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Review: Nothing Bad Can Happen

Katrin Gebbe’s film potentially creates a new category of offense for its multitudinous levels of dastardly nihilism masquerading as a socio-philosophical horror show.

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Clayton Dillard

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Nothing Bad Can Happen
Photo: Drafthouse Films

There is provocation, there is exploitation, and then there is Nothing Bad Can Happen, a film so comprehensively miscalculated in its desire to be a batshit think piece that it potentially creates a new category of offense for its multitudinous levels of dastardly nihilism masquerading as a socio-philosophical horror show. Tore (Julius Feldmeier) is a newly inducted member of the “Jesus Freaks,” a group of straight-edge teens in Hamburg attempting to correct what other denominations have gotten wrong by “living the way He did.” After having a seizure at a concert, Tore is taken in by Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), who, along with his wife and kids, find Tore’s beliefs fascinating, while remaining heavily skeptical. Benno becomes increasingly aggressive, demented, and violent toward Tore, eventually forcing him into an extended session of torture, both psychological and physical, as a test to his supposedly unwavering faith.

These narrative elements could be the makings of a contemplative horror film and, for the first 20 minutes or so, writer-director Katrin Gebbe’s slow-burn pacing and sonically oriented aesthetics suggest intelligence may loom within later portions of the film. However, it’s soon apparent that Gebbe’s interests are less in exploring how youthful desire for transcendence is exploited by bourgeois underpinnings, than concocting a sadistic, elaborate setup within which to place her borderline mentally handicapped protagonist, soon to be humiliated, bruised, beaten, tortured, and raped at the mercy of Benno, whose inexplicable turn from curious interlocutor to merciless grim reaper reeks of genre-tinged fecklessness.

In fact, Nothing Bad Can Happen becomes so riddled with jaw-droppingly cruel and gleefully nasty scenes that, by the time Benno drowns a cat, watches Tore have a seizure, and then labels him a “retard” while walking away, it’s difficult not to wonder about Gebbe’s complicity with the gestating absurdity and whether this material is, truly, meant to be taken seriously. These concerns only manifest further in the film’s second half, which transforms Tore from a punching bag into a full-blown piñata of pain, through a series of sequences so pathetically, transparently mean-spirited and self-serious that any suspicions of Gebbe’s ceaselessly grave intentions are immediately dispelled. Were the scenes alone not telling enough, Gebbe divides the film into three chapters labeled “faith,” “love,” and “hope,” a sophomorically daft choice that heedlessly apes Lars von Trier’s preference for chapter titles and gruesome, ascetic tendencies.

Nothing Bad Can Happen would be virulent were it not a base product of film-school ignominy, with “provocation” being the valorized dispositif, no matter how flawed or asinine the conceit. Yet what’s most damnable about Gebbe’s feigned conviction is how deliberately she seeks a built-in defense for the film’s not one, but two inexcusable rape scenes, the latter of which makes the risible gay sex scene in Steve McQueen’s Shame look positively Bressonian by comparison. After kidnapping and forcing Tore into a gay club to be brutally and repeatedly raped, Benno asks on the ride “home”: “Have fun with the boys? Oh yeah, Christians don’t like homos.” Neglecting the implications of an underground gay club replete with leering transvestites and grunting rapists is actually the least of Gebbe’s problems. By attempting to posit the scene as a necessary evocation of Benno’s seemingly endless capacity for torturous endowment, Gebbe engages a rhetorical gesture equal to Benno’s: a pseudo-Socratic method of critical inquiry, masking larger, psychopathic tendencies. Thus, Gebbe’s subterfuge amounts to prizing art-house guttersnipe moves at all costs, no matter the ramifications.

Cast: Julius Feldmeier, Sascha Alexander Gersak, Annika Kuhl, Swantje Kohlhof, Til Theinert Director: Katrin Gebbe Screenwriter: Katrin Gebbe Distributor: Drafthouse Films Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2013 Buy: Video

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Review: Fabian: Going to the Dogs Conjures a Shared Nightmare of the Past

The film’s characters are suffused with a paradoxical kind of fear that can only happen in a dream.

3.5
Pat Brown

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Fabian: Going to the Dogs
Photo: Hanno Lentz/Lupo Film

Dominik Graf’s Fabian: Going to the Dogs opens with a slow dolly shot down a stairway into an ornate subway station in Berlin. While anybody familiar with the film’s source material, Erich Kästner’s 1931 novel Fabian: The Story of a Moralist, will expect the story to be set in Germany’s interwar era, we’re clearly in the present day, as the people on screen are seen wearing, among other things, polos and jeans. But as the camera moves through the station and up an opposite stairway, the expected period clothing begins to appear on the commuters. Cresting the stairs, the camera finally situates us in the twilight days of the Weimar Republic—or, at least, in Graf’s consciously incomplete simulation of it.

Other signs indicate that we’re in the present, from the streets of black concrete to an especially pointed glimpse of stolpersteine, the brass stumbling stones inlaid into sidewalks to memorialize Holocaust victims. This kind of telescoped approach to historical fiction, one that emphasizes our position relative to the events we observe, recalls Michael Almereyda’s Tesla. Graf’s approach, however, resists overly jarring distancing devices, like a narrator with Google entries at her finger tips. Moreover, the frenetic, grimly playful aesthetic that the filmmaker deploys suits his subject, the chaotic society of the short-lived Weimar Republic, whose tumult and widespread anxiety gave birth, at least in Berlin, to some of the wildest experiments in art and life, before these were snuffed out by the German state’s slide into fascism.

After the slow, methodical tracking shot that opens it, Fabian erupts into a flurry of images, rapidly alternating between grainy low-gauge film stock and washed-out digital video. We’re introduced to Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling), a shell-shocked war veteran with a literature degree who’s settled for work as an advertising copywriter, in the midst of a raucous night out. Fabian goes home with an older woman (Meret Becker) only to discover that he needs to sign a contract with her husband in order to sleep with her, and may even be entitled to compensation for doing so. Disturbed by the cynical mixture of decadence and businesslike procedure that underlies his diverting Berlin nightlife, he flees back into the night.

Here and elsewhere, Fabian is unable to cope with the ethos of the times, the desperation-fueled abandonment of human relations that determines the life path of nearly everybody he comes across. An incompetent co-worker steals his idea for an ad campaign and he ends up jobless, and soon after meeting and falling in love with Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl), an aspiring actress who coincidentally lives in his building, Fabian is forced to accept that she’s become the mistress of a film producer in order to get a foothold in the movies.

In its general outline, this story of a young man unable to emotionally deal with his lover’s sexuality is overfamiliar. But Graf manages to enliven this hoary trope by keeping us at some distance from Fabian with an artificial, authorly voiceover narration that alternates between male and female voices. Despite, or perhaps because of, our remove from the couple, their courtship becomes the only genuine thing in a world that’s, well, going to the dogs. Marked by the kinds of goofy fun young people who immediately open themselves to one another partake in—conspiratorial sneaking around to avoid their landlady, hijinks at a lake outside Berlin, spontaneous late-night folk dances performed in the buff—Fabian and Cornelia’s earnest romance breaks through the tragicomic irony of the voiceover narration.

The aristocratic Labude (Albrecht Schuch), a colleague from Fabian’s PhD program, represents an exception to the insidious cynicism of society at large. Profoundly anxious over his postdoctoral thesis, Labude is also an active social-democratic rabble-rouser and an agitator for the principles of reason and justice. With his ideals, the man, like the commuters waiting on the train platform at the start of the film, seems to have come temporally unstuck, his thoughts not suited to the times—which is perhaps why the more disaffected Fabian always seems to have the final word in their conversations. At one point, when Fabian defends himself for merely observing rather than acting, Labude asks, “Whom does that help?” Fabian’s defeatist reply, “Who is to be helped?” casts a shadow over the whole film.

Eventually, both Labude’s socialist-lite political agitation and Fabian’s writerly attitude of distanced observation are swallowed up by the tides of history. While Kästner’s book, published less than two years before the Nazis took power, conveys the foreboding sense that the Weimar Republic was at its end without possessing the knowledge of what precisely was to come, we and the film have inherited those dreadful details as part of world history. Kästner’s darkly satirical book turns a rather sober glance toward a society in which its author was embedded, while the film, with its bricolage of images and the dream logic of its temporally dislocated places and grotesque caricatures, conjures a shared nightmare of the past. Its characters are suffused with a paradoxical kind of fear that can only happen in a dream—the dread before an immense catastrophe that’s unavoidable because it’s already happened.

Cast: Tom Schilling, Saskia Rosendahl, Albrecht Schuch, Meret Becker, Michael Wittenborn, Petra Kalkutschke, Elmar Gutmann, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Anne Bennent, Eva Medusa Gühne Director: Dominik Graf Screenwriter: Dominik Graf, Constantin Lieb Running Time: 178 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Next Door Is a Ruthless Satire of Complicity, Artistic and Otherwise

Unlike Malcom & Marie, Daniel Brühl’s feature-length directorial debut proves to be authentically self-castigating.

2.5
Chuck Bowen

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Next Door
Photo: Beta-Film GmbH

Fusing a contemplation of Daniel Brühl’s role as an actor in the global movie marketplace, and its attendant luxuries, with a revenge-of-the-repressed narrative, Next Door superficially resembles Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie. But where that film was rigged to validate its writer-director’s on-screen surrogate, Brühl’s feature-length directorial debut proves to be authentically self-castigating. Brühl doesn’t indulge the faux-humility that pervades many Hollywood satires; in fact, Next Door is a ruthless satire of that very form of complicity, in which movie stars, and even everyday people, parrot politically correct bromides while living their lives as they please, oblivious to their surroundings, especially to the many underpaid quasi-servants who intricately enable middle- and upper-class existence.

Brühl plays a movie star named Daniel, who resembles him in various ways. Like Brühl, Daniel grew up privileged in Cologne and has prospered in show business. At the start of Next Door, Daniel is prepping inside his luxe Berlin apartment for an audition for a role in a top-secret blockbuster, bringing to mind his role in Captain America: Civil War. For a brief spell, then, we’re lured into thinking the film will be a fictionized riff on Brühl’s life, which will presumably hinge on the big audition, until a road block arises. Stopping at a bar on his way to the airport, Daniel is heckled by a regular, Bruno (Peter Kurth). The men offer a dramatic study in contrasts: Daniel is trim and groomed, having completed a morning ritual of exercise and sensible food, while Bruno is older, frumpier, and clearly accustomed to more robust breakfasts and a steady diet of beer. There’s nothing soft in Bruno’s gaze though, because from his first appearance in the film, the man radiates acidic intelligence and fury.

As the men engage in a battle of wills, Daniel Kehlmann’s script shrewdly toys with our loyalties. Daniel is a condescending shmuck who’s at the receiving end of the film’s subtlest jabs. At one point, he tells the bar’s owner that he’s glad she doesn’t have espresso, because it’s bitter and causes heart attacks, moments after we saw him drinking it at home. This sort of gesture is his idea of being humble, when a person who truly belongs in that bar probably doesn’t need to consider notions of humility. There’s also a sly running joke, first amusing before turning menacing, in which people—from the bar’s owner to his fans—enter the bar in the periphery of the frame without Daniel really noticing, which succinctly embodies his learned blindness to the proletariat, until the latter forces a reckoning.

Yet Bruno is very decisively not a working-class hero offered up for the sake of easy eat-the-rich sermonizing. The man is actively unpleasant, stewing in bitterness, and in his own way he’s every bit as entitled as Daniel, as evinced by the way he interjects himself into Daniel’s morning, insisting to the actor that his movies suck while insulting him personally. Daniel is quite justified in telling Bruno that his opinion doesn’t matter, as we recognize such statements as part of a well-honed defense for someone in the public spectrum.

Neither character is conventionally likeable, though both are arresting and relatable, collectively playing to both our envy and resentment of the social elite, which gives Next Door an anxious where-the-hell-is-it-going quality, even, and perhaps especially, when Daniel and Bruno’s conversations are placid and aggressive only in the passive sense. It becomes obvious early on that Daniel isn’t going to leave this bar and probably doesn’t even want to on a subconscious level, as the men use one another to exorcise their cultural demons. They come to find their mutual loathing companionable, and in this sense the film recalls many Hitchcock thrillers, especially Strangers on a Train, which also featured an agent of chaos named Bruno.

The script teases a variety of explanations for Bruno’s targeting of Daniel, most explicitly rooting his resentment in leftover tensions from Germany’s pre-reunification days. Bruno initially claims to be sympathetic to the Stasi, which, given East Germany’s financial destitution in relation to West Germany, would parallel the social divide existing between Daniel and Bruno. This conceit, though, is never examined at length, existing essentially as window dressing for a stalker scenario. Yet Brühl, wanting to honor the textures of everyday life, especially the way men enjoy luxuriating in their disappointments while getting soused too early in the day together, also never entirely commits to mining genre mechanics. Imagine Strangers on a Train without the ecstatic release of its set pieces.

Loose, under-explored ends continue to accumulate throughout Next Door’s second half, culminating in a finale that feels self-consciously incomplete. The resigned grace that the men achieve at film’s end, coming to terms with their desolation as the quality that unites them across vast social barriers, suggests a turning point rather than a conclusion, leaving us primed for a perverse buddy movie that never materializes. This irresolution is certainly in accordance with the film’s design, acknowledging the monumental inequalities that inform our lives, often without comment or catharsis. In Next Door’s case, such a conclusion works better in theory, seemingly existing as an exit strategy for filmmakers who couldn’t quite think of an ending.

Cast: Daniel Brühl, Peter Kurth, Aenne Schwarz, Nils Doergelo, Rike Eckermann, Vicky Krieps Director: Daniel Brühl Screenwriter: Daniel Kehlmann Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: A Shape of Things to Come Is a Haunting Immersion into a Life Off the Grid

The film suggests a fusion of an eco-doc and acid western, and this disparity between genres results in a mysterious tension.

3
Chuck Bowen

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A Shape of Things to Come
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Lisa Malloy and J.P. Sniadecki’s A Shape of Things to Come suggests a fusion of an eco-documentary and a bleak acid western, and this disparity between genres results in a mysterious tension. At times, Sundog, the lean, bearded recluse at the center of the film, resembles a fun-loving hippie, drinking beer, dancing in a local bar, and reading novels and enjoying life alongside various animals in a makeshift ranch-slash-ecosystem in the Sonoran Desert near the Mexican border. Elsewhere, he appears to have real teeth, aiming a high-powered rifle at surveillance towers and surveying the Border Patrol vans with contempt while nonsensically muttering to himself. You may find yourself divided between enjoying the film as a celebration of a man’s self-sufficiency in an age where we’re deeply dependent on the grid, or fearing him as a self-righteous eccentric who, in his own way, embodies the very sense of social exceptionalism that he resents. For Sundog, it’s his way or the highway.

Much of A Shape of Things to Come is an engaging immersion into Sundog’s day-to-day life. The film offers a reminder of how fascinating the contours of various processes—in this case ranging from Sundog’s hunting and butchering of animals to his harvesting of toad venom in the middle of the night—can be when artists have the confidence to observe their subjects without having them fit a prescribed narrative. And this willingness to put aside traditional narrative parallels Sundog’s shunning of conventional society. Sundog’s life appears to be transcendently devoid of noise, of everything from the shrill constancy of advertisements to polarizing political discourse. One of the film’s most exhilarating scenes finds him simply taking a bath in an outdoor tub, hearing natural noises and savoring a moment of reflection and comfort. When he sinks down into the water, it’s as if he’s returning to the womb.

A certain expectation of violence, accompanied by an ambiguity regarding the circumstances of the film’s creation, prevents A Shape of Things to Come from becoming a soft and cuddly celebration of a fogey living his life on his own terms. Malloy and Sniadecki’s shaky cinematography exudes a beautifully neurotic quality that evokes Vincent van Gogh’s landscape paintings. In an early image, Sundog is shot in a canted angle as he walks among an assortment of plants, which suggest frantic brushstrokes, embodying Sundog’s restless headspace. The film also traffics in more obvious symbols, such as the foreboding shots of a sky rife with planes (emissaries from the corrupt and polluted world that Sundog has left behind) and of a rattlesnake that may as well be a temperature read of Sundog’s growing frustration with Broder Patrol’s surveillance programs. Such feverish moments, particularly a scene in which Sundog appears to commit a serious crime, call into question whether we’re actually watching a documentary or something closer to an experimental thriller.

Throughout A Shape of Things to Come’s 77-minute running time, Malloy and Sniadecki invite the audience to read all kinds of deep, haunting meanings into their film’s title. It could allude to Sundog’s blossoming madness, or to the madness of a metal and plastic world we’ve constructed almost out of spite to the natural one we inherited, or both. In this rather disturbing light, you may feel as if Sundog will succumb to the machine of corporate modernity, as his understandable rage may destroy his ability to enjoy the remarkable little sanctuary that he’s managed to carve out in the middle of an unforgiving patch of earth.

Director: Lisa Malloy, J.P. Sniadecki Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Raya and the Last Dragon Is a Gorgeously Rendered Celebration of Hope

The film sticks the landing as a manifestation of what unfettered trust in our shared humanity could look like.

3.5
Dan Rubins

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Raya and the Last Dragon
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s Raya and the Last Dragon recalls—and improves upon—the lifelike richness of recent Disney entertainments like Moana, and shares a somber-minded maturity, some broad plot elements, and a commitment to representing multiple Asian cultures on screen with Avatar: The Last Airbender. Of course, while that Nickelodeon series drew upon East Asian traditions, this film meticulously merges elements from various Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

But, in its expansive world-building and aesthetic variety, Raya and the Last Dragon most viscerally conjures up the experience of watching a Star Wars film. Raya’s (Kelly Marie Tran) journey from land to land—from the floating marketplace of Talon to the marble palaces of Fang—captures the sense of communities with their own rituals, color palettes, and unique problems (such as, in Talon, con-artist babies feigning sweetness). And the script by Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and playwright Qui Nguyen compellingly unspools the widening mythology of a fantasy world without sacrificing the momentum of its protagonist’s saga.

At the start of the film, Kumandra is a fractured kingdom, marred by violent power grabs among five isolationist nations and haunted by the Druun, smoke-like monsters that have transformed thousands of citizens to stone. Six years after her father (Daniel Dae Kim) fell victim to this scourge, Raya is on a quest to rebuild a shattered magical gem and reanimate a legendary dragon that once saved Kumandra and banished the Druun centuries ago.

If this plot progresses with the steady predictability of a video game—in each land, Raya will obtain another piece of the gem and recruit members for her ragtag team of adventurers—the lushness of those landscapes and Raya’s evolution stave off any sense of repetitiveness. Raya, crucially, has trust issues: It was her own youthful mistaken faith in Namaari (Gemma Chan), a fellow “dragon nerd” from a neighboring land, that caused the destruction of the gem and the release of the Druun years earlier. Each of Raya’s new companions forces her to confront her fear of misplacing her trust, and the film nicely reflects the girl’s demons on a geopolitical scale in the refusal of the five nations to unify against the threat they face.

As Raya’s would-be savior, the water dragon Sisu, Awkwafina gives the sort of distinctive, scene-stealing voice performance that inevitably calls to mind Robin Williams’s Genie from Disney’s Aladdin. Against the lofty backdrop of a high fantasy epic, Awkwafina’s speed-talking, self-deprecating wryness, familiar from her past comedy roles, seems itself otherworldly, a contemporary presence in a mythic landscape. Adorable sidekicks in the grand Disney tradition also abound in Raya and the Last Dragon, like the part-pill bug, part-armadillo Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), playing the role of both pet and transportation, and Captain Boun (Izaac Wang), a child chef and sea captain who’s lost his family to the Druun.

Though Raya is a gutsy, noble heroine with an admirable self-belief in her own intelligence and strength, the shock of her betrayal by Namaari has left an unshakable aftertaste that sometimes leads her to act impulsively out of rage or vengeance. The specter of the girl’s anger lends a level of real peril to the extended fight sequences that seem to journey beyond Disney’s usual low-fear fare. Through her martial arts battles, usually with Namaari, alternatively with weapons and hand-to-hand combat, the intense choreography suggests that both young women are fatal dangers to each other. There’s a refreshing rashness to Raya that, building on the inner turmoil of Frozen’s Queen Elsa of Arendelle, asks audiences to accept a heroine’s imperfections, even when they’re sometimes scary in action. These violent clashes aren’t the only elements of the film that linger in darkness: When Raya and Sisu meet the gruff Tong (Benedict Wong), all alone in a devastated realm, Raya’s gaze hovers on an empty crib in the corner, a wordless illumination of a loss too painful to discuss.

Raya and the Last Dragon avoids a more somber, bittersweet ending that it could have just as easily pulled off: Mortality and bottomless despair, in the last act, turn out to be easily reversible. But perhaps young audiences these days don’t need Disney movies to tell them that “a plague, born from human discord,” as Sisu describes the Druun, can do lasting damage. On its own gorgeously depicted terms, this film sticks the landing as a celebration of hope, a manifestation of what unfettered trust in our shared humanity could look like.

Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, Ross Butler Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada Screenwriter: Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 107 min Rating: PG Year: 2021

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Review: Language Lessons Is Best Served by Its Charismatic Performances

Had the film trusted its self-imposed minimalism a little more, it might have been a lot more successful as a character study.

2
David Robb

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Language Lessons
Photo: Duplass Brothers Productions

Like Kamilah Forbes’s Between the World and Me, Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, and Doug Liman’s Locked Down, Natalie Morales’s Language Lessons is clearly the product of our lockdown era, and it has a premise that’s particularly well-suited to its technical limitations. Mark Duplass (who co-wrote the screenplay with Morales) plays Adam, a new long-distance student of Costa Rica-based Spanish tutor Cariño (Morales). Enrolled on the course as a birthday gift by his wealthy husband, Will (Desean Terry), he quickly strikes up a bond with Cariño, which becomes even stronger in the wake of an unexpected tragedy.

The film’s action takes place almost exclusively via a series of webcam chats, often switching back and forth between laptop screens within a scene, and it’s a testament to the engaging performances that this setup mostly transcends its initial awkwardness. And while the actors’ separation limits how much chemistry they can create, it also occasionally lends their scenes a rawness that they might have lacked in a more conventional film, throwing moments of vulnerability into sharper focus as the characters look directly into the camera.

Language Lessons likewise takes advantage of its restricted perspectives to expand on its central conflict in intriguing ways. Aware of how his luxury home contrasts with Cariño’s more humble surroundings, Adam gradually confesses to feelings of guilt about his apparent privilege relative to her, and the fact that their video calls provide such limited information is an effective way of illustrating just how little they can understand about each other’s lives.

Like Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton, which Duplass also co-wrote and starred in, Language Lessons attests to his interest in the platonic romance as one of the more unsung relationship arrangements in cinema. Both films exude a low-key warmth, but the characters here are less idiosyncratic, which means that they may clear a basic likeability threshold but can only take the story so far. Though there are occasional hints that Cariño might be performing for the camera and not allowing Adam in on all the details of her life outside of their lessons, the film’s framing device prevents this idea from being explored in any meaningful way. In the absence of any private moments or real-world interactions, conversations can become overly expository, as they’re forced to do most of the heavy narrative lifting on their own.

After she accidentally turns on her webcam during a previously voice-only call and briefly reveals a bruised face and black eye to Adam, an embarrassed Cariño abruptly retreats into a more professional student-teacher relationship with him, newly keen to keep her personal life hidden. The pair are eventually forced to confront their differences, and a few arguments too-explicitly spell out the insecurities and stereotypical assumptions that are threatening their blossoming friendship. Early on, the class, ethnic, and gender tensions that lurk beneath the surface of this kind of inter-cultural exchange are teased out quite subtly, so it’s a shame when the story takes a more literal approach to its themes, and its slightly contrived final plot revelation is also perhaps one too far. Had the film trusted its self-imposed minimalism a little more, it might have been a lot more successful as a character study.

Cast: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass, Desean Terry Director: Natalie Morales Screenwriter: Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: My Salinger Year Is an Insipid Devil Wears Prada Knock-Off

The film fails to effectively seize on how its main character’s life and work experiences have affected her as a person and artist.

1.5
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My Salinger Year
Photo: IFC Films

Based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of the same name, writer-director Philippe Falardeau’s 1990s-set My Salinger Year trudges a well-worn path as it follows twentysomething Joanna (Margaret Qualley) as she attempts to jumpstart her writing career, opportunities for which she hopes will arise out of her current job as a secretary for a New York literary agency. Her work is the one wrinkle that distinguishes this adaptation from so many other films about aspiring writers trying to make it in the big city, as Joanna’s boss, Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), represents The Catcher in the Rye’s reclusive author J.D. Salinger, thus allowing the young woman to fulfill a common fantasy of coming into close contact with a literary hero. But it also means that the film abounds in hip references to mold-breaking literary works and figures, a familiarity that quickly tumbles into banality.

Throughout, the plotlines tracing Joanna’s work at the agency and her personal life and struggles to become a writer are so half-heartedly braided together that it can feel as if you’re watching scenes from two different films. Though she’s on a first-name basis with one of the literary world’s most legendary enigmas, Joanna views her job as nothing but a career steppingstone—an ambivalence that appears to have rubbed off on Falardeau’s storytelling.

Because My Salinger Year fails to effectively seize on how her life and work experiences have affected her as a person and artist, Joanna is left feeling like a blank slate. Aside from the moment where she says that she’s published two poems, we learn almost nothing about her writing and process. As such, it’s more than a bit perverse that the novel that her self-absorbed boyfriend, Don (Douglas Booth), is working on commands so much of Falardeau’s attention—just one more relationship drama in a film that’s too often pulled in the wrong direction.

At least there a few spirited moments that enliven My Salinger Year, none more so than the acknowledgement of The Catcher in the Rye’s rabid fandom. At the literary agency, Joanna is tasked with answering Salinger’s fan letters with impersonal pre-written responses that date back decades, and as fans look into the camera while reading their letters, the film poignantly details how the mark of a great work is one that appeals to diverse readers while seeming as if it were written for an audience of one. Which makes it all the more jarring when Joanna, per company policy, shreds the fan letter as soon as she’s done composing her response to it.

But what’s initially eloquent about this angle takes a turn toward the hackneyed, when Joanna begins to imagine a specific fan (Théodore Pellerin) as an imaginary conscience of sorts and Falardeau utilizes the character to literally vocalize the subtext of multiple scenes. The emergence of this plot device in an already insipid narrative inadvertently recalls a sequence earlier in My Salinger Year when Joanna goes rogue and responds to a fan letter in her own words. As Joanna tells a high schooler to take inspiration from Holden Caulfield and think for herself, it’s hard not to feel that the film itself should have taken her advice.

Cast: Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver, Douglas Booth, Brían F. O'Byrne, Théodore Pellerin, Colm Feore, Seána Kerslake, Hamza Haq Director: Philippe Falardeau Screenwriter: Philippe Falardeau Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Lost Course Is a Steadfast Look at a Chinese Resistance Movement

What distinguishes the film from ordinary journalism, and what constitutes its intervention in reality, is a difference in timescale.

3.5
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Lost Course
Photo: Icarus Films

As we know from slapstick comedy, a fly on the wall can turn any scene into a chaotic swirl of misaimed swats with a rolled-up newspaper, furniture reduced to smithereens, and schadenfreude-inducing pratfalls. Fly-on-the-wall documentaries run an analogous risk. Given how the act of observation necessarily alters that which is being observed, filmmakers must always choose how objective a stance to take in relation to their subjects—a choice with thorny ramifications should the subject happen to be political.

Some documentarians embrace this contradiction and record their own interventions as a part of the reality they document, as Joshua Oppenheimer does in The Act of Killing, inviting perpetrators of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66 to recreate their brutal “heroics” in front of the camera. At a cursory glance, first-time filmmaker Jill Li has opted for less hands-on approach with Lost Course, in which she documents a wave of protests in the Chinese fishing village of Wukan in Guangdong province that resulted in a failed democratic experiment.

In the film’s first part, “Protests,” Li’s camera plunges into the thick of the action as Wukan’s villagers, reacting to the sale of communal land by corrupt government officials, engage in mass demonstrations and collective petitioning, backed by a general strike. As the movement gains momentum, the film focuses in on a core of activists who are determined, seemingly with the best of intentions, to take on China’s one-party state apparatus. Eventually, the protests force the government to grant the villagers’ demands for a free election, and the movement’s leaders are swept into positions of modest power on the village committee.

Part two, “After Protests,” opens one year after the election. Bogged down in bureaucratic rigmarole, the new village committee has succeeded in restoring none of Wukan’s land. Meanwhile, higher tiers of government have co-opted their leadership, driving a wedge between them and their constituents. The years pass and disillusionment sets in as the villagers resign themselves to Wukan’s slow, inevitable decline.

With protests now infrequent, the space opens for Li—with a lyrical shot of red and white lanterns reflected in a rain puddle, or of a moth being immolated with zippo in a moment of despairing cruelty—to show the rhythms of everyday life as it returns to Wukan. These, though, remain exceptions to her rule of unobtrusive camerawork, which simply presents situations as they unfold, without the filmmaker ever stepping in to impose her own politics, or cast judgment on the villagers (which may account for how Li was permitted to film in the first place). Throughout, one senses that she’s cultivated their trust. Habituated to the camera’s presence, they seem to directly speak to the person behind it rather than an imagined audience, and even put themselves at risk by revealing sensitive details.

In the movement’s climactic moments, other film crews and journalists appear on the periphery, but when the dust settles, it’s Li’s camera that remains, delving into the everyday messiness that underlies the spectacle of demonstrations and elections. What distinguishes Li’s project from ordinary journalism, and what constitutes her intervention in reality, is a difference in timescale. In and of itself, the fact that Li spent six years (from 2011 to 2017) filming Wukan’s struggle, and perhaps more importantly, its aftermath, may seem inconsequential, but it’s this dedication to embedded filmmaking, combined with its three-hour running time, that gives Lost Course its power.

The film takes its time, not only to explore Wukan’s struggle as a process, in microcosm, of Chinese politics, but to develop a character study of those involved. Even as their passion and naïveté sour, and even as they abandon the fight, denounce one another, or cling blindly to past successes as their political movement stagnates, Li’s camera remains steadfastly sympathetic. Because her politics are only hinted at through that sympathy, she leaves the viewer to learn from and interpret the situation how they will. It’s become a commonplace that the personal is political, but Lost Course serves as a reminder that the political is also personal.

Director: Jill Li Distributor: Icarus Films Running Time: 180 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Sponge on the Run Sends SpongeBob on a Cash Grab for Kamp Koral

If the SpongeBob franchise has finally gone on the run, it seems like it’s left the audience that matters most in the dust.

1.5
Dan Rubins

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The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run
Photo: Paramount Pictures

“Who’s ready to set sail on another adventure making me money?” cries the stingy Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), owner of the Krabby Patty, early on in The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run. Mr. Krabs’s crabbiest employee, Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), rolls his eyes, before squelching away from the underwater fast-food joint. It’s hard not to empathize with Squidward in the face of such a cynically mercenary film as this one, because the third feature based on Nickelodeon’s beloved animated series seems largely designed to appeal to adults, with recognizable stars appearing in live-action cameos alongside the iconic nautical characters.

When the vain King Poseidon (Matt Berry) kidnaps SpongeBob’s (Tom Kenny) beloved pet sea snail, Gary (also Kenny), to use his slime for skin care, SpongeBob and Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) set off to rescue him from the Lost City of Atlantic City, a “scary, vice-ridden cesspool of moral depravity.” SpongeBob SquarePants fans will know how much Gary means to his owner, and flashbacks to the pair’s meet-cute at a summer camp spell this out with over-the-top earnestness. But Sponge on the Run, sometimes self-consciously, can’t manage to stay focused on that quest; there’s even a long gambling sequence in the Lost City of Atlantic City in which SpongeBob and Patrick discover that they can’t stay focused on it either.

The SpongeBob television series has always relished moments of randomness, and Sponge on the Run doesn’t lack for harmless kookiness, as when Patrick, introducing himself at one point, explains with ridiculous seriousness that “my name means toaster in Celtic.” That kind of loony logic, though, emerged most effectively in past SpongeBob properties as a collection of lovable, idiosyncratic character traits. Here, the storytelling itself is nonsensical.

It’s less a case of distraction than delirium once Snoop Dogg and Keanu Reeves show up in a lengthy unhinged dream sequence in which a burning tumbleweed with the latter’s face inside of it challenges SpongeBob and Patrick to free a hip-hop dance squad of flesh-eating zombie pirates from the saloon of El Diablo (Danny Trejo). Incomprehensibility, however, doesn’t equate to purposelessness, since the celebrity cameos seem to have been shoved in for marketing purposes. The abdication of the plot in the last half-hour in favor of a sequence of flashbacks to summer camp also seems part of a money-making adventure, as Kamp Koral, a prequel spinoff of the TV series, is releasing alongside this film.

What’s always been weirdest and most wonderful about SpongeBob SquarePants is that it offers a kid’s-eye-view of sea creatures navigating adulthood. By contrast, Sponge on the Run veers between abandoning the series’s signature irreverence for bland soupiness and demanding that the audience grow up if they want to keep up (take, for example, a crude post-festivities reference to “people who pass out and sleep in their own vomit all night”).

Only rarely does Sponge on the Run find that classic sweet-spot of treating kids as capable of understanding sophisticated humor while also allowing them to relish in the sillier slapstick. The series’s wry brand of meta-storytelling is at times effectively on display here, as when Patrick and SpongeBob are shown a scene-shifting glimpse into the “Window of Meanwhile,” and when they squabble over whether their expedition will turn out to be more like a buddy movie or a singular hero’s journey. But the pair might be disappointed to learn that their disjointed, dull quest follows no such satisfying structure. If the SpongeBob franchise has finally gone on the run, it seems like it’s left the audience that matters most in the dust.

Cast: Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Clancy Brown, Mr. Lawrence, Jill Talley, Carolyn Lawrence, Mary Jo Catlett, Matt Berry, Awkwafina, Keanu Reeves, Snoop Dogg, Danny Trejo, Tiffany Haddish, Reggie Watts Director: Tim Hill Screenwriter: Tim Hill Distributor: Paramount+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: PG Year: 2021

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Review: Cherry’s Self-Aware Style Keeps Us at a Remove from Its Main Character

Anthony and Joe Russo’s film can never quite escape the essential hollowness of Cherry as a character.

2
Chris Barsanti

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Cherry
Photo: Apple TV+

Tom Holland presents a lean and hungry visage at the start of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Cherry, in which we see the eponymous character robbing a bank in spectacularly half-assed fashion. The young man’s lack of planning and obvious blindness to consequences is partly due to him being a strung-out opioid addict. But as the rest of this adaptation of Nico Walker’s acclaimed 2018 semi-autobiographical novel reveals, that combination of cluelessness and recklessness was propelling him even before a tour in Iraq sent him down a path toward addiction. “I’m 23 years old,” Cherry says in the narration stringing together the film’s earlier, more hyperactive stretches, “and I still don’t understand what it is that people do.” The center, if he ever had one, is just not holding.

After the prologue, the film cuts back five years to 2002, when Cherry is already planting the seeds of his future self-destruction. As played by Holland with bright-eyed verve, even when he’s at his most ruinous and lost, Cherry bounces somewhat randomly through life. We hear a lot from him at first—literally so, as he narrates his flailing attempts to get a grip on life while killing time in Cleveland alongside his going-nowhere friends and working crummy jobs. Later, as a series of bad choices limits his options, he will have less to say.

On autopilot at a Jesuit university, Cherry falls hard for a classmate, Emily (Ciara Bravo), who’s presented to the audience much as she seems to him: a bright and beautiful paragon of confidence whose self-consciousness and snarky humor meshes well with his. Even though Emily seems to have her life somewhat more together, she ultimately remains as much an enigma in the film as life itself does to Cherry. Theirs is a giddy but unstable relationship, an impression reinforced when, after a fight with her, Cherry lashes out by joining the Army at the height of Iraq War. Even more impulsively, they get married right before he leaves.

Cherry’s middle section, which traces our protagonist’s military service, is its least convincing. For a film already clocking in at a good 20 minutes too long, the entire basic training sequence feels highly redundant, the absurdities of military life just underlining yet again how lost Cherry is in a world that seems to him like little more than a bad joke. In Iraq, the Russos frame some large action scenes with an impressive sweep but are less sure-footed at balancing the emotional trauma of Cherry’s experiences as a combat medic with his jaundiced humor.

State-side, Cherry’s life unravels fast in a blur of PTSD heightened by his lack of direction. He and Emily get hooked on heroin, which in short order leads to hijinks like stealing from a dealer, cash-flow issues, and robbing banks. The couple’s newfound life of crime and the challenges they face from both drugs and withdrawal is presented with greater immediacy and drama than earlier scenes which tended to view even significant developments from a distance. But the film still can’t escape the essential hollowness of Cherry as a character.

By linking the disasters of wars abroad with the home-front disaster of addiction and Cherry’s pre-Iraq purposelessness, the filmmakers seem to be suggesting that America is danger-prone and careless about risk. But though the film touches on numerous hot-button topics and is packed with incident and humor, its self-aware style—from straight-to-camera narration to slow motion to visual tricks like the washing out of an entire background so a character will pop out in bright color—and simplistic characterizations deprive it of the chance to say much of anything. The filmmakers’ curious decision to cap the film with a vaguely hopeful coda, but without any dialogue that could help explain what Cherry might be changing in his life, only underlines their failure to illuminate their main character beyond his lostness.

Cast: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Jeff Wahlberg, Forrest Goodluck, Michael Gandolfini, Michael Rispoli, Daniel R. Hill Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo Screenwriter: Angela Russo-Otstot, Jessica Goldberg Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 140 min Rating: R Year: 2021

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Review: My Darling Supermarket Playfully Humanizes an Often-Invisible Workforce

If the world outside the Supermercado Veran is rife with poverty and crime, we wouldn’t know it from inside this little cocoon.

3
Diego Semerene

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My Darling Supermarket
Photo: Cinema Tropical

It would have been easy for director Tali Yankelevich to paint a miserabilist portrait of the Brazilian grocery store at the heart of My Darling Supermarket, one focused on waste, workers contending with low wages, and racist customers. Brazil, after all, is a country defined by income inequality and class warfare. Instead, Yankelevich opts for something more playful, using a gliding camera, a whimsical score, and a cotton-candy aesthetic to make the Supermercado Veran in São Paulo seem like the Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

There are no grievances or injustices on display here—only pristinely white shelves, scrumptious merchandise, and workers who love their job. Some even admit to hooking up with customers. Others boast about the sheer diversity of people they’re exposed to every day. Relationships between co-workers are dreamily collegial. If the world outside is rife with poverty and crime, we wouldn’t know it from inside this little cocoon.

Yankelevich’s fantastical approach is too purposeful and consistent for the film to ever really feel like an advert for a hygienized country that doesn’t exist. My Darling Supermarket is, then, closer to a reverie, a hyper-focused portrait of a place that gleefully ignores the macro realities that surround it. As Yankelevich’s camera floats through the space of the store, she cobbles together observational vignettes and testimonies from employers whose anecdotes tend toward the fantastical. In the process, the camera humanizes an often-invisible workforce.

Instead of snatching sob stories from them, Yankelevich has the workers tell us about their passions, quirks, and dreams. We meet a warehouse loader obsessed with city-building games and skeptical that anyone would find his workplace worthy of cinematic attention, a George Orwell-reading history major, a singing janitor, a conspiracy theorist, a Japanese-speaking anime lover, a clerk convinced that the supermarket is haunted, and a security guard who wishes her surveillance cameras could determine her children’s whereabouts.

Most striking is how existential their questions all are, even if we never get a sense that the camera spent that much time with them. It’s as if they had been bottling up all sorts of profound musings in the boredom and automatism undergirding their jobs, and were finally able to find a willing audience. This is, perhaps, the inherent dynamic of the documentary as a form, the camera wooing strangers in need of a belated listener. Yankelevich does her subjects justice not by framing their accounts with self-important gravity, but by acknowledging the richness of their dream material, and dreaming together with them.

Director: Tali Yankelevich Distributor: Cinema Tropical Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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