Pollock’s sermonizing.

We learn via Pollock’s narration of two small towns in Ohio connected by contrivances. Returning home after serving in World War II, where he encountered a horror that temporarily disrupts his faith in Christianity, Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) meets cute with a waitress in a diner, Charlotte (Haley Bennet), and marries her seemingly a few minutes later. We’re told nothing about Charlotte, who exists as an embodiment of Willard’s fantasy of stability after the war. Willard, however, is revealed to be easing back into his religion, which grows obsessive over the years, especially after he bears the first of the film’s 100 or so calamities. In considerable pain, Willard puts his nine-year-old son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta), through unforgivable anguish, failing whatever gauntlet he perceives the lord to have thrown down.

For a while, The Devil All the Time skips around between time frames. As Arvin is conditioned to be a hard-nosed survivalist, a child roughly his age, Lenora (Ever Elouise Landrum), is orphaned via two crisscrossing acts of religious severity, at the hands of her unhinged preacher father, Roy (Harry Melling), and a pair of drifting fundamentalist sex-photographer serial killers, Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), who met at the same diner and on the same day as Willard and Charlotte did. The upshot of the first hour is that Arvin and Lenora eventually come to grow up in the same household in the 1960s and are played as teens by Tom Holland and Eliza Scanlen, respectively. At this point, the film settles into a more-or-less singular narrative, with guest appearances by crazies from parallel scenarios.

The one form of suspense that The Devil All the Time authentically generates is curiosity as to what its general point might be. Given the preponderance of stereotypical religious fanatics on display, the viewer is again tempted to take the film as a put-on—a comic riff on the self-serving nepotism that religion often enables. The mind keeps wanting to turn this absurd roundelay into a comedy, as that interpretation gives the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and casts the mechanical narrative in a potentially lucid light.

But Robert Pattinson is the only person who seems to recognize this material for the hokum it is. Playing another of the film’s compromised preachers, indelibly named Preston Teagardin, Pattinson struts his tail feathers, pushes his gut forward, and revels in his character’s smug debauchery. He understands the sensual wickedness of Southern Gothic tall tales, avoiding the stiff presentational acting of the majority of the cast—the sort of condescendingly “noble” acting that was ridiculed so astutely in Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

As a character begins to kill a bunch of other characters, in the process uniting various story strands, one suspects that Campos is aiming for a Southern spin on Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a film that also attempted to affirm faith via the pleasures of narrative decadence. Tarantino may have created self-consciously iconographic characters, but he occasionally allowed them to breathe; in their vices they seemed, well, not human but alive with their creator’s obsessions. By contrast, every moment in The Devil All the Time is meant to be a galvanic, preachifying high point, and so the characters aren’t allowed to reveal themselves apart from the dictates of the plot. One can scarcely imagine a duller lot of sacrificial lambs.

Cast: Tom Holland, Eliza Scanlen, Bill Skarsgård, Haley Bennett, Robert Pattinson, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Mia Wasikowska, Douglas Hodge, Lucy Faust, Given Sharp, Michael Banks Repeta, Ever Eloise Landrum Director: Antonio Campos Screenwriter: Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 138 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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