Veteran. Agitator. Provocateur. Bully. Conspiracy nut. Patriot. These are just some of the labels used over the years to describe Oliver Stone. (Subtle isn’t one of them.) He has spent his filmmaking career charting the currents that propelled America in the post-war era: war, greed, sensationalism, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Like Jean-Luc Godard, Stone embraces myth then cuts it up to reveal a truth at its heart. Whether it’s the dark side of the counterculture (The Doors), the moment America entered the media age of paranoia and punditry (JFK), the ambition—and folly—that comes with being the leader of the most powerful country in the world (Nixon), or the corporatization of America (Wall Street, Any Given Sunday), Stone has used film to chronicle the dreams, fears, and disillusionments that marked the last half of the 20th century as the most creative—and destructive—in U.S. history. (Is it really a surprise that Stone’s latest movie is about the defining moment of the 21st century?)
So, what’s all the fuss? Why does the phrase “An Oliver Stone Film” make people tense up and prepare to dismiss Stone’s latest as the work of an irresponsible attention-seeker? It’s not just Stone’s provocateur identity that rankles. It’s his unwillingness to adhere to Hollywood conventions. When he tackles true-life subjects like Nixon or the JFK assassination he is respectful but not reverential. For Stone, to be reverential toward history is to simplify it, put it into its place. Stone understands that the Richard Attenborrough approach to biopics (Young Winston, Gandhi) turns the past into a Sunday school lesson, orderly and good for the soul. Stone prefers to mainline history and entertainment into your system. Fact and speculation crash into each other until they create a truth that illuminates what you thought you knew into something new, cleansed of myth, profound.
Stone didn’t make his first “Oliver Stone” movie until 1986; in the first phase of his career, he was one of Hollywood’s most successful—and notorious—screenwriters. His scripts for Scarface (1983), and Year of the Dragon (1985) showed he had a gift for punchy, populist story structure. His Oscar-winning script for Midnight Express (1978) was attacked for taking liberties with real events to jack up the film’s already unbearable tension. Even then Stone knew that in successful films, emotional truth trumps fact.
His first two directorial efforts, Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981), are the works of a man who is torn between avant-garde experimentation and exploitation gusto. It would take Stone’s third film, Salvador, for him to announce himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. He’s become the point man for the Baby Boom’s collective memory—
and the poet laureate for the portion of that generation that didn’t get deferments. To consider his body of work is to see how we’ve processed the past 50 years of American history and culture. His movies aren’t about what happened as what we believe happened, and how we feel about it. He knows you have to grab viewers by the throat to get their attention. Like D.W Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, Stone understands that film, more than any other art form, is best at conveying the emotional spectrum of the human experience, whether its a rock concert, the movement on the floor of the stock exchange, or the gladiatorial battle of football. Stone sees life as spectacle and spectacle as entertainment.
Salvador (1986). Released in April of ’86, Stone’s agit-prop docudrama about Reagan’s disastrous military policies in Central America should’ve been a hand grenade rolled into multiplexes. It barely made a sound. But those who saw it knew it was the start of something special; it ushered in a resurgence in topical filmmaking that had helped define the New Hollywood 15 years earlier, at a time when earnest and efficient political movies (1983’s Under Fire, 1984’s The Killing Fields) were overshadowed by powder-wigged period pieces and mass-appeal blockbusters. Stone knew that audiences needed to be shaken out of their Reagan-era complacency. Salvador did that. By telling the misadventures of Richard Boyle (James Woods), an amoral journalist looking to hustle his way into respectability, and Dr. Rock (James Belushi), Boyle’s piggish “friend” who’s looking for a good time, Stone creates his own version of Gonzo journalism disguised as a grungy road movie. It’s Hunter S. Thompson by way of Costa-Gavras or John Frankenheimer: Fear and Loathing in El Salvador.
The film’s heart is a career-defining performance by Woods. Manic, impassioned, sleazy, the actor may be portraying the real life Richard Boyle, but the characterization is really a takeoff on Oliver Stone, the crusading young filmmaker determined to say what no one else wants to hear. In Boyle, Stone sees a man driven to capture the Truth at the cost of everything else, even his own safety. In contrast to the “hero’s journey” structure of many Stone films, where the protagonist starts out an idealistic youth and loses his innocence, only to have it restored with a wised-up sense of how the world operates, Salvador begins in amorality, with the world’s sleaziest “good guy” at the center.
In a way Stone is right to dispense with any pretense Boyle has lost his “innocence.” Stone knows that in order to function as a journalist in the shadow of authoritarian regimes like El Salvador’s you must keep your moral compass to yourself. Stone sees a world where leftist guerillas are branded “terrorists” by a U.S.-sanctioned right-wing militaristic government in the name of fighting “communists.” He sees politics are a series of compromises; therefore, taking an amoral stance is a means of keeping one’s sanity. It isn’t until Boyle starts hustling for a good cause that he discovers his idealism. By the end of the movie Boyle’s experiences in the hell of El Salvador, like Stone’s tours in Vietnam, have allowed him to achieve a small form of salvation.
All of this would be a drag if Stone didn’t possess the instincts of a sensational filmmaker. Salvador’s dialogue is coarse and funny. (“Where else can you get a virgin to sit on your face for seven bucks, two virgins for twelve.”) While Boyle and Dr. Rock are vulgar scoundrels, they have human frailties and needs, and as the title suggests, they are not beyond redemption. In the film’s most celebrated scene, Boyle, a lapsed Catholic, goes to confession after a 32-year absence. His reason? To ask God’s forgiveness for leading a wicked life so he can marry the peasant woman (Elpidia Carillo) who’s inspired him to reform, sort of. (Boyle can’t just promise to give up booze and pot; he has to carve out exemptions.) This outwardly simple, dialogue-and-performance driven moment—just two men in a booth, one of them hidden behind a screen—marks the start of Boyle’s tilt away from self-interest. We are literally seeing a man discover what it means to know right from wrong.
Stone’s visual style is just as bluntly elegant. The first film in Stone’s 12-year, 11-movie relationship with ace cinematographer Robert Richardson, Salvador displays a grit and immediacy that must’ve been a shock to audiences grown accustomed to the Laszlo Kovacses and Dean Cundeys of the ‘80s. Richardson’s camera is everywhere at once. It sees but it doesn’t linger. The scenes of street life in El Salvador have a jagged yet fluid sense of motion. Richardson doesn’t objectify the locations, but he sees the beauty amidst the ruins.
Stone knows that his story is charged with pulp sensationalism; he uses it to give the story momentum. But although the threat of violence hangs over nearly every scene, the violence itself never feels like a showman’s trick. In dramatizing the internationally notorious incident in which four nuns on a humanitarian mission were raped and murdered by government thugs, Stone displays extraordinary sensitivity to suffering. The camera keeps its distance but somehow makes you feel the horror from the victims’ points of view. The lack of stylization is what makes the scene so devastating. It’s not just a mass killing; it’s a crime against humanity.
Platoon (1986). From its opening epigraph by Ecclesiastes (“Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth!”), to the arrival of new recruits in a world not covered in basic training, to the loading of fresh body bags (a scene that Scorsese would echo in Gangs of New York as new immigrants sign up to fight in the Civil War), all accompanied by Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Stings” (remember when that piece of music still had the power to haunt?), Platoon wasn’t just about what it meant to fight in Vietnam. It was about what it meant to live in Vietnam, and to live with Vietnam.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket showed the geographical and cultural factors that separated the first rock ’n’ roll war from all other wars. They showed that the Vietnam grunt’s existential dread was all of a piece with the era’s drugs and psychedelic rock. But Platoon was something new. To watch Platoon is to understand for the first time in a war movie the disorienting nature of jungle warfare. Stone saw things from a grunt’s-eye view. The result was a series of firsthand dispatches from a man who knew that war is more than a rite of passage, and that to survive it is both a miracle and a curse. (It would take Steven Spielberg creating Saving Private Ryan for us to understand that optimism in the wake of The Good War was also a miracle.)
Stone remembers everything. He gets the details just right. He has very little patience with the way movies sentimentalize camaraderie among the men during wartime. He knows it comes and goes. (This doesn’t mean Stone isn’t guilty of sentimentality in his movies. We’ll see that he’s also guilty of nostalgia in his later movies, too.) Stone understands that friendship amongst men during a pressure-cooker situation like Vietnam is fragile. He knows your newest friend might not make it. He also understands the divisions that occur within a platoon—how loyalties form and fracture along ideological, racial and cultural lines.
Stone illustrates this in a terrific sequence where the soldiers hang out during downtime. Most of the white soldiers hole up in the barracks, drinking beer and playing cards, listening to country music (“Okie From Muskogee”) and venting their resentment of the “gooks.” The majority of the black soldiers hang out in a hooch, trying to unwind by smoking dope and listening to the soothing sounds of Motown. There’s a wonderful moment when Chris (Charlie Sheen) is accepted by the black soldiers; as they dance and sing along to The Miracles’ “Tracks Of My Tears,” the moment achieves the clarity of an idealized memory. This, Stone tells us was how it was—and how it should be.
That idyllic moment doesn’t last. It’s followed by a brutal firefight that leads to the movie’s most indelible sequence: a My Lai-like massacre of a peaceful peasant village that is being used by the NVA as a storage facility. The villagers really don’t have a choice in allowing their homes to be used to store weapons, but the platoon treats their explanation as an excuse. Fueled by adrenaline and grief, they see the villagers as ungrateful and impossible to understand; the civilians’ constant pleading sounds like they’re speaking in tongues. Even the usually level-headed Chris vents his frustrations by shooting at the feet of a grinning, mentally retarded man because he “won’t fucking listen.” Bunny (Kevin Dillon), fueled by memories of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, acts out his own hero fantasies by bashing the grinning man’s head in. By the end of the sequence the soldiers have torched the village. This is not just a large-scale version of burning the evidence at a crime scene; it’s the culmination of a series of catastrophic personal choices. What Stone makes clear is that wartime atrocities like these are usually not committed by inherently evil people; they are the result of a series of moral compromises, each one bigger than the last.
Platoon is the first Stone film to feature characters that aren’t merely antagonists, but opposites. Chris’ two mentors–Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), a sensitive, worn-down leader who uses drugs to keep his demons at bay (and his humanity intact), and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), a battle-scarred leader who has been in so many skirmishes that he’s almost immortal–come to represent Good vs. Evil, Peace vs. War, Love vs. Hate. They become apparitions of what war does to men. Critics would accuse Stone of dealing in absolutes by reducing his subjects to iconography. Maybe, but Stone is a filmmaker before he’s anything else, and he uses this characters-as-representatives-of-contrasting-ideals technique to powerful effect throughout his movies, whether it’s John F. Kennedy and Anthony Hopkins’ Richard Nixon representing the bright and dark sides of political leadership, or Colin Farrell’s Alexander and Hopkins’ Ptolemy representing the recklessness and hesitation that separates a born leader from a good soldier. Stone may dance with the devil, but there’s always a moral center to his movies, and morality plays require a degree of abstraction. In Platoon Stone creates his first indelible movie image as Sgt. Elias, running for his life from enemy soldiers, reaches out, arms raised up to Heaven, for a rescue helicopter that’s already taken off. It’s an image that’s almost otherworldly. It’s poetry. And its power originates in Stone’s decision to conceive his story and characters in mythic terms.
Wall Street (1987). Unlike most directors who, after becoming an “overnight” success, take time off to contemplate their next career move, Stone immediately jumped into his next film. It was a smart decision. Stone moved away (temporarily) from the theater of war to the battleground of the go-go materialism of the 1980s. Released in December of 1987, just weeks after the stock market crash, Wall Street is a sensationally entertaining morality play. And in the character of Gordon Gekko, Stone creates the first in a long line of characters that would become a part of pop culture. As played by Michael Douglas, Gekko is seductive, ruthless, Machiavellian in his ability to manipulate, a corporate raider whose amorality is not so much a necessity but a badge of honor. Gekko’s famous “Greed is good” line is more than a catchphrase or a punchline. It defines the new work ethic in America. It pinpoints a sect of society where class and race distinctions are secondary to who has the most money. (This is not to make light of the fact that the cast of Wall Street is all white, but the predominant color of the movie is green.) Gekko says, “I make nothing. I own.” Yes, but for how long? What’s the point of accumulating assets if they’re going to depreciate?
Narratively, the movie is like one of those Executive Suite confections of the 1950s. Stone, a graduate of NYU’s film school, doesn’t challenge Hollywood conventions; he reproduces them in his own voice. In Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a hungry stockbroker angling to enter the upper ranks of corporate raiders, Stone creates a classic innocent who is ripe for corruption. Sheen, with his fabled real life hedonistic exploits, at first seemed a perfect casting choice, but he comes off as aloof and seems a little out of his depth. Stone’s script compounds Sheen’s misfortune by making Bud too generic—too emblematic of a certain type of 1980s American male. (He’s like Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton writ large.) His “loss of innocence” is schematic rather than organic; he’s not a person, he’s a movie hero hitting the beats you expect movie heroes to hit.
Stone doesn’t idealize his protagonist; the montage of Bud acquiring his dream apartment, scored to Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody),” reveals the director’s barbed sense of humor. But he does insulate him against our scorn; Bud hustles the world to avoid facing his own inadequacies, and when he finally attains The Good Life, he doesn’t really seem to enjoy his perks. But he’s such a cipher that his moral crisis remains abstract. When he stands alone in his bachelor pad, stares at Manhattan’s nighttime skyline, and asks himself, “Who am I?” we’re supposed to recognize it as a man’s first inkling that he might be selling his soul. But it’s a hollow moment because we never believed there was a soul to sell.
Sheen fares better in the working-class scenes where Bud interacts with his union leader father, Carl, played by Martin Sheen in a nifty bit of meta-casting. Martin Sheen in an Oliver Stone movie has a double-edged connotation since Sheen’s Apocalypse Now character, assassin and narrator Capt. Willard, hovers over the Charlie Sheen-narrated Platoon. (The slapstick parody Hot Shots! Part Deux turns the Sheens’ war film lineage into a sight gag: as Sheen’s Rambo-esque hero travels up a Conradian jungle river, he passes his dad’s Apocalypse Now patrol boat headed the other way, and as father and son cross paths, they salute each other and declare, in unison, “I loved you in Wall Street.”) The scenes revealing Bud’s blue-collar roots have the snap of early Elia Kazan films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But that’s also their problem. Stone makes everything black-and-white—working class nobility vs. yuppie corporate management. There’s no suggestion that one extreme shades into the other—that in real life, these opposing social strata are united by a willingness to compromise their values for money.
That said, Stone’s iconic approach is still unsettling because of its evangelical fervor. Wall Street is a condemnation and a warning, a morality play about a society in decay. The film’s legacy is that it captured the moment when America learned that the key to success—bouncing back—is being able to spin bad experiences into part of your character, part of what makes you stronger.
Talk Radio (1988). The “little” movie that Stone squeezed in during the pre-production of Born on the Fourth of July is often omitted from discussion of his filmography. An adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s one-man play, Talk Radio may look like a throwaway, but it’s a major achievement. Stone uses Bogosian’s corrosive insights into the hypocrisies of American culture as a jumping off point to wonder if it is really possible, in a free society, to say whatever is on your mind, no matter whom you might offend. The answer is yes, but at a price.
In the wake of Phil Donahue and Howard Stern, Bogosian’s Barry Champlain, the combative voice of the Dallas airwaves (“The Man You Love To Love!”), engages in verbal warfare as he confronts the shut-ins, conspiracy nuts, neo-Nazis, and sexual deviants who are always on the lookout for that one person who embodies their own view of what’s wrong with the world. That person is Champlain, a wound-up agitator who engages the people on the fringe of society to feed his own demons. Night after night, prowling the studio like a caged animal, Barry says exactly what he wants to say, the sponsors or program manager (or himself) be damned. He turns confrontation into a performance. Barry, like Stone, believes that debating—engaging his audience—is the truest form of communication. Verbal conflict sustains him when he’s not on the air. It’s also what’s driving him mad.
The majority of the movie takes place in the radio studio. Attempts to “open up” the play are confined to an extended flashback sequence that’s interesting but unnecessary. We don’t need Barry’s back story to understand his actions or feelings because Stone has already defined them through composition, camera movement, sound design and music. As Barry stalks around his studio, eyes darting back and forth while some network guys watch to see if they really want to syndicate his show nationally, the claustrophobic setting becomes even more intimate, as if we were watching—and listening—to “The Barry Champlain Show.” Depending on Barry’s caller—for instance, a serial rapist who wants help—Barry is framed to look small, vulnerable even. When he’s discussing the finer points of The Turner Diaries with a neo-Nazi he looms large, as if he’s in control. Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson visualize Barry’s growing isolation and paranoia through the use of reflections. When Barry’s supportive ex-wife Ellen (Ellen Greene) calls into Barry’s show at a crucial moment late in the movie, pretending to be a Ms. Lonelyheart because he seems to be losing it on the air, the scene is almost unbearable in its intimacy. A series of beautifully timed close-ups and reflections on the studio glass window lets us see them relive their marriage in one brief, devastating conversation. Ellen throws Barry a life preserver by admitting she still has feelings for him, but he refuses to take it. He’d rather drown.
The movie climaxes with one of the greatest monologues in movie history. Seated at his console alone, Barry rails against the world—and himself. He says:
“I mean who the hell are you anyways, you audience? Yes, the world is a terrible place. Yes, cancer and garbage disposals are going to get you. Yes, a war is coming. You’re fascinated by the gory details. You’re happiest when others are in pain. I’m providing a public service. Your fears in your own lives have become your entertainment. Next month, millions of people are going to be listening to this show and you have nothing to talk about. Marvelous technology is at our disposal, and instead of reaching new heights we’re going to see how far down we can go. The only thing you believe in is me. Who are you if you don’t have me? I come in here every night. I make my case. I make my point. I say what I believe in. I tell you what you are. I have to. I have no choice. I come in here every night. I tear into you. I abuse you. I insult you. You just keep coming back for me. I don’t need your fear and stupidity. If one person out there has any idea what I’m talking about I…”
It’s an amazing moment given a powerful visual punch by having the radio-studio set start to slowly, almost unknowingly, rotate as Barry remains stationary. Barry lashes out at the world while he’s in the middle of it, unable to distinguish his fears from his callers’ loneliness. Stone and Bogosian see a society where talk hasn’t become cheap but beside the point. Why bother talking—listening—if no one can ever understand you?
Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Before World Trade Center, Born on the Fourth of July was Oliver Stone’s most aggressively patriotic movie—a fact that confounded detractors who’d pegged him as a muckraker whose interest favored flaws over virtues. But Stone’s iconography-laden compositions didn’t work at cross-purposes with his critical impulse, they granted it fuller expression; they looked through national myth and saw harsh reality, just like the film’s hero, Ron Kovic. By dramatizing the story of Kovic—an all-American kid who enlisted in the Marines in order to go to Vietnam to fight communism, only to return a broken man, physically and emotionally, spending years dulling his pain with booze, drugs, and rage before finding meaning in his military service by becoming an anti-war protester—Stone pinpoints the moment when a generation’s blind faith in the rightness of America’s military actions turned into doubt and skepticism.
Stone, co-writing with Kovic, uses American iconography to cover a key 20-year period—1956 to 1976, from the optimism of Eisenhower to the fallout of Nixon—that saw a seismic change in the way people felt about the purpose of going to war. After Vietnam, a portion of Americans would forever question the necessity of sending soldiers into harm’s way simply because their government assured them it was a “just cause.” (Or, would they?) The opening credits sequence is like a series of Norman Rockwell paintings made flesh. Baseball, 4th of July parades and fireworks, kids playing war, are given a slo-mo grandeur that allows them to become a collective memory of America at its best.
With Born on the Fourth of July, Stone fashions a biographical movie that’s interested in evoking a mood. It is the beginning of Stone moving away from intimate, one-person-against-the-system moviemaking to more conceptual forms of story structure. Starting with Born on the Fourth of July, continuing with The Doors and culminating with JFK, Stone freed himself from accepted standards of editing and pacing, and he became more inclined to locate the intimate story at the center of culture-changing events. This isn’t just a narrative that aims to cover a man’s life from birth to death. It’s biopic as absolution.
Stone and Richardson aim to create a sense of simultaneous objectivity and subjectivity. They filter the film’s visuals through the American flag, using red, white and blue as a constant color scheme. The Vietnam sequences, shot through dustbowl-red filters, are choreographed differently from the jungle combat of Platoon. You still can’t see the enemy, but the difference this time is that you can’t even see the men on your side. After Kovic becomes paralyzed, the camera is almost always at wheelchair level, yet it distances itself from him so that we can observe the world around Kovic. In a mid-movie student protest that erupts into violence, the camera swirls around the action, taking in the brutality from the margins. Scenes like this, or a dinner table confrontation, force us to wonder: Were families really this divided by war? Did war, assassinations, and social unrest occur during such a short period of time? Can it happen again?
The Vietnam sequences are mirrored late in the movie during an extended Mexico sequence where Kovic loses himself in booze, prostitutes and despair. The sequence reaches a moment of absurd comedy when Kovic and a fellow wheelchair-bound veteran named Charlie (Willem Dafoe), who’ve alienated everyone in the local villa, are left by the side of the road to find their way home. The scene shows that Kovic isn’t just paralyzed physically, but emotionally. The movie’s most draining chapter chronicles Kovic’s stay in the VA Hospital. Employing clinically cold white lighting, the sequence taps into the universal feeling of impotence that occurs when you are forced to trust overworked and underfunded caregivers. (There’s a great moment where Kovic is working out in the hospital and Don McLean’s “American Pie” creeps onto the soundtrack, McLean’s sunny voice serving as ironic counterpoint to Kovic’s suffering.)
At the center of the movie is a rigorous and moving performance by Tom Cruise. Cruise’s fabled work ethic is evident in the homecoming scenes as he navigates his wheelchair through the hallways and doorways of the childhood house where he was once a sterling example of athletic grace. In the early all-American scenes, he embodies the naïveté and drive of youth. His face becomes a monument to the innocence of the early ‘60s. Stone takes Cruise’s ability to project American pride—the source of his gung-ho performance in Top Gun—and turns it over to reveal the anger that goes with that pride. Cruise’s opposite is Jerry Levine’s Steve Boyer, a slightly smug college kid who was hip enough to know that Vietnam wasn’t for him. He stayed on Long Island to operate a thriving business. Ron sees in Steve an alternative life he could’ve had. Steve sees it too. When Steve finds Ron drunk and combative at a local bar, there’s a fleeting moment where Steve realizes his luck and Ron realizes his loss. Cruise’s work in the Vietnam scenes is less effective. He lacks authority and seems a little overwhelmed. He doesn’t seem to be a natural born leader (though the film suggests that he would learn to be a leader through his anti-war protests).
The film’s most badly judged scene is a late night argument between Ron and his mother (Caroline Kava). She’s already been set up as a strict Catholic who instilled in her son a sense of guilt that was a key component of him wanting to go to Vietnam. When Ron confronts her about the ugliness he’s seen and done, she doesn’t want to hear it. She doesn’t “get it.” The scene becomes an overheated shouting match. It’s intense and real, but it doesn’t know when to quit.
Stone mirrors this scene to better effect when Ron goes to Georgia to visit the family of a fellow Marine he accidentally shot and killed in an ambush. (The film suggests that this emotionally traumatic incident led to Ron getting wounded.) Critics who are surprised by Stone’s nonjudgmental approach to middle America in World Trade Center have a poor memory. They need only look at this scene to see Stone’s empathy for middle and rural America. He knows that it’s young men from these forgotten communities who are sent to war. Ron confesses his sin to the family because he hopes they will understand him. The coldness of Ron’s mother is offset by the warmth and forgiveness of the fallen soldier’s mother, played by Jayne Haynes in a remarkable one-scene performance. (Ron is not completely absolved. The dead Marine’s wife can’t forgive him, but she tells him, “Maybe the Lord can”—and Ron accepts this.)
The film’s emotional epiphany comes when Stone vividly recreates the 1972 Republican National Convention where Ron and his fellow anti-war protesters storm the floor to vent their anger at the American government. Stone and Richardson let the colors go wild as red, white and blue flood the screen. There’s a sense of fulfillment as Kovic discovers that the most patriotic thing you can do for America is question it.
The Doors (1991). Although the prospect of Stone taking on one of the most decadent bands in rock history seemed like a no-brainer, his follow-up to Born on the Fourth of July was greeted with bafflement and derision. Maybe it’s because The Doors isn’t a straightforward rock biopic; it’s an actual rock ’n’ roll movie, steeped in drugs, rebellion and self-destruction. Stone uses the music of The Doors and the life of lead singer Jim Morrison as a pretext to explore the moment when music, politics, and a new rebel-youth culture were ever-so-briefly interconnected.
Stone understands that the mythologizing of the Sixties has blotted out the darkness that was all of a piece of the counterculture. For John F. Kennedy to exist there had to be Richard Nixon. Woodstock had to have Altamont. The yippie pranksterism of Abbie Hoffman was twinned with the nihilism of Charles Manson. And The Beach Boys needed The Doors. Dreamy, sensual, improvisational, The Doors’ music could not have existed during any other time. Songs like “Light My Fire,” “L.A. Woman,” and “People Are Strange” are memorable because they combine pop sensibilities with trance-out moodiness. The band’s albums don’t hold up from start to finish; they’re too delicate; with the exception of their self-titled debut, Doors albums consist of moments of sustained brilliance amidst the filler. Stone’s impression of the band’s career excises the filler. The Doors is like a greatest-hits collection of the band’s—and Jim’s—most memorable moments. Like rock ’n’ roll, the film is excessive. It’s a trip.
Like Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors is not interested in covering a man’s life from beginning to end. It’s only interested in the end. The movie begins at the end, with Morrison (Val Kilmer) spending three nights in the studio recording An American Prayer, then flashes back to his time at UCLA Film School, where he spent his free time writing and composing poetry and songs. As played by Kilmer, Morrison always seems to be in a daze, as if not fully conscious of his surroundings. But he also has feelers, picking up the slightest bit of criticism then discarding it. It’s a remarkable performance—strange, funny, and a little dangerous. Kilmer’s decision to sing Morrison’s vocals instead of lip-synching is crucial to the movie’s effectiveness, because it’s in the musical performances that Morrison is most alive and attuned to his inner wild child.
Stone rushes through the typical rock movie bio scenes of the band forming, rehearsing and achieving success because he’s not really interested. (There’s only one rehearsal session before they start playing packed nightclubs on the Sunset Strip.) He wants to get at what drove the band to make such decadent music, and how that music was a part of its time. The movie doesn’t really come to life until The Doors perform “The End” at the Whiskey a Go-Go. With its snake-rattle rhythms and Oedipal imagery, “The End” is shocking enough to get the band thrown off stage. The song’s death-trip grandeur syncs up with a generation that’s striving for change, but also oblivion. The performance of the song is given extra meaning because of its connection to the end-of-the-world opening of Apocalypse Now. “The End” is not only a song associated with Vietnam, it is Vietnam.
The production design favors Native American red and leather-pants black. Robert Richardson’s camerawork is fluid, free-associative, as if the viewer was an angel looking down from Heaven. An extended party sequence at Andy Warhol’s Factory is a marvel of timing and staging as one Pop Art gag follows another, creating a dizzying fun house atmosphere. (The scene is goosed along by the use of The Velvet Underground’s love letter to oblivion, “Heroin.”) Morrison’s love affair with death is made flesh by the creation of a Bergman-esque Death figure (played by Stone’s old friend and sometime writing partner Richard Rutowski). Death follows Morrison everywhere; the closer he gets to The End, the more prominent he becomes. The movie’s highlight is the recreation of the infamous 1969 Miami concert that got Morrison brought up on obscenity charges. Stone pulls out all the stops as he turns a rock concert into the death knell for a generation exhausted from its own freedom. (Altamont is just months away.) Lewdness, profanity, fear, Indians taking leave of Morrison’s body: the Miami concert is really the best (and worst) performance of Morrison’s life. The sequence climaxes with Morrison leading a conga line, with Death on his ass, in a back-and-forth performance of “Dead Cats, Dead Rats.” It’s the end of the world and it looks like the greatest party ever.
What the film lacks is any sense of consideration or detachment. Stone sees Morrison as a misunderstood man of his time; he’s claimed he wanted to show that Morrison’s behavior was separate from the music. This is true in the abstract—as the band was falling apart, they created some of their best recordings—but the movie never really dramatizes it. (Some more scenes of The Doors rehearsing would’ve helped.) There’s no sense that Morrison brought about his own annihilation. Stone seems to buy into Morrison’s belief that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, so it’s no surprise that he’s not interested in the lives traumatized by Morrison’s self-destructive behavior. The Doors didn’t need to be judgmental, but it should have considered Morrison’s massive ego and how it correlated with the supposed “no rules, no limits” ethos of that era.
Stone’s near-total embrace of subjectivity has an upside, though: it allows us to be immersed in the era’s transgressive attitudes, the sense of total freedom that makes a scene like Morrison’s night of wild sex with a journalist (Kathleen Quinlan), fueled by wine and ritualistic mutilation, appropriate in its excessiveness. There’s a hilarious scene where we see Morrison and his girlfriend Pam (Meg Ryan) try to have a “normal” Thanksgiving dinner. The evening degenerates into slapstick violence as the duck burns and Pam pulls a knife on Jim. It’s like an early sketch of the sitcom-hell sequence from Stone’s Natural Born Killers. (The scene is given a comic-ironic counterpoint by the song “Love Me Two Times” playing in the background.) Scenes like these show Stone’s gift for screw-loose filmmaking.
But Stone’s hero worship eventually paints him into a corner. His blind faith in Morrison as an artist doesn’t allow him to fully acknowledge Morrison’s flaws. Stone’s inability to see that a visionary’s personal failings can also be a part of what fuels his creativity is what separates The Doors, a good biopic, from Nixon, a great one. (It’s also what led to some of the more problematic story points in Alexander.) Stone’s romantic attachment to Morrison and his music is justified, but at a price. The Doors is a cautionary tale about excess with too much excess and not enough caution.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”
George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019