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Review: Nowhere Boy




Nowhere Boy
Photo: The Weinstein Company

John Lennon was, if not the tonal, then the spiritual lead of the fab four, a cumbersome torch he would carry until his—and by extension, the Beatles’s—death. But his was also the sort of mercurial genius that could have only gathered power when buffered by putative equals of lesser rawness: Unlike Elvis, who wielded a down-to-earth trinity of voice, hips, and ego, Lennon won admiration by cutting through convoluted pain with confessional condescension. “My mama told me I was great,” he once sang. We allow it knowing that such compliments are shattered pacts from ghosts jutting visibly out of the man’s self-effaced heart. Lennon’s global stardom is also unique in its utter lack of vicarious appeal; despite supposedly being named after the guy, even I would be hesitant to swap places with him, whether or not we disregard the unsavory background details from childhood up to the Mark Chapman incident. His songs, though occasionally whimsical, never fully obfuscate their tortured roots nor their unabashed facilitation of rock n’ roll as catharsis. And when all is said and done, Lennon was probably the most deservedly famous and most vocationally able prick to ever walk the planet.

The biography Nowhere Boy is first and foremost a reminder of this, and of the tragic confusion from which it sprang. Director Sam Taylor-Wood (making her feature debut) and writer Matt Greenhalgh (adapting the memoirs of Lennon’s half-sister) fashion a portrait of the pop icon as a young man victimized by familial dysfunction, with very few ostentatious nods to Beatle-philia; we hardly even notice when George Harrison shows up with his infamous facsimile of Bill Justis’s “Raunchy.” This staunch concentration on the dynamics of Lennon’s childhood leaves little room, thankfully, for the allusive etiologies that typically litter the average bio-pic (e.g., the lancing of extramarital wounds with “Hit the Road, Jack” in Ray, or the titular dressing down of Walk the Line). And though the dearth of chronological identifiers (there are no title cards with dates or cities) may at first alienate Menlove Avenue neophytes, they ultimately provide a startling amount of ontological elbow room; the cheeky title aside, the filmmakers treat Lennon no differently than any other debilitatingly befuddled teen, and in doing so refuse to deliver the expected “The Walrus: The Adolescent Years.”

This also prepares us to forgive sparkly, blue-eyed Aaron Johnson’s bluntly irascible portrayal of the jejune idol, whose ne’er-do-well streak is only half-convincing; when he plucks a female classmate from a small crowd for a spontaneous blowjob, his swagger is all amusement and no passion. And when his estranged mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) introduces him to rockabilly, he seems to embrace it only via his vaguely Oedipal attraction toward her, evincing none of his trademark anguish. But we forget that the inchoate Lennon who bent intimidated fingers around a tenor banjo isn’t necessarily the same one that erotically mutilated his vocal chords for the sake of “Twist and Shout.” Of course, Taylor-Wood, Greenhalgh, and Johnson aren’t any better acquainted with this early iteration than we are, but their educated guesswork forms a noteworthy dramatic, rather than biographical, experiment. The film feels like a shortsighted artifact; it’s filtered through the glossy, Freudian lens of modern media discourse (and the blue-bleached cinematography of Seamus McGarvey), but the character perspective makes an honest effort to forget how far Lennon’s angst would take him.

The tempered historicity occasionally descends into facile myth; during a scene in the first act, Julia even didactically proclaims that her son wasn’t born as Elvis “because God was saving [him] for John Lennon.” But when John responds to this compliment with punch-drunk, puppy-love gratification, we feel the dense shadow of “Norwegian Wood,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Yoko Ono, and The Mike Douglas Show melting away into more generic maternal manipulation. A similarly unsentimental approach is taken when Paul McCartney (a gloriously whiny, round-faced Thomas Brodie Sangster), fresh to the Quarrymen skiffle group, sits down to show Lennon his bar chord technique; the soundtrack creaks and clinks with dead but determined strings rather than nascent harmony. The film may fail to delve into these relationships beyond the aforementioned genuine gestures, but it’s significantly peering at them from the other end of the annals. Julia seems like nothing more than an irresponsible parent, and John like nothing more than an energetic delinquent with a modest gift. For all his achievements, he may not have strayed far from that self-identification.

Nowhere Boy comes close to pinning down an only-cursorily defined subgenre: the formative-years dramatization that views the biographical subject’s future success as tangential. The curious feeling of newness it provokes, however, also exacerbates its narrative flaws. “The dream is over,” or at least feels blown, at the first signs of clunky dialog and shallow psychoanalysis; we simply can’t suspend our disbelief of this superficially tweaked, primordial Lennon for the sake of the sisterly custody battle at the story’s core. Whenever the pre-Beatle bounces between his stern but sturdy aunt, Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), and his arousing but mercurial mother, we’re made painfully aware of the movie’s Dionysian/Apolline flimsiness; in their attempt to “generalize” Lennon’s story, Taylor-Wood and Greenhalgh convert their supporting cast into identifiable but bland types. This leaks through to the emotional climax, wherein Lennon’s final decision of who to trust is merely revealed rather than ruminated on, and Julia’s tearful admission to his abandonment triggers a slew of fish-eyed, Dexter-like flashbacks.

But while the triteness is disappointing, one can at least guess that the focus on John and Mimi’s rocky, pseudo-filial partnership would have pleased Lennon himself; we can’t even begin to comprehend the muddled if overly confident mind of a boy who was forced twice to choose the less nocuous of two apathetic parents. And this may explain Lennon’s immunity to opprobrium better than any lyric about being a loser or a murderously jealous guy. How could we hate or humiliate Lennon any more than he’d been trained to hate and humiliate himself?

Cast: Aaron Johnson, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey, Ophelia Lovibond, Josh Bolt, Sam Bell, Andrew Buchan Director: Sam Taylor-Wood Screenwriter: Matt Greenhalgh Distributor: The Weinstein Company Running Time: 98 min Rating: R Year: 2009 Buy: Video



Review: Genesis Lyrically Captures the Heartache of Sentimental Education

Philippe Lesage’s film understands that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.




Photo: Productions l'Unite Centrale

Writer-director Philippe Lesage follows up The Demons with another coming-of-age saga that fixates on the relatable, if grim, blues of self-awakening. Primarily following the teenaged Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and his college-aged sister, Charlotte (Noée Abita), Genesis charts how both are shaped by their experiences with sexual desire, subtly observing their behavior and, occasionally, the darker side of affection.

Guillaume commands much of the film’s attention. From the first shot, in which he stands on a desk in his all-boys boarding school and leads his mates in a barroom shanty, it’s obvious that Guillaume is a charismatic class clown who knows how to force all eyes onto himself. Yet the teen can also be withdrawn and introverted, and his relationships with his friends and teachers are constantly in flux. His puckish behavior is often celebrated by classmates and even some teachers, like the sardonic Perrier (Paul Ahmarani), who in one class invites Guillaume to do his impersonation of him, which the teen performs with hilarious specificity and to the initial delight and then discomfort of the professor.

Wounded by the boy’s exposure of his flaws, Perrier subsequently singles out Guillaume for harassment, berating him without cause and even screaming at the kid over the slightest perceived transgression. Guillaume’s peers are less extreme, but the same kids who applaud his classroom antics are also quick to ignore him inside their shared dorms or in social situations, content to simply use him for amusement during class time.

Guillaume’s awkward relationship to others at the boarding school is exacerbated by his closeted sexuality, which isolates him from the heteronormative activities of his friends. In one scene, Lesage films the boy in slow motion as he wanders through a house party surrounded by boys and girls kissing, trying to fit in by cautiously snaking his arm around a girl, who casually shrugs him off as he keeps walking. Like much of Genesis, the moment is at once thematically obvious and beautifully moving, with the sudden swell of morose pop transforming the scene into a lyrically intense expression of the boy’s sentimental education. The impeccable blocking places the other kids in every square inch of the room save for a pocket of dead space around Guillaume, poignantly emphasizing his loneliness.

Charlotte, by contrast, seems to have an easier time of things. More carefree and confident than her brother, she’s at first hampered only by her inane boyfriend, Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk), who broaches the subject of an open relationship with a forced sense of casual suggestion, only to later sobbingly backtrack after she kicks him to the curb. Charlotte ends up with the older Theo (Maxime Dumontier), whose charming demeanor and respectfulness suggests actual maturity. When Lesage films Charlotte in a club using the same slow-mo style that he did for Guillaume’s glum traipse through the house party, the tone is considerably brighter, with the young woman free and ebullient about her contentment.

Soon, however, Charlotte must also contend with the fallout of various sexual stresses. Lesage grapples with matters that are all too common to darker coming-of-age stories, and he captures the film’s most harrowing scenes in single takes. Yet if the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from plainly depicting such horrors as sexual violation, he avoids wallowing in the misery he piles onto his characters. Guillaume and especially Charlotte suffer, but Lesage pulls focus onto the aftershocks of trauma rather than the traumatic events themselves. Sometimes Genesis even ducks reinforcing the bleakest of expectations, as in a scene of Guillaume baring his soul to his classmates that ends in a surprisingly warm fashion.

Indeed, the bright colors and sedate direction of Genesis isn’t an ironic contrast for the difficult content within but a cue for the perseverance of hope in trying times. That optimism is borne out in the final act, which shifts focus to Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), the protagonist of The Demons, now a cheery teen attending what appears to be a bible camp. As he plays guitar with counselors and plays around in camp, he gravitates toward Beatrice (Émilie Bierre), a young girl who’s clearly as interested in him as he is in her. Compared to the more vicious heartbreak facing Charlotte and Guillaume, Felix and Beatrice’s budding feelings are presented innocently and sweetly. Their first flirtations end the film on a hopeful note that suggests that not all stories of young self-discovery need be solemn, and that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.

Cast: Théodore Pellerin, Noée Abita, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, Maxime Dumontier, Jules Roy Scicotte, Pier-Luc Funk, Paul Ahmarani, Antoine Marchand-Gagnon, Émilie Bierre Director: Philippe Lesage Screenwriter: Philippe Lesage Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Dragged Across Concrete Is an Uncanny Shot of Pulp Fiction

With his latest, S. Craig Zahler doubles down on the best and worst elements of the pulp film.




Dragged Across Concrete
Photo: Summit Entertainment

With Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and now Dragged Across Concrete, writer-director S. Craig Zahler has refined a highly particular style of pulp that runs both hot and cold. The tone is communicated up front by the films’ titles, which are garish and plainspoken, as if to say that operatically bad shit happens as a matter of course.

That’s the attitude that Zahler’s characters adopt as well, as they tend to face atrocity with the air of people who derive their strength from low expectations. Violence erupts in Zahler’s films with an offhand suddenness that’s often authentically shocking, which is heightened by a variety of formalist contradictions. Zahler pays intricate attention to deliberately crummy, vague, “universal” settings, and invests stereotypical characters with behavioral curlicues that render them just human enough so that their deaths sting. Zahler’s scenarios are deliberately absurd, yet he pumps them up with all sorts of odd, nearly docudramatic details, and this mixture of the banal and the hyper-specific imbues his films with an element of the uncanny.

Following a bruiser as he killed his way toward the inner sanctum of a surreally hellish prison, Brawl in Cell Block 99 was pointedly unpolitical—implying, in a macho manner typical of revenge films—that politics are a luxury for those who’re insulated from the “real world” of killed-or-be-killed. Which is to say that this apolitical texture is actually reactionary, suggesting, via omission, the essential futility of liberal humanist ideals. Dragged Across Concrete renders this idea much more explicit. The film’s theme is articulated when the poor and multiple sclerosis-plagued Melanie Ridgeman (Laurie Holden) says that she’s as liberal as an ex-cop can be, and that she never thought she was racist until she moved into her current neighborhood, which is low-income and rife with juvenile delinquents of color, who’re shown, in a reductive scene, to harass Melanie’s daughter.

The various cops and criminals of Dragged Across Concrete, white as well as of color, take the fraudulence of liberal beliefs as a given, writing them off as fantasies indulged by a populace that’s prosperous enough to evade their ramifications. (This theme is in the air right now, also driving Jordan Peele’s Us.) The film’s plot kicks into gear when Melanie’s husband, Detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson), and his partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are suspended for exerting excessive force while arresting a Hispanic drug dealer, which a civilian films on a phone. Zahler acknowledges the detectives’ cruelty, while, per the dictates of the crime genre, also allowing us to revel in their bitterness and power.

This have-it-both-ways quality is another of Zahler’s provocations, as he’s explicitly saying that we come to these sorts of films to see the rough and cathartic exertion of force, and in spite of whether we think that force jibes with our real-world ideals. Zahler is right. The cruelty of his films, which is laced with a biting wit, has a way of clearing pop-cultural air that’s often inhabited by preachy think pieces and well-meaning Oscar bait, or even by genre films that nevertheless feel the need to solicit approval via a redemptive theme. Zahler heads for the gutter instead, asking us to empathize with characters who refute our idealisms.

After subduing the drug dealer, Ridgeman torments the dealer’s sexual partner, Rosalinda (Liannet Borrego), by showering her with cold water and forcing her to stand in a bedroom in her underwear while they question her. This footage isn’t filmed by other parties, so the extent of Ridgeman and Tony’s vigilante tactics are unknown by the public, prompting us to wonder what else they’ve gotten away with over the years. Yet they feel cheated for being suspended—feelings which their superior, Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson), casually shares. Such scenes elucidate the thorny specificity of Zahler’s vision while deliberately screwing with our moral compass. Ridgeman and Tony’s treatment of Rosalinda is disgusting and Zahler sensitively dramatizes her humiliation. So are the racist jokes the cops exchange with Calvert, though the actors’ performances and Zahler’s dialogue and staging are kinetically snappy. Zahler recreates that discombobulating split in sympathies you may have when someone you like says they voted for Trump, or rues the days of comparatively less fettered police brutality.

Yet there’s also a sense that Zahler is outside of Ridgeman and Tony’s self-pity; one suspects that politics mostly matter to the filmmaker in terms of aesthetic. If he’s nostalgic for the good old days, presumably before our culture grew so “politically correct,” that nostalgia is primarily directed toward genre films. Zahler is fighting for art’s right to be offensive and disreputable, voicing sentiments that are shared by many people in this country which cannot, and should not, be aired without scrutiny. He grooves on straight talk, however nasty, fashioning crime thrillers that force even liberal audiences to confront their inner fascists.

Zahler particularly appears to miss the days when violent Mel Gibson vehicles were relevant, and he concocts a role for Gibson that weds the actor’s own prejudices and controversies with his masochistic “Mad Mel” persona—two sides that were always closely intertwined anyway. Gibson rises to the occasion with a tightly coiled performance that’s so unapologetically closed-off that it’s deeply and disturbingly poignant, bringing to mind the conflicted range of emotions that’s elicited by John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers. Ridgeman’s feelings of being put out to pasture are aligned with Gibson’s stint in movie jail after recordings of his abusive rants at his wife were released. It’s no accidental coincidence that recordings destroy Ridgeman not once but twice over the course of Dragged Across Concrete.

Ridgeman is the film’s central avatar of rage—an embodiment of working-class American discontent that Zahler reveals to be shared by characters of varying colors, genders, and social statuses, most notably Henry (Tory Kittles), an African-American ex-con with limited options, with whom Ridgeman forges an uneasy alliance. Tellingly, given the aversion of Dragged Across Concrete to left-wing politeness, their emotional epiphany springs from their mutual willingness to call one another, and to each be called, the n-word.

Zahler takes a standard action-movie scenario—in which crooked cops try to rob drug dealers—and stretches it out to an epic, ultraviolent, and comic study of the petty, often working-class-centric nonsense that stymies people on a daily basis. When Henry rousts his mother’s john out of the house, Zahler lingers on the man as he fumbles with the locks on the door. Following Ridgeman and Tony as they tail a requisitely heartless Eurotrash killer, Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), Zahler fashions an elaborate and ingenious set piece that alternates between two cars’ worth of men talking strategy. When a struggling mother, Kelly (Jennifer Carpenter), returns to work at a bank after a prolonged maternal leave, Zahler devotes a lengthy, weirdly touching and funny moment to the speech her verbose boss, Mr. Edmington (Fred Melamed), gives for the occasion. And this scene only intensifies the pain of what follows, which Zahler foreshadows with a masterful composition where we see a van of killers pass Kelly in the reflection of a window as she checks her make-up.

Dragged Across Concrete is a lurid ode to detail—to the professionalism that Zahler questionably admires in Ridgeman and Tony. (His lack of sentimentality, in the tradition of pulp writing, is ironically quite sentimental.) The film’s settings, like those of Brawl in Cell Block 99, are drab and anonymous, though Zahler shoots them with an exhilaratingly pared-down sense of purpose, with sharp physical details that complement the unexpected narrative flourishes. These backdrops suggest every place and no place at once, and are rendered with hard lighting and symmetrical framing that recalls the glory days of John Carpenter. The film’s dialogue is terse, intelligent, yet often somehow un-showy, suggesting the flip and funny things people often say while at work, which are rarely captured in cinema. These qualities cohabitate with a deliberately nasty vision of America—a union that Zahler embraces for its intense and suggestive social tension. He’s already a master of the pulp film, and with Dragged Across Concrete he doubles down on its best and worst elements.

Cast: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Jennifer Carpenter, Michael Jai White, Laurie Holden, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Thomas Kretschmann, Liannet Borrego, Justine Warrington, Fred Melamed Director: S. Craig Zahler Screenwriter: S. Craig Zahler Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 162 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Jordan Peele’s Us Stylishly Filters the Horrors of Economic Oppression

Peele’s follow-up to Get Out unnervingly speaks to the issues affecting a divided nation.




Photo: Universal Pictures

In Get Out, Jordan Peele smartly and unnervingly used the lens of horror to refract black anxieties about living in white America. The film’s central terror, “the sunken place,” a sort of limbo within the self, was a metaphor that encompassed issues of identity, consciousness, and the autonomy of one’s own black body. Peele’s follow-up, Us, suggests a more elegant C.H.U.D. for the Trump era. Even though it’s not as tidily satisfying as Get Out, the new film is both darker and more ambitious, and broader in its themes.

Us opens in 1986 with a little girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry), wandering an amusement park in Santa Cruz, California. She drifts away from her distracted father and takes refuge during a storm in a hall of mirrors, whose signage invites her to “Find Yourself”—and she does, literally encountering her doppelgänger. In the present, Adelaide Wilson (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) revisits the same area with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their teenage daughter (Shahadi Wright Nelson) and prepubescent son (Evan Alex). A trip to the beach reawakens her fears of her shadow self, and that very night, her lookalike—also now grown—and red-clad lookalike family invade the Wilsons’ home and terrorize them.

These invaders are glass-darkly versions of the Wilsons, rawly animalistic semi-clones seeking vengeance for the cursed opposite-but-equal lives they’ve been forced to lead: Every time the Wilsons had a hot, tasty meal, their counterparts ate raw, bloody rabbit, and every time the Wilsons bore loving, well-enough-adjusted children, their counterparts birthed psychotics.

Peele’s script adopts an idea that Michel de Montaigne expressed in the title of his essay “Le profit de l’un est dommage de l’autre” (which loosely translates to “The Profit of One Is Harm to the Other”)—not just that capitalism has its winners and losers but that every gain a person makes directly correlates to another’s loss. The Wilsons are conspicuously upper-middle class—they have a summer house, a sweet car, even a boat—and their crimson-suited doubles represent a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I reckoning with a version of what their lives might have been like. This seems to play on the fears of some economically ascendant African-Americans: What do I owe to the community? Have I left others behind? Have I gotten soft?

As in Get Out, this film’s African-American characters come under assault not in the inner cities of the white imagination, but in supposedly safer upper-class suburban spaces. But Us also moves past such racial themes. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) The shadow vengeance meted upon the Wilsons is in fact a plague, and it’s one that touches every family in Peele’s film. It’s a plot point that the filmmaker introduces with the unexpected—and quite violent—deaths of the Wilsons’ closest friends: the bourgie, boozy, and very white Tylers, including a mother, played by Elisabeth Moss, who sips rosé at the beach before it hits “vodka o’clock.”

In Us, Peele is less concerned with blackness than he is economics, as the howling, homicidal doubles that torment the Wilsons represent an avenging under class. “What are you people?” Gabe asks when the terror begins. “We’re Americans!” his wife’s double hisses. It’s tempting to read these Americans as the embittered Trump base, rising up to destroy the false idyll that was the comfort—for some, at least—of the American status quo.

The film’s screenplay is carefully constructed, so much so that the punchline to a seemingly throwaway knock-knock joke is retroactively understood as a clever foreshadowing of horrific things to come. Drawing on his comedy background, Peele has an uncanny ability to insert laughs into moments of high dread, relieving the tension without diffusing it. And that tension can be overbearing; Peele’s filmmaking is sophisticated, crafting eerie atmospheres and maximizing suspense as his camera moves with the gracefulness of Adelaide the one-time ballet star, glimpses of whom the viewer occasionally sees in flashbacks.

The most striking visuals come near the end, as long-deferred exposition introduces a nightmarish sci-fi subterranean clone town consisting of tunnels that resemble hospital corridors. There, doubles were compelled to mimic the movements of their surface-dwelling counterparts. These damned bodies without their own souls then come up for air to kill and then hold each other’s hands, inspired by Hands Across America, a commercial for which opens Us. (And on the shelf next to the TV showing it is a VHS copy of C.H.U.D..) In the ‘80s, this collective action, we’re told, was meant to raise hunger awareness, and that’s what it does in the present as well, though in a different way. The nationwide mole people, come to eradicate their oppressors, are certainly hungry, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually—for the comforts and pleasures and basic necessities they’ve so long been denied.

Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Anna Diop, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon Director: Jordan Peele Screenwriter: Jordan Peele Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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