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Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma

De Palma remains one of the most prolific, poorly understood and controversial directors in the history of cinema.

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Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma

Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 04/29/2004, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).

“I’ve lived in empty places all my life. I don’t care where I live or what I look like.”

— Brian De Palma

“Critics—no maybe I should call them “reviewers” instead of critics—are looking for the latest thing rather than the truest thing.”

— Armond White, attempting to explain the critical abandonment of De Palma

In May, 2001, director Brian De Palma was honored with a one-month long retrospective, “The Responsive Eye,” at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Although De Palma had been taken seriously for decades by international critics, and had cultivated a large domestic audience, reviewers in the United States had been slow to recognize his achievements and progression as an artist. This event was seen by many as a breakthrough.

De Palma remains one of the most prolific, poorly understood and controversial directors in the history of cinema. His career has spanned three decades and includes such touchstones as Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible. Not only are these tremendously important works in their own right; De Palma’s characters, the phrases they utter and the philosophies they propitiate have been absorbed into our cultural vocabulary. Through persistence and longevity De Palma has created a body of work that is as moody and recalcitrant as it is aesthetically unassailable. The intensity and perceptivity of his works insures that a discussion of De Palma’s films is not merely a discussion of cinema but a discourse on the dynamics of human nature and our national psyche.

In spite of his popularity, De Palma is admittedly notorious. He has been accused of misanthropy, misogyny, cynicism—and their opposites: of “loving women,” of humanism, idealism and gushing romanticism. He is known alternately as a dispassionate plagiarist of Hitchcock and a maverick, a wicked satirist, an avant-gardist, a “sell-out”, a fiercely independent iconoclast and an intellectual; a creator of intensely personal or detached, deterministic and cerebral movies. As his own publicist, De Palma has at times been inflammatory. He is ambiguous or flagrantly opaque when discussing his own work and is at times willfully misleading. He is angered by his critics and occasionally peremptory with staunch advocates. De Palma’s mentor, Wilford Leach, once described him as a man defined not by his continuities but by his incongruities: “He is his own opposite, if you will. He is his contradictions.” Yet the truth is that De Palma’s body of work is undeniably symmetrical and entirely consistent.

Animosity towards De Palma’s formative, ferocious works is subsiding, and the trend towards measured reappraisal of his value as a filmmaker has encroached on his reputation for vituperation and scandal. The critical logjam gave way between the 1998 release of Snake Eyes and September 2000, when De Palma turned sixty years old. Since then, nearly all of De Palma’s works—including the confrontational Sisters, elegant Obsession and cult touchstone Phantom of the Paradise—have been reissued on DVD. The continued popularity of his old and new works, coupled with a recent surge of enlightened Internet criticism and highly publicized retrospectives domestically and abroad attest to the growing recognition of his importance. Courses on De Palma are now taught in several major universities.

Although De Palma has never been cowed by negative criticism, it is probable that without it his body of work might look very different than it does. Provocation has helped him to clarify himself. His films evolve to become more quietly forceful. His obsessions are his obsessions; that he explores and re-explores them with such tenacity attests to his unwillingness to discard his essential ideologies. His allegiance to a risky set of ideas in the face of skepticism situates him in a battle of attrition against evolving sensibilities. Just as Hitchcock and Kubrick outgrew their labels, as decades pass it becomes far more difficult to dismiss Carrie and Dressed to Kill as misogynist diatribe because audiences are increasingly sophisticated in their ability to draw a distinction between what a character signifies and what a director intends to say. These obstinate labels, on the contrary, have been good for De Palma because they stimulate scrutiny, and scrutiny motivates De Palma to be lucid.

Because of the advocacy of critics and persistent theorists, in conjunction with Internet scholarship and intermittent bursts of enthusiasm by mainstream reviewers who recognize flutters of genius in a half dozen of his works, the hope never perishes that De Palma might one day receive the reckoning afforded to a Kubrick, Scorsese or Godard. It has never been feasible to discredit De Palma on the grounds he lacks talent—even Stanley Kauffmann, who disdained the works now considered De Palma’s greatest, never denied that De Palma was gifted. In fact, it was precisely De Palma’s aptitude that exasperated Kauffmann; he argued De Palma’s crime was that he did not apply his genius to the telling of moral stories. But De Palma’s stories are moral; it is their moral complexity that creates the impression they are amoral.

A cinema of fearlessness

In the 1970s a new cinematic language became necessary not merely to transcribe the incongruity and paradox of life but to enhance the ability of cinema to save life from sameness by revealing the art in existence. Brian De Palma’s work was initially hard to reconcile with the affable coherence of more accessible, less contentious movies. His work was, and still is, a reaction against the incorrect apprehension of reality, as well as the representation of reality in art. He prefers pessimism if it is accurate to optimism that is a gross distortion of life experience. In the wake of assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate, films that fed rather than challenged complacency were vestigial leftovers, and audiences were famished not for platitudes disguised as comfort food but truth even when it hurt. De Palma’s films depict a world in which decency is imperative but rare and seldom rewarded; he offers a realistic representation of virtue’s motives and consequences, and a more honest appraisal of the impulse to be good. He presents action as a new mythology and antidote to paralysis and does so in a form that heightens the appreciation of reality rather than tries facetiously to persuade us that the world is arctic, corrosive and banal. De Palma’s career has been about testing the architectural integrity of cinema and encompasses his search for a balance between spectacle that ravishes the senses and emotional truth that invades the psyche at a subconscious level.

A visualist with an appreciation for the beauty of movement through geographies and across glittering surfaces, De Palma is constitutionally unable to make ugly films, and making them beautiful serves his purpose of locating existential splendor in chaos. He is fascinated by the discourse that transpires between film and spectator, and actively provokes our perception at deeper levels by colliding abstract symbols and polymorphous imagery, by offering more than one interpretation of a single event, and by integrating dream and reality without clarifying which is which in order to prove that in art such a distinction barely matters. As his work has become less edgy, it has become more philosophically challenging and, at times, subtly provocative—not provocative because of sex and violence, but as a result of an evolving sensibility that weds unconventional ideas with revelatory technique that sometimes contradicts or aggressively deceives the audience as to his intent.

De Palma is fearless when it comes to transposing patterns from one genre to another, and even when he works within the framework of a genre he manages to transcend easy categorization. Critics refer to Carrie and The Fury as horror films only because no more precise term exists to describe what they are. Is The Untouchables a western or a cop film? To call Mission: Impossible an espionage thriller is to reduce what is more properly described as a hybrid of Oedipus and Hamlet. Nearly three decades after its release, film theorists still quarrel over how to label Phantom of The Paradise.

Most every De Palma film conjures to mind at least one quintessential image, many of them metaphors in themselves: Carrie White soaked in pig’s blood at her own prom; Gillian, arms raised in the middle of a day-lit street as she tries to distinguish saviors from assassins in The Fury; Jack Terry straining to listen to the imperiled Sally through an earpiece on a subway platform in Blow Out; Tony Montana emerging from a swirl of smoke with a hand held rocket launcher in Scarface; Ethan Hunt suspended by a wire in Mission: Impossible; any frame extricated from the famous baby carriage sequence in The Untouchables. The images are potent enough; that they revivify contemplation of concepts is an even greater attribute.

His best films function as stories that enthrall us, paradoxes that trap us, and metaphors that expatiate the effort of a protagonist to cope with a fragmenting universe. De Palma adjusts for chaos and his films speak directly to people who feel, intuitively, that the world is coming apart at the seams but is not yet lost entirely. Even his ethical heroes are sentenced to linger in irreconcilable trauma. De Palma’s works comprise a relentless commentary on the world in which we live, even in instances where they masquerade as fully integrated commercial entertainments. His movies are soulful and inspiring even when they resolve in ambiguity, bitterness and mourning, if only because so many of his protagonists do, to some degree, master chaos.

Emergence of an auteur

De Palma was born in 1940. Pauline Kael, in a November 8, 1976 essay, situates De Palma among his contemporaries of Catholic upbringing, including Coppola and Scorsese. “These men have grown up with a sense of sin and a deep-seated feeling that things aren’t going to get much better in this life.” They are compelled to make art that testifies to their experience of America as a country in which “the Protestant work ethic doesn’t seem to have worked out too well.” As an adolescent, De Palma was mesmerized by computers and distinguished himself by winning first place at a science fair. After a brief flirtation with physics at Columbia University, De Palma immersed himself in his other fascination: filmmaking. His very early works, Greetings and Hi Mom!, were satires. But De Palma’s favorite director was Alfred Hitchcock, and in the early ‘70s he quickly located the Psychological Thriller a sufficiently lean genre whose economies and conventions invited the sort of expressionistic displays of technique that excited his muse. He recalled the genesis of his interest to Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times:

“I wanted to tell tight, precise stories and suspense and terror sometimes lend themselves to that. I was trying to learn something about film technique. I’ve been influenced by the German Expressionists. I’m very concerned with motivating an audience through imagery. I think I’m one of the few directors working in that area, and a lot still has to be developed there. Visual imagery and sound are essential elements of a film. That’s what makes cinema cinema. Most directors use their cameras as recording instruments and don’t really get to the essential element of form.”

Susan Dworkin, author of Double De Palma—a portrait of Body Double in production—situates De Palma among the “movie brats” and posits one explanation for the difficulty of categorizing works produced by these directors to genres.

“Artistically, De Palma could be placed as one of the “Whiz Kids,” a group of five directors who constituted a central generation in American auteur filmmaking. Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma were all friends, connected by old encounters… The Whiz Kids were American spinoffs of the European nouvelle vague of the early 1960s. They had been raised on the notion that the real auteur of a good movie had to be the director. It was originally François Truffaut’s idea, put forth when he was still a film critic and not yet a director himself. The idea was that a director could take a genre movie…and so imbue it with his vision and technique that it would rise above the genre into the sphere of art.”

Jake Horsley, introducing De Palma in The Blood Poets, a sprawling, two-volume analysis of violent contemporary cinema, writes:

“De Palma was actually the first American auteur of the New Hollywood (“the movie brats”) to emerge, but the last to come to prominence (not counting George Lucas, who is hardly an auteur in the true sense). He is also the most gleefully, perversely derivative of them all, and perhaps for this reason the most in tune with the times. De Palma may be the only one of these auteurs—Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielbergfrom whom we might still hope for miracles…”

Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy remains the single most vivid portrait of De Palma at work. She concisely summarizes De Palma’s evolution and the conventional perception of his work. De Palma’s movies were, she writes,

“emotional, operatic films, repeatedly invoking the idea that terror was the only possible response to the cruel and irrational forces that governed the universe… His movies were filled with disturbed families and confused identities. They were filmed with such technical precision that they called attention to the presence of the man behind the camera, whose invisibility protected him from the intense emotions he aroused as he moved his characters through the treacherous, sometimes sadistic world he created on film. His movies were bloody yet oddly poetic, feverish yet carefully planned, full of passion yet distant.

”…Psychologists were intrigued by De Palma’s fascinating with pathology, by the aberrant behavior aroused in characters who find themselves manipulated by others.

“A great many people simply thought that De Palma was a fraud. They argued that he had simply dressed up his woman-hating wickedness so artfully that the intelligentsia didn’t see him for what he was: a perverse misogynist.

“At first De Palma was startled by the attacks, and then invigorated by them. He willingly, sometimes gleefully, went head to head with journalists eager to denounce him for the violence and violent sexuality in his movies. People were almost always thrown off guard when they met the well-spoken graduate of a Quaker school in Philadelphia, Columbia University, and Sarah Lawrence. Articulate and convincing, De Palma could defend himself very well indeed.”

The portrait that has incrementally emerged—not only in Salamon’s exemplary document but in interviews and profiles—is that of a casual—even frumpy—and reserved man who spends money on art and travel but not luxury, appreciates praise but anticipates condemnation, is indulgent with actors but cynical about producers, is impatient with dull questions asked by journalists and, at times, impatient with reasonable questions asked by proponents. De Palma also smokes, has trouble sleeping during production, allays anxiety by means of meticulous planning, and is cool under fire with studio executives—or at very least conceals his anxiety well. His mischievous side manifests when he is under assault; he will occasionally go incognito—vanish from the set or—in the wake of the critical coruscation of Mission to Mars—vanish from the continent. One can draw any number of conclusions from his asceticism, which has been remarked upon by many. Paul Mandell observes in a post-Fury interview:

”[De Palma] lives a relatively normal life far from the madding crowd of Hollywood. Beside a cigarette-littered ashtray on a table in his modestly furnished Fifth Avenue apartment sits a $50 portable typewriter with a piece of paper rolled through the carriage… “I’ve lived in empty places all my life,” I recalled him saying once in an interview. “I don’t care where I live or what I look like.” Mmm. I remembered reading how he spent his high school years designing computers and dreaming of going to the moon. I also remembered reading that he had been disinherited; had worked at a Greenwich Village bistro, the Village Gaslight; and had caught a bullet from the NYPD at the age of 23… The furniture was quite sparse.”

Mandell also quotes De Palma as saying, “I’ve never had an interest in anything material. I’ve always found it difficult to buy things. I’m just very bored by the process of going into a store. In fact it makes me quite uncomfortable.” Jennifer Dunning opens her New York Times profile with a description of an austere, morose De Palma:

“Mr. De Palma was sitting rather glumly across a worktable in his lower Fifth Avenue apartment. Soft rock blared out. But the apartment was nearly bare of furniture. Airy and immaculate, it had almost a monastic look.”

De Palma described himself to Us magazine author Stephen Schaefer in 1978 as “a relatively happy person” who lives alone and whose favorite pastime is “to be alone.” Julie Salamon gives us a flavor for De Palma’s preference for solitude—including a desire not to be bothered, particularly when napping—when she describes his abrupt absences during the filming of Bonfire of the Vanities, typically when he anticipated a confrontation with uneasy studio executives. As he had done on the set of Carrie, he soon began to listen to opera cassettes on his Walkman during filming.

Salamon believes she has located De Palma’s central contradiction: “He wanted to be recognized as an artist by the critical establishment, and he wanted to achieve box office success. Yet his most personal films could never have the mass appeal of more conventional movies.” To complicate matters, the critics who understood and felt possessive of his work resented it when he released films that made money and were appreciated by mainstream audiences.

Wrestling with contradiction

The desire for both artistic legitimacy and commercial success is contradictory in De Palma only because his stated objective is not to be loved but to be “infamous.” He has never aspired to please the many; that many are often not pleased should not surprise De Palma. Yet his behavior in the wake of rejection, even of ferociously antagonistic works like Casualties of War, suggests he is wounded by it—even by rejection that he actively courts, as in the case of Body Double, a film that sought to infuriate skeptics and cultivate new enemies. He appears at times simultaneously to reject and serenade the Hollywood establishment. Armond White explained to interviewer Brett Leitner why he believes De Palma—unlike Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas—is perceived to be an outsider:

“Probably because he takes more risks. I’ve always thought that people don’t really understand De Palma’s movies. I think of him as a popular filmmaker, yet he is not popularly understood. So many people who think he simply rips off Hitchcock don’t understand how many other filmmakers have influenced him. One of those other filmmakers is Godard. And like Godard, De Palma tends to alienate some people because he is so experimental, doing what used to be called ’radical.’ It causes the audience to think about what they’re watching… Because De Palma has that Godardian side to him, that’s the trouble he faces too, even though he works in a popular American medium.”

White, who has interviewed De Palma twice, found the director reluctant to discuss the political, social or metaphorical dimensions of his work.

Pauline Kael became De Palma’s first crucial advocate. She praised films like Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie and The Fury without guilt and argued that De Palma’s works were more than entertainments; they were not derivative but additive, and were products of an exponentially developing talent. Where other critics saw potential, Kael discerned hallucinatory poetics and wicked satire. It was not just that Kael was pleased by the films—many critics were pleased by Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie and The Fury—but the way she was pleased, and her persistence and eloquence in stating her case. She was able to situate De Palma in a context that did not diminish his achievements by insinuating that he was merely an understudy to greater, earlier directors. She called his films serious, compared them to works by Godard and Antonioni, and devoted pages and pages to cataloguing their virtues and, when necessary, their deficiencies. Certainly one of the most daring sentences she ever authored appeared in her 1978 review of The Fury, in which she asserted that De Palma had at last directed a movie that surpassed in intensity, vision and number of classic sequences anything directed by Hitchcock. In her defense of De Palma, Kael made adversaries and—in the eyes of the critical establishment—jeopardized her credibility. She was pilloried and even parodied by other critics. But she never backed down.

Armond White would become a force in the U.S. reappraisal of De Palma that followed the release of Snake Eyes. White’s contribution is not blind acceptance of every De Palma work (in fact, he was aghast by French exaltation of Carlito’s Way) but his positioning of De Palma, the modernist, among his post-modernist peers and his recognition of the sensibilities that fuel the director’s vision, not only at the moment the films are released to the world but within the larger context of what White describes as their “dialogue” with the history of cinema. White has on occasion opposed the consensus; he sees Mission: Impossible as a “sell-out,” deducted brownie points from The Untouchables because it pleased mainstream audiences, believes Bonfire of the Vanities is a vastly under-appreciated work of satire, and proclaimed Mission to Mars one of the ten best films of 2000. White is a provocative non-conformist who appears to distrust films that succeed at the box office but is unflinchingly consistent in locating aesthetic organization and passages of astounding beauty even in De Palma’s less experimental, widely accepted works. White believes hostility towards De Palma is a conditioned response to movies that have artistic rather than escapist aspirations. When interviewed by Brett Leitner, White asserted:

”[Critics] want to deny the truth and drift off into total escapism… That’s why they can’t see De Palma for anything other than a Hitchcock imitator. Some people think the world begins and ends with Hollywood formula; they aren’t aware of art, they aren’t aware of the modernist movement. But I think that’s almost willful. I mean, he’s been making movies for over thirty years and they still deny his seriousness. But it’s worse than that, it’s a willful commitment to the Hollywood idea of ’escapism is everything.’”

White attributes historical resistance to De Palma to a fear of filmic sensuality, invoking a phenomenon that Kael theorized in her essay, “Fear of Movies.”

”[De Palma] disturbs them in a way that a facetious and parodical filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino never can, because there isn’t really much style to respond to in Tarantino. Minimal style is OK with a lot of people, so they don’t want to respond to De Palma’s camera movement or his style of editing. They don’t even want to feel it. I think that’s part of Pauline Kael’s notion, that the ’fear of movies’ for some people is a culturally induced thing, almost related to peoples’ sexual response. Movies are very kinetic and can be a sensual art form and some people are just afraid to feel those things.”

White believes that critical and popular perception of De Palma is in transition and that reappraisal of his work is inevitable. For White, “the tide has turned. [We] have to make it happen. Critical responses are the result of critics. We need a new generation of critics, because after a while opinions and attitudes become a matter of inherited hostility rather than individuals watching movies for themselves. Think about Godard’s career. His reputation is still in dispute, yet he is crucial to film culture… [De Palma] may always be in dispute. And that’s OK!”

Many critics now concede that films like Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible did overcome the contradiction Salamon described by achieving both artistic and commercial success. But there has never been the unanimity in the critical community that is so predictably engendered by the works of a Scorsese or Spielberg. The charge, by De Palma’s advocates, is that he has not been taken seriously by critics simply because his works are so controversial that even to contemplate their significance is to risk ridicule. In the preamble to his interview with Armond White, Brett Leitner writes, “Few critics have dared to make public a respect for De Palma, and fewer still have bothered to explore the significance of his talent.”

Influences and accusations

As for De Palma’s appropriation of Hitchcock’s techniques, De Palma admits how deeply influenced he is by Hitchcock as well as other filmmakers. Critics versed in film history note not just one but a gamut of influences, including Orson Welles, Scorsese, Cassavetes and Kubrick. Although some dismiss any notion of a Kubrick influence on De Palma, he has invoked Kubrick frequently, as far back as 1975, and revisited Kubrick’s satires when conceptualizing Bonfire of the Vanities. De Palma has wisely left it to critics to determine whether he has surpassed his mentors or not—and some important critics believe he has realized Hitchcock’s promise by transcending its strictures and introducing important social themes—and even taboo—to the paradigm. On the matter of De Palma’s debt to Hitchcock, Jake Horsley writes:

“De Palma does not copy Hitchcock, he follows him, and his films (specifically Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and, to a much lesser extent, Obsession, Body Double, and Raising Cain) are not imitation Hitchcocks, they are rather authentic and ingenious developments of the same themes that once obsessed Hitchcock… De Palma took the threads that Hitchcock laid, and then ran with them, in the process creating a whole new tapestry, and his audacity helped to resurrect the old horrors within new forms in the American cinema.”

Another recurring allegation is that early De Palma’s works are inherently misogynist. Feminist objection to Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Body Double left a taint that persists. More recently the charge was leveled against Casualties of War. Perhaps helping his cause, but likely not, De Palma discussed with critic Michael Bliss the aesthetic reasons he places women in mortal jeopardy:

“You try to deal with things that an audience can identify with on a visceral level and I feel that’s what they can identify with to some extent. People say, “Why do women get slashed in his films, what does he have against women?” I just think that when women are in a perilous situation, audiences identify with them more than men because they look more helpless.”

De Palma’s mentor, Wilford Leach, sees internal contradiction as what differentiates De Palma’s work from that of his contemporaries and, even, from those works to which De Palma’s suspense films are frequently compared. Leach told author Susan Dworkin: “I can still tell Brian’s work in a minute. His work is the work of a rational, thoughtful, intellectual person who stands outside things—and who, in fact, is the opposite of that, whose passions run deep, whose sense of outrage is limitless.”

There is ample contradiction in De Palma; a filmmaker who admires and borrows from Hitchcock yet grows weary of having critics acknowledge this debt; a director who loves his female characters—often speaks through his females—yet situates their demise, often at the hands of vindictive psychopaths and disturbed voyeurs, as central to his art; a director who is simultaneously nonchalant about assertions his blockbusters are “sell-outs” and defensive of the charge because it insinuates artistic compromise; a director who at times seems to welcome and spar with detractors yet, in some instances, has cancelled publicity tours in the wake of critical excoriation. Finally, De Palma is a director who until 1985 wanted to offend the sensibilities but expressed disappointment when his films were denounced as offensive—perhaps because they were not attacked on their own terms but marginalized by a process of comparison (“Hitchcock”) and reductionism (“satire”).

Beauty in the grotesque

De Palma has, like Kubrick, Lynch and Fincher, sought to master the intersection of mesmerizing beauty and grotesque horror while legitimizing and freeing encumbered and stigmatized genres. His films are intensely curious—curious about the human psyche, as well as the cyclic patterns and inherent nature of quotidian existence. They explore cycles of self-preservation, implosion, virtue, vice and avarice. They hunger for the cosmic meaning of suffering. They explore the nature of mistakes and substitute obsolete myths about America with more fortifying and truthful myths. Where De Palma deviates from his contemporaries is that he situates intellect, intuition and social strategy as higher than emotion or pure altruism on the hierarchy of evolutionary tools. His most realized protagonists are patient Watchers who observe and deliberate before using reason, psychology and technology to smash through deception. De Palma does not attach any special premium to the emotional synthesis of crisis. His most successful characters are resourceful, methodical and disciplined. In instances where they are manipulated and exploited, it is often a consequence of inattentiveness or existential resignation.

De Palma’s characters are almost universally motivated by dualistic drives; they are multidimensional in their objectives and paradoxical in their desires. They seek transcendence, but how they go about this is dependent upon frequently contradictory considerations. Grace Collier in Sisters attempts to parlay the private anguish of a neighbor into professional credibility but soon becomes sidetracked by her fervor to feed a deeper psychological need. Jake Scully in Body Double is motivated by the paradoxical demons of prurient desire and a shamed conscience. In Blow Out, regret disguised as altruistic idealism manifests as Jack Terry’s compulsion to resurrect his accomplice, Sally Bedina, in his own image. Tony Montana’s every step closer to a forgery of the American Dream is undermined by proportionate estrangement from his own soul and bitter alienation from the sister whose idolatry inspires his voracity for success. In Casualties of War, Private Eriksson’s impulse to intervene on behalf of a brutalized civilian collides with the obstacle of rational self-preservation in a universe where hierarchy and moral order are eviscerated by primitive impulse and collective psychosis. In Mission Impossible, Ethan Hunt’s fixation on the mastery of obstacles and restoration of order to chaos is tainted by an erotic desire that may or may not constitute the betrayal of a betraying mentor. In Femme Fatale, De Palma documents the internal struggle of a female protagonist as she deliberates whether to accept or reject an archetype so powerful that it has the potential to emancipate or destroy her. Yet, even these thumbnail descriptions seem insufficient to convey the forces that toss De Palma’s creations around the existential abyss. In film after film, De Palma situates a divide between private aspirations and the intrinsic need to be—and to be perceived by others as—decent and evolving towards a perfected and sovereign self.

The films propound a hydraulic, incessant and fastidious linkage of cause to effect that challenges the notion of reality as arbitrary and unfathomable. Non-virtue yields poor results and good causes yield better results but often his heroes do not triumph in any traditional sense. They do, however, embody the realm of free choice and pure action. Everything they do matters. They do good, or they do bad, they leave an imprint on the society in which they struggle, and they always suffer. Despair can, in De Palma’s world, be the redemptive result of a magnificent act of moral courage. Good intentions can reap catastrophe. A deadly mistake is repeated by an intelligent man with an honorable aspiration. This is a much more clear-headed and less nostalgic cognition of the world in which we live—but De Palma gives it to us not as realism but allegory that, in its way, exalts the travails of life and transforms painful experience into art. There is glory to be found even in the stories of his most malignant characters. They are larger than life, and they believe they are free. Even when his narratives are phantasmagoric, they convey something utterly true. Through abstraction, and by the sheer fascination and novelty of their journeys towards redemption or collapse, they affirm the spiritual journey that culminates in self-comprehension and autonomy.

De Palma’s films are not warm and fuzzy. They issue ultimatums, cultivate disenchantment, and violate narratological edicts. Their heroes reap weariness and disappointment. He creates universes that penalize good intentions, sometimes reward intellect, and dangle temptation before the weak and ambivalent. His consistent mixture of beauty with violence is his signature. His Darwinian films, which champion ascendancy over evil and entrenched corruption by means of superior tools of adaptability, intellect, intuition and reason, have a taint of elitism because they deviate from classicist and popular exemplars that argue being good is enough. In De Palma’s universe being good is a virtue but is no guarantee of survival. His natural selection tends to favor taciturn exotics who do not react but rather choose a response. His cinema is not always a cinema of transformation. De Palma does not blindly accept the mantra that great drama must be about radical change; the challenge for some of his protagonists is to resist an onslaught. Eliott Ness and Private Eriksson, for example, are characterized by their defiance; they refuse to change, compromise or submit to an invitation to corruption.

De Palma is fascinated by contradictions within motive. The nightmare at the conclusion of Dressed to Kill hints that even the use of manipulation for a virtuous purpose—to expose a killer—leaves its user with a penetrating sense of guilt. In Body Double a questionable and frivolous obsession leads a man to solve a murder made possible only by his predictability. De Palma’s best films behave like self-replicating Von Neumann machines: They are so highly stylized, self-assured, and unrelenting that they create the impression that they are intelligent life forms. They ask, but only partially answer, the questions they raise about what it means to live in the modern world.

Clear perception is the religion of De Palma’s most intricate protagonists; Gillian in The Fury; Jack Terry in Blow Out, Eliott Ness in The Untouchables; Private Eriksson in Casualties of War, and Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible. Intuition, which De Palma distinguishes from emotion and intellect, is not a means to an end but a lifeline. Gillian doesn’t use clairvoyance; she embodies clairvoyance as a metaphor for sovereignty and the synthesis of truth. Peter Miller’s preoccupation is surveillance. Jack Terry’s is sound and, like Rick Santoro’s in Snake Eyes, visual-sequential reconstruction. Ethan relies on logic and photographic memory. These skills define the character who possesses them while functioning simultaneously as tools to master the indecipherable.

A universe of graceful suffering

De Palma is one of our most important and prolific living American directors. He has produced one of the most obstinate and unpredictable bodies of work in history. The prodigality, diversity and controversy of the oeuvre has frightened scholars away from pursuing meta-theories that explain De Palma’s output as a unified whole. To complicate matters, like Godard, De Palma’s films not only entertain and ruminate on the human condition but constitute a critique of contemporary cinema. Yet De Palma is every bit as consistent as Scorsese, as subversive as Lynch, and as cerebral and bemused by human nature as Kubrick. Like Scorsese, he excavates the same themes repeatedly, often to augment or recalibrate a schema he has rethought. Dworkin, with the help of De Palma’s mentor, explains the rationale behind repetition.

“Wilford Leach said that Brian’s movies were like the circling of the planets. Around and around the artist went, a lifelong 360-degree pan, and what he saw on one revolution would be better lit on the next or in total darkness the next time around. With each revolution, there was a further revelation, but the universe of Brian’s material remained basically the same.

Brutality.
Sex.
Greed.”

De Palma’s work testifies to an ongoing process of reinvention. He continues to transfigure obsolete, dishonest and meaningless myths for emerging generations that crave their renovation. His stories are infused with life; those moved by them receive the twin gifts of inspiration and curiosity. His films help us to experience the world more intensely, and to bear with grace, intelligence and courage the suffering of being human.

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Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation

Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.

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Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Photo: PBS Distribution

According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.

That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.

But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.

Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.

Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.

That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”

Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.

Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane

Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.

Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”

Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.

In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.

The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.

The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.

If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.

The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.

Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.

Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.

Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.

That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.

More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.

No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook

Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.

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The Nightingale
Photo: Matt Nettheim

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:

Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.

Watch the official trailer below:

IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.

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Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche

Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.

Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.

Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.

Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.

Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.

And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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Downton Abbey Trailer Sees the Crawley Clan Prepping for a Royal Arrival

Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithin’s Day already? No, it ain’t, dear. ‘Tis Downtown Abbey Day.

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Downton Abbey
Photo: Focus Features

Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithin’s Day already? No, it ain’t, dear. ‘Tis Downton Abbey Day—that is, the release of the official trailer for the Downton Abbey movie. It’s been some three years since we’ve gotten to sip tea with the Crawley clan and hang out downstairs with the servants making sure that the biscuits are placed just right on the proper fine bone china tea set. And from the looks of the two-and-a-half-minute trailer, it would appear that nothing has changed at Downton Abbey since the series’s finale.

In the tradition of Mad Men’s episode-ending “next week on AMC’s Mad Men” teasers, it’s just a series of snappy snippets that suggest we’re in for more of the same, from Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham snarking up a storm to Robert James-Collier’s Thomas Barrow getting his gay on. And we are here for it. The cherry on top? The king and queen are coming to Downton! And as everything must be in tip-top shape for their arrival, the Crawleys must enlist the help of the one and only Charles Carson (Jim Carter), who is treated here with the reverence of a god, or a superhero from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Downton Abbey is directed by Michael Engler and written by Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes. And in addition to the aforementioned actors, the film stars Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, David Haig, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Stephen Campbell Moore, Lesley Nicol, Kate Phillips, Imelda Staunton, and Penelope Wilton.

Watch the official trailer below:

Focus Features will release Downton Abbey on September 20.

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Review: A Hidden Life Lyrically Attests to a Man’s Quest for Moral Purity

Terrence Malick’s film means to seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current.

3

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A Hidden Life
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

With A Hidden Life, the Christian God that Terrence Malick has ordained as omnipotent in so many of his films seems, for the first time, on the verge of defeat. To Malick, the hate and devastation of the Third Reich during World War II brought not only death to the mortal body, but threatened annihilating the moral soul. No less than this weighs on Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who risks imprisonment, and worse, by refusing to fight for Adolf Hitler in the early 1940s.

Malick makes Diehl’s conscientious objector the human center of A Hidden Life, and the bearer of its two colossal forms of internal torment: a waning fealty to country and the loss of faith in God. Franz’s path from forceful rejection of his nation’s shifting values to his questioning of the church isn’t only A Hidden Life’s most compelling through line, but also one of the few substantive deviations from Malick’s signature thematic fixations.

Franz’s crisis of faith otherwise plays out in a formal register that’s of a piece with Malick’s prior work. This is evident right away in the film’s first section, set mostly in Radegund, a small Austrian village surrounded by rolling hills and flowing streams, and throughout which the camera lingers on scythes gliding through cornfields, braying farm animals, afternoon strolls down rough-trod dirt pathways, and silken blankets of fog over acres of forest.

The imagery is predictably gorgeous, but these sequences don’t offer the sense of progression that the overtures of Malick’s films often do. The Tree of Life spirits us through the birth of a family, its children coming of age, and a world-altering tragedy, all in its first moments. In A Hidden Life, we see, via flashback, how Franz met his wife, Franzi (Valerie Pachner), with usual Malickian hushed and reverent narration accompanying the scene of the couple’s first encounter and instant infatuation. Malick then launches into a string of scenes that show Franz and Franzi in the throes of domestic bliss, but the sweeping romance of these moments grows repetitive, and for maybe the first time, the director’s form verges on the monotonous.

Malick’s working method in recent years is quicker and less precise than it used to be, an approach that’s yielded profound rewards, as most of the films are set in contemporary times and depict a fast-paced world lacking in human contact. However, A Hidden Life, being Malick’s first historical epic in over a decade, could have greatly benefited from the longer gestation period that a film like The New World was allowed.

A Hidden Life eventually moves past its unhurried opening, as Franz is thrust from his home in the foothills of Radegund, first to a German military base after he’s drafted, and later to Berlin, where he’s imprisoned and condemned to death. In these later sections, the film sees Malick working with more plot than in almost any other film he’s made, which is one change that does at least open A Hidden Life up to some unexpectedly impactful dramatic moments. Unfortunately, the need to attend to matters of plot distracts Malick from summoning the sort of grace notes that typically accumulate with such phenomenal ease across his films.

A Hidden Life is a deeply interiorized movie—a war film about the battle between one man’s mind, heart, and soul—that also functions on a more macro level. At various points, Malick cuts from the personal narrative to black-and-white archival footage, which features Berlin during the war, steam-powered trains, and Hitler in a promo reel playing with a child. Franz himself also facilitates broader implications about the world around him, and its inability to comprehend the damage caused by unmitigated hate and intolerance, through the reverberating effects of his oppression: As society ostracizes him, the intensity of his moral conviction—the refusal to comply with the German’s Oath of the Leader—is projected outward, imprinted on spaces he occupies, and on the people whom he influences.

Malick stresses this idea at various points in A Hidden Life, especially in a scene that’s bound to cause controversy: Bruno Ganz, as a high-ranking Nazi officer, conducts a one-on-one meeting with the condemned Franz, trying to understand why he believes his cause is a just one. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with humanizing an officer of the Third Reich—an earnest extension of Malick’s boundless commitment to humanism—the scene contrives moments of such earnest reflection that it verges on maudlin.

The film’s strongest section is its final stretch, which encompasses some of Malick’s most ambitious, probing, philosophical ideas since The Tree of Life. It’s also here where Malick adds another wrenching layer to Franz’s struggle, as the man must weigh the moral imperative of refusing to play a part in Germany’s conquest against the responsibilities that he will not be able to perform as a husband and father if he’s put to death. Malick renders Franz’s final months and days through the lens of the evocative, semi-surrealist Christian imagery that he employed in The Tree of Life, but that imagery—such as a door left ajar, revealing only darkness beyond—carries darker connotations here, as Franz faces his impending execution.

The first line that we hear in A Hidden Life is a telling one: “We thought we could make our nest high up in the trees.” If Malick’s art had ever offered one essential means through which to understand it, it’s that with the loftiest of beliefs and ambitions comes the greatest risk. The filmmaker’s work has often teetered on the brink of folly, and here it builds on a foundation that isn’t as sturdy as it used to be. But Malick still dares to push his moral inquiry further than he ever has before. A Hidden Life means to seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current. It’s a quietly radical, if problematic, effort, as Malick’s baseline faith in humanity becomes uncomfortable when it resonates on the faces of soldiers throughout a Nazi war camp. But Malick owns that hire-wire risk, and when his filmmaking matches that level of commitment, as it often does here, he reaps the reward.

Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhäuser, Ulrich Matthes Director: Terrence Malick Screenwriter: Terrence Malick Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 174 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Rocketman Is Dynamic and Formulaic in Equal Measure

As a musical, Dexter Fletcher’s film is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.

2.5

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Rocketman
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is yet another biopic about the psycho-sensual highs and lows of being a rock star. The story of Elton John’s life suggests a narrative arc that is, at this point, awfully familiar: a musically gifted boy from working-class England is inspired by the sonic freedom evoked by American rock music; his dissatisfaction with his own life propels him to great success but also makes him susceptible to the temptations of the decadent pop-star lifestyle; his drug habit ruins his personal relationships and even threatens his career; he eventually confronts his demons and stages a comeback—with his new, healthy attitude mirrored by renewed professional success. Roll titles telling us where Elton is now.

To its credit, Rocketman is at least partially aware that we’re familiar with these types of Behind the Music-style biopics. It doesn’t abandon the template, but it does toss us a colorful, energetic musical sequence whenever the protagonist’s family life or struggles with stardom threaten to get too dark. Fantastical song-and-dance scenes, built around some of Elton’s most well-known songs and enhanced by CG effects, serve to express the characters’ submerged feelings (“I Want Love”), transition between Elton’s childhood and adulthood (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), link the performative decadence of mid-‘70s glam rock to that of mid-‘70s sex (“Bennie and the Jets,” somewhat oddly), and simply offer some visually pleasing spectacle (“Crocodile Rock”). Their main effect, though, is to give the film the quality of a karaoke stage musical: Even as Elton nearly overdoses on prescription meds, we’re not here to contemplate mortality, but to enjoy some fondly remembered pop songs. As a musical, Rocketman is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.

In between the musical sequences, Elton (Taron Egerton), born Reginald Dwight, is portrayed as the unhappy genius inside the sequined chicken costume. Loved insufficiently by his selfish mother (Bruce Dallas Howard) and not at all by his stiff-upper-lipped father (Steven Mackintosh), the young Reggie longs to be somewhere and someone else. It turns out that he’s almost preternaturally gifted at the piano, able to reproduce complex pieces upon hearing them once, and this gift turns out to be his ticket out of working-class London. Starting as a back-up musician for Motown artists on tour in Britain, Reggie soon breaks out on his own, inventing his new stage name by stealing the first name of one of his bandmates, and taking the last name from John Lennon—improvising the latter when he sees a photo of the Beatles hanging in the office of Dick James (Stephen Graham), head of his first record label, DJM.

Rocketman makes clear that Reggie’s adoption of a stage name is more than just marketing, as he’ll insist, later in the film, that his family also call him Elton. The invention of a new persona allows him to escape his humble origins and demeanor. As one of the Motown performers advises him in one of those programmatic lines that these sorts of films specialize in, “Kill the person you are in order to become the person you want to be.” The irony of John’s public image—the mild manner and small stature offset by flamboyant, glittering stage performances—is expanded into a Reggie/Elton dialectic in Rocketman, in which the adult Elton must eventually learn to reconcile himself with his inner child. It’s a reconciliation that will be presented in the most literal of images toward the end of the film.

At DJM, Elton is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the two form an instant bond. Together, they write many popular songs, some seemingly inspired by their friendship. There’s an ambiguous sexual tension between them, and the film implies that the duo’s “Your Song” may have been an outgrowth of this tension—or, at the very least, that the lonely Elton mistook it as such. Elton’s ultimately platonic friendship with Bernie is the emotional core of Rocketman, depicted as the most stable relationship of Elton’s life. (The film concludes in the ‘80s, just before the singer would meet his eventual husband, David Furnish.)

Fletcher’s film is less squeamish about Elton’s love life—including sex—than a big-budget biopic about a gay star would have been years ago—or, rather, as recent as last year. Elton has an intense and predictably doomed romance with callous music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but what drives him to booze and drugs is a loneliness and discomfort with himself that goes beyond his marginalized sexual identity. Which is to say, the Elton John of Rocketman doesn’t fit into to the stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive gay man.

There isn’t much to Bernie and Elton’s creative process as depicted in the film. Repeatedly, Bernie shows up with lyrics, and Elton comes up with the music on the spot, as if the tunes came to him from on high. At one point, his mother claims accusatorily that everything has always been too easy for Elton, and as a viewer, one is tempted to agree. Here, Elton’s music is less the outgrowth of hard work and more on the order of religious revelation: Witness, for example, the trippy musical number in which “Crocodile Rock” makes the audience at the famous Troubadour club in Los Angeles levitate. The visually engrossing title-song sequence plays, in overblown glam-rock fashion, with Christ-like images of death and ascension.

Egerton delivers a dynamic performance as the alternatingly sullen and exuberant star, one that fits in perfectly with the film’s embrace of Elton’s loud, diamond-encrusted aesthetic. But if the musical sequences feature spirited performances and colorful mise-en-scène that are pleasurably diverting, much of what surrounds them is bound to elicit groans, from the hackneyed way the film uses minor black characters as props to legitimize its aspiring white rock star, to the one-dimensionality of every character who isn’t Elton or Bernie, to the final delivery of a complacent moral. As a vision Elton has of his beloved grandmother (Gemma Jones) tells him during his stint in rehab, “You write songs millions of people love, and that’s what’s important.” Is it, though? This seems less like a reassurance for a character in the grips of addiction, and more like a reassurance to the audience that they matter.

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh Director: Dexter Fletcher Screenwriter: Lee Hall Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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