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Oliver Stone: Natural Born Filmmaker

Veteran. Agitator. Provocateur. Bully. Conspiracy nut. Patriot.

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Oliver Stone: Natural Born Filmmaker, Part 1
Photo: Orion Pictures

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 disabled 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.

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Review: Shirley Is an Astonishingly Frenzied Portrait of Creation and Madness

Every scene in Josephine Decker’s film operates at a maximum frenzy fraught with subtext.

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Shirley
Photo: Neon

Even the most daring or imaginative films can get bogged down by moments of unnecessary exposition. By contrast, Josephine Decker’s Shirley doesn’t take any encounter as a given, as every scene operates at a maximum frenzy fraught with subtext—with sexual tension, bitterness, class and gender resentment, and acidic comedy that springs from the intersection of all of the aforementioned pressures. At any moment in this astonishing, frustrating film, we’re alternately in and out of the characters’ wavelengths, and continually forced to reorient our perceptions of the various relationships driving the narrative. Next to Decker’s films, the rigid staging of most cinematic conversations feels prim.

There are no ordinary images in Shirley. Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen give the film a hazy look that suggests an act of recollection, in which autumnal colors bleed together while certain objects and portions of settings and actors pristinely peek through the frame. Meanwhile, the camera is often moving, as in Decker’s previous films, switching between point-of-view shots and compositions in which characters look directly at us, or homing in on close-ups that allow for other characters to enter scenes unnoticed, paving the way for jarring surprises. Individually, none of these devices is original to Decker, but she’s united them with a fluidity and a sensual puckishness that’s all her own.

Shirley and Decker’s prior film, Madeline’s Madeline, both concern the porous boundaries separating creativity from madness and collaboration from exploitation. Adapted by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins from the 2014 novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley focuses on iconic short story author and novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her life with her husband, professor and critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), in North Bennington, Vermont. Hyman is tenured at Bennington College, and he’s invited a newlywed couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), to live with him and Shirley for a period of time. Over several months, the two couples play escalating mind games as Shirley attempts to write a novel about the disappearance of a local college girl.

Shirley and Stanley and Rose and Fred often suggest the same couple from two different periods of time (before and after success), and Decker’s hallucinatory style occasionally leaves us wondering if the film is building toward this revelation. After all, Shirley and Stanley have what Fred at the very least wants: acclaim and status. Fred thinks he’s going to be Stanley’s apprentice and eventual successor, while Stanley seems to regard him as an errand boy. (Stanley also smugly recruits Rose as the housekeeper, or Shirley’s minder.)

Rose’s motivations are murkier: She’s pregnant and initially seems to enjoy playing housewife, until we learn that she quit college for Fred and the baby. It gradually comes to light that Shirley, already legendary for “The Lottery,” and who carries far more weight with Stanley than Rose appears to with Fred, also has something that Rose longs: respect. On the other hand, the romance between Rose and Fred feels kinder, more idealized, than the manipulative parlor games played by Shirley and Stanley, though this juxtaposition is ironic as well. Stanley and Shirley’s overt cruelty toward one another suggests truthfulness, a willingness to honor one another’s eccentricities, while Rose and Fred play into courtly tropes.

Shirley recalls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Phantom Thread. Like the former, it features elaborate, self-consciously performative scenes of drunk and talented characters airing their resentments, turning their outbursts into a kind of weird and potentially cathartic poetry. And like the latter, it’s concerned with the atmosphere that a potentially disturbed artist must cultivate in order to create. The comparison to the Paul Thomas Anderson film may be particularly instructive, as Shirley also derives its emotional suspense by gradually revealing to viewers the “rules of the house.” In Phantom Thread, we learn that a young innocent is capable of ruthless adaptation that benefits her artist-lover’s need for domination while bettering her own station. In Shirley, we learn the extent to which each couple is manipulating the other, and how Shirley’s creative drive is also fueled by a form of role play.

The notion of role play is affirmed by the film’s stylized performances. Moss and Stuhlbarg deliver their lines as if they were stanzas, and the actors’ vocal precision is complemented by piercing physical gestures that suggest periods and commas. Stuhlbarg has never before been this gloriously full of himself, and he has a particularly evocative moment in which Stanley disparages Fred’s dissertation, stretching the word “derivative” out as if it were taffy. In another scene, Stanley coaxes the agoraphobic, alcoholic Shirley out of bed with a cigarette, tossing it to her like a snack. In such moments, we’re allowed to feel the intimacy as well as the cruelty of this relationship, qualities which are essentially inseparable. (Shirley needs Stanley to be a jerk so she can rebel against him, as this is the source of her inspiration—a notion that’s also reminiscent of Phantom Thread.)

However, Moss also underscores the potential limitations of Decker’s florid excess, rendering Shirley climactically unhinged from the outset, riding high on the character’s flamboyant oddness, as she did with her roles in Her Smell and The Invisible Man. The former film had tonal contrast, allowing Moss to eventually ease up on the melodramatics and offer moments of delicate beauty. In The Invisible Man and Shirley, Moss puts on a hell of a show, but you’re conscious of the work behind her performance. Shirley’s always “on,” either drunk, enraged, manipulative, stumbling, glinting, castigating whoever’s around, or all of the above, allowing Moss to continually run at fever pitch; she’s the mad hatter as master of ceremonies, and she grows rather repetitive as the film itself comes to spin in circles. This self-consciousness is justified by the film’s final reveal, and by this conception of Shirley as a character, but it grows stifling nevertheless. Moss, like Shirley in general, is always in your face.

As with Madeline’s Madeline, there’s sentimentality running underneath Shirley’s bravura, as this is another film that glorifies madness as a tool of an artist’s trade—a way-too-common notion in cinema that cheapens the pain of madness itself. Decker implicitly presents Shirley’s neuroses as a weapon against sexism, as a refusal to merely be an administrator’s wife, which means that we’re introduced to the usual clichés of hypocritical women who bought into the system that Shirley fights. Shirley also, of course, serves as a warning to Rose, whom she conflates with the woman driving her novel, another person dashed by patriarchy.

Jackson’s writing isn’t this tidy. Eleanor, the lonely heart at the center of The Haunting of Hill House, isn’t a thesis marker, but a miserable, uncertain, talented, and intelligent person who’s potentially without a purpose, at least to herself; her pain is wrenching, while Moss renders Shirley’s craziness powerful and affirming. If there was more than just a hint of Eleanor’s vulnerability in Moss’s Shirley, this might have been an unruly classic. Decker is too mighty an artist to go in for trendy girl power. In fact, Decker, with her ferocious subjective poetry, could probably make a brilliant adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House.

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young, Molly Fahey, Adelind Horan, Allen McCullough, Edward O’Blenis Director: Josephine Decker Screenwriter: Sarah Gubbins Distributor: Neon Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Infiltrators Uneasily Marries the Real and the Performed

The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers.

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The Infiltrators
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

At the start of Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators, photo-negative infrared shots conjure the imposing nature of border enforcement. The miles of fencing along the United States border with Mexico come through as a flickering whiteness, with the migrants walking across the desert suggesting truly alien forms. In voiceover, 22-year-old Marco Saavedra (Maynor Alvarado) discusses being undocumented and the intense fear that young immigrants and second-generation Americas have for their parents. Documentary footage depicts ICE and CBP agents arresting people like Marco in front of their families, tearful children giving press conferences, and the menacing detention facilities where undocumented persons are held in limbo. Then, Marco relates that as much as any immigrant would do to stay out of such a place, he hatched a plan to deliberately be placed in one.

Blending archival footage, interviews with real people, and dramatized reenactments, Ibarra and Rivera’s film traces the efforts of Marco and the group of radical DREAMers to which he belongs, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, to assist detainees to prevent their deportation. The dramatizations frame the film as a thriller, one in which detainees have to constantly slip papers to each other and visit lawyers under the noses of guards who seethe with resentment. More than once, detainees are surprised with news of their sudden deportation, forcing Marco and his comrades on the outside to scramble to save them. Yet the most troubling aspect depicted here is how detention facilities, in which people are deliberately kept without being charged to limit their legal rights to attorneys, are designed to induce hopelessness. It isn’t the abruptness with which guards summon detainees to get on planes that causes the most stress here, but the purgatorial waiting that precedes it.

The juxtaposition of real and fictionalized elements, complete with chyrons identifying individuals and the actors playing them, isn’t exactly new to nonfiction filmmaking, and several documentarians have compellingly used such techniques to unpack the lines between performance and reality. At times in The Infiltrators, the real people involved in the story talk about how they approached their attempts to infiltrate detention facilities as actors, finding ways to look sufficiently guilty to officers who’re understandably quick to suspect why undocumented immigrants would volunteer to be deported. This dimension to the young adults’ actions is intriguing but left dangling by the film, which mostly sticks to unsuspenseful reenactments of Marco’s mildly clandestine activities within one detention center.

The film is never more compelling than when relying on footage of the real NIYA DREAMers, teenagers and twentysomethings who put themselves at severe risk by publicly protesting for their rights and those of their families and others like them. There’s far more urgency in watching Mohammed, a gay Iranian youth, confront politicians while at risk for deportation to a country he’s never known and is openly hostile to his sexual identity than there is in shots of Marco and others strategically handing off manila folders set to suspenseful music. The young people’s ability to create and exploit media for outreach likewise feels like an exciting subject that The Infiltrators fails to deeply explore, where it could have illuminated just how well activists can mobilize modern technology and media with minimal resources.

Cast: Maynor Alvarado, Chelsea Rendon, Manuel Uriza, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Vik Sahay Director: Cristina Ibarra, Alex Rivera Screenwriter: Alex Rivera, Aldo Velasco Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Aya Koretzky’s Around the World When You Were My Age

Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history.

3.5

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Around the World When You Were My Age
Photo: Crim Productions

Jiro Koretzky left his native Japan in 1979 for a year-long trip around the world, from Moscow all the way to Beirut, mostly traveling in his white Ford Taunus. Jiro spent time in Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, North Africa, and Syria, and by the time he was ready to fly back home, the young man had discovered the one thing missing from the hyper-organization of Japanese cities: passion. Almost four decades later, his daughter, filmmaker Aya Koretzky, happened upon a metallic box full of photographic slides and detailed diary entries that Jiro amassed during his journey and decided to make a film about it. The result is Around the World When You Were My Age, and it’s a beautiful tribute to her father’s passion.

The boxy format of Koretzky’s Bolex camera mimics the proportions of her father’s original 16mm and 35mm slides. This may give the impression of a filmmaker who’s merely stitching old swatches together, but Around the World When You Were My Age isn’t a found-footage film. Koretzky’s poetic interventions, through reenactment and narration, attest to a self-ethnography bearing the freshest of fruits. This is a case of cinematic intimacy that renders visible old transmissions between father and daughter as much as it yields new ones.

Here, Koretzky’s opening of her father’s box, where Jiro’s memories lay dormant for so long, is a kind of cracking of her symbolic DNA—the one that carries the key to the generational transmission of emotions instead of genetic material. Or, perhaps, the filmmaker’s unearthing of what the father once buried is something like the reading of a father’s will before his demise. Except the inheritance here has already been distributed throughout Koretzky’s upbringing: her artistic sensibility, her fondness for silence, and her peripatetic urge. As the unconscious and the ineffable are made tangible through the cinematic image in a delicate father-daughter duet, she now knows where her own passions came from.

Koretzky performs her excavations gently and respectfully, refusing the position of the filmmaker offspring hellbent on settling old scores or demystifying the presumable bliss of family albums. Instead, she performs the humble contemplation of those who are genuinely curious—the ones we would trust to peruse our most special private collections. Koretzy is open to whatever the archive happens to bring without hoping to impose order in what is, by design, volatile and loose, like the most inextinguishable of sensations. Around the World When You Were My Age, then, is much closer to a series of lyrical vignettes (shades of Jonas Mekas and Michel de Montaigne) than to what we have come to expect from filmmakers who utilize their own relatives to (re-)write family narratives.

Across the film, the most idiosyncratic reactions of an ordinary human become real documents of human history. We see what the world looked like in 1979 and what it felt like to exist in it as a foreign flaneur. We learn that Moscow felt so large that it was as if there was “no human scale,” that the comforts of Helsinki were only rivaled by its monotony and absence of human presence, that everything in Stockholm was expensive except for milk, and that in the south of Italy one could sense “the whole of Europe condensed” in one little instant, while eating spaghetti to the sound of an accordion played by the homeless.

The film’s voiceover, by father and daughter, mostly consists of readings from Jiro’s diary. But Koretzky also knows exactly when narration, no matter how pretty, must go quiet—so that the objects in the frame can speak for themselves. Some of the most memorable sequences in the film are when all we hear are the noises made by scissors, a broom, an analog camera, the waiving of a polaroid, a finger retracing a journey on a paper map, or a slug slithering on a globe. Sudden moments of complete silence also remind us that the filmmaker’s commitment isn’t necessarily to information or knowledge, but to the poetics of feeling.

Director: Aya Koretzky Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Vast of Night Is a Wistful Riff on the Intimacy of Radio Dramas

The filmmakers patiently savor the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.

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The Vast of Night
Photo: Amazon Studios

Early in The Vast of Night, there’s a striking tracking shot through the gymnasium of a high school in the fictional 1950s-era town of Cayuga, New Mexico. The gym is being prepared for the big basketball game that night, and we’re shown how various students and professionals work together to complete this task, talking over one another with a propulsive snappiness that evokes a Howard Hawks comedy. The sequence is exhilarating, especially because one doesn’t normally encounter such verbal and visual intricacy in a genre film. But it’s also misleading, as it suggests that The Vast of Night will involve a wide cast of characters, though it’s closer to a two-hander between a local radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), and a high school student, Fay (Sierra McCormick), who works the town switchboard and shares Everett’s fascination with radios, recorders, and the like.

As Everett and Fay converge inside the gym, director Andrew Patterson has the wit to allow us to believe that we’re discovering these characters for ourselves as the camera just happens to land on them. Right away, they radiate their intelligence in contrasting fashions: Everett is confident yet sarcastic, on the border of being a know-it-all, while Faye is earnest and attentive. They exist somewhat apart from the Cayuga community at large, and they quickly shunt off to their respective offices, the churches of their obsessions. The Vast of Night is a homage to genre shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, even featuring its own faux credits montage, but it’s truly a riff on the intimacy of radio dramas.

Patterson’s tracking shots and big, soft, beautiful Scope images are clearly indebted to John Carpenter’s films. Yet Patterson has absorbed more than Carpenter’s pyrotechnical style, as he understands the melancholy soulfulness of the legend’s best work. With its obsession with radio callers, who gradually reveal a potential alien invasion, The Vast of Night most explicitly suggests the radio station-set scenes from The Fog if they were to be expanded to compose an entire film. Talking to people in radio land who recognize an eerie droning sound that comes through on a phone line, Everett and Faye clearly relish the collaboration of solving a mystery and of symbolically assembling their own radio thriller. And Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger never break the incantatory spell with pointless freneticism, patiently savoring the great thrill of genre stories: anticipation.

The Vast of Night features several long monologues in which older people tell Everett and Faye of their experiences with clandestine military projects. Informed with a hushed intensity, these monologues allow various political resonances to seep into the narrative. For example, one caller (Bruce Davis) to Everett’s radio show doesn’t expect anyone to believe him because he’s black and elderly, a suspicion that he acknowledges with a poignant matter-of-factness. And as Everett and Faye hear increasingly odd stories, you may find yourself reconsidering that tracking shot at the start of the film, which captured a breadth of community from which Everett and Faye largely exclude themselves. They’re uncovering the sadness lurking under a small town—the racism, communist paranoia, and heartbreaks that cause people to yearn for a supernatural explanation as a way of evading their sense of helplessness.

Late into The Vast of Night, Patterson springs another tracking shot that reveals the proximity of Cayuga High School, the town’s switchboard, and the radio station to each other. They’re all close to one another but separated at night by gulfs of darkness and emptiness. The film doesn’t offer much in the way of a payoff, lacking the kinetic savagery of Bruce McDonald’s similarly themed Pontypool, but that’s the point. The lovely, wistful The Vast of Night pivots instead on a decidedly friendlier vision of localized culture, decades before corporations would unify most radio into a detached, impersonal stream of advertisements.

Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan, Ingrid Fease, Pam Dougherty Director: Andrew Patterson Screenwriter: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 91 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: On the Record Is a Richly Contextualized Look at Rape Culture

On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins.

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On the Record
Photo: HBO

Misogyny has been a sticking point for critics of hip-hop ever since the genre became a cultural phenomenon in the late 1980s and ‘90s. For those who not only value the artistry of hip-hop, but also recognize it as the defiant aesthetic expression of an oppressed population, calling out systemic sexism within that culture is a fraught undertaking. The accusation that rappers perpetuate demeaning ideas about women can also serve as ammunition for conservatives uncomfortable with black self-expression—and, moreover, can feed into historical representations of black men as inherently sexually aggressive.

As Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary On The Record stresses, a fear of betraying black America as a whole has led to a culture of silence among black women involved in the music industry that may be even more pervasive than that in the white Hollywood circles where the Me Too movement has been the most visible. When they do come forward, these women are inevitably speaking against the backdrop of the sordid, shameful role black sexuality has played in America’s oppression of its black population—to the lynchings of black men on accusations of sexual transgression, to the Senate’s steamrolling of Anita Hill in 1992.

The film focuses on the sexual assault allegations that led to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’s 2017 fall from grace, and in particular on former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon’s mindset as she brings herself to tell her story to the New York Times. But thanks to dips into history that show the roots of black misogyny in the abuses and iniquities of a racist society, as well as a critical mass of testimonies from activists and academics that provide a contextual framework, On the Record implicates nothing less than the entirety of American culture in hip-hop’s sins. At the origin of black women’s reticence stands nothing other than slavery, the U.S.’s original sin, which began the dehumanizing tradition of treating black women as disposable sexual objects and viewing black men as potentially dangerous sexual predators.

Simmons’ victims’ sense of their own complex relations to such historical power structures emerges from the film’s lucid recounting of the sexual assault allegations against him. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon explains of her decision to keep the fact that Simmons raped her in 1995 private for more than two decades. As a black woman, she felt she faced additional pressure to stay quiet and limit her—and Simmons’s—exposure. Beyond her concern about detonating the career of an important black figure, she recalls watching Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings and realizing that when a woman publicly accuses a man of serious sexual violations, the perverse result is that the perpetrator is able to align his reaction with that of the public, affecting disgust and outrage. As the accuser, she says, “you are defiled again because you have to tell people, and it’s on your lips.”

There’s a tragic irony here that a more literary-minded documentary might bring to the fore: that a musical form focused so intently on the power of the spoken word—and on the black voice in particular—gives rise, in its thoroughly capitalized form, to a culture that denies the voices of black women. Hip-hop attained mass appeal in part by leaning hard into hypermasculine display and “explicit” lyrics, but now, like the old boys’ club of the 1991 U.S. Senate, institutional hip-hop stands aghast at the words on the lips of abused women. Simmons has persisted in his denial of any wrongdoing whatsoever, and as with so many powerful men, the chorus that sprung up to defend him was only slightly tempered by the accelerating accumulation of accusers. (Dixon was among the first four accusers; there have been 16 more, many of whom appear in the documentary.)

On the Record lets such abstract themes as who gets a voice in hip-hop remain mostly implicit. As in Dick’s The Hunting Ground, which Ziering produced and documented the prevalence of rape on college campuses, the filmmakers approach their subject with journalistic rigor, leaving the interpretation to Dixon and the other interviewees. “We all lose when brilliant women go away,” rues former Source writer Kiera Mayo toward the end of the film, reflecting on how, despite her successes, Dixon left the industry after continued harassment by Simmons and Arista chief L.A. Reid. It’s a melancholy realization. While the culture of ‘90s hip-hop has become an object of nostalgic longing akin to boomers’ beloved classic rock (as evidenced by films like Straight Outta Compton), On the Record suggests a different vision of the era—one that longs more for what could have been than what was.

Director: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: As Melodrama, The High Note Barely Strikes a Chord

Everything here wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie.

1.5

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The High Note
Photo: Focus Features

Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note is ostensibly about the virtues of taking risks in art-making, of sacrificing the comforts of coasting on past successes for the hard-won rewards of creating something new. And yet the film itself is as formulaic as they come, an agglomeration of soap-operatic story beats and music-industry clichés whose low-key tone may be an attempt at channeling the naturalism of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born but comes off instead as tentative, as if Ganatra were afraid of really leaning into the big, unruly emotions simmering beneath The High Note’s placid surface.

At the heart of the film is the ambition and self-doubt of Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), a personal assistant who dreams of producing records, and her boss, Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a Diana Ross-like diva facing a crossroads in her career. Grace is deciding whether she wants to risk her legacy by releasing a new album or take the easy road by accepting an offer to headline her own show at Caesars Palace. Her longtime manager (Ice Cube) presses her to cash out with the Vegas residency, but Maggie encourages her—as much as she can, given her relatively junior position—to make some new music. Meanwhile, Maggie covertly produces her own mixes of Grace’s live recordings in the hopes that she can convince Grace to hire her instead of a slick EDM producer (Diplo, playing an air-headed version of himself) who wants to bury her soulful pipes under layers of Auto-Tune and pounding beats.

Flora Greeson’s screenplay is peppered with some clear-eyed wisdom about the entertainment world, such as its observations about the way that so much of the music industry is based around managing artists’ deep-seated insecurities. The characters’ occasional speechifying about the difficult position that women in music often face is on point, if a bit perfunctory, but more incisively, it’s used to subtly suggest the way that these very real obstacles can be used as scapegoats by people, like Grace, who are afraid to simply put themselves out there. But these brief moments of insight are largely overridden by the film’s weak-kneed plotting, repetitiveness, and corny contrivances. Practically every conflict the film raises is resolved just a few scenes later. The film never allows its characters to do anything cruel or mean or misguided without almost immediately absolving them of responsibility.

Nowhere is this tendency more prevalent than in a subplot involving Maggie’s relationship with a talented but self-doubting musician, David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Everything comes to a head when Maggie attempts to orchestrate a plan to get the opening act (Eddie Izzard) for Grace’s live-album release party to drop out, which will give David the opportunity to perform in front of a bunch of industry big wigs, not to mention Grace herself. While in a different film, this scheme might have served as a big hokey climax, here the whole thing summarily blows up in Maggie’s face, causing her to get fired by Grace and get dumped by David. But while that semi-subversion of our expectations is certainly welcome, The High Note simply trades one unconvincing plot contrivance for another when, just a few scenes later, a major revelation precipitates a rapid succession of reconciliations between characters.

Everything wraps up as tidily as it does in your average Hallmark Channel movie, with no character being forced to sacrifice anything or make a truly difficult decision. Maggie, Grace, and David all make up and record an album together (Maggie naturally produces), and the film closes with Grace and David performing a triumphant concert for a huge crowd of screaming fans as Maggie watches adoringly from backstage. The characters in The High Note talk a lot about the unfair challenges of the music world, but the film ultimately reaffirms what the audience already knows: that success has a lot more to do with who you know—and who you’re related to—than it does about hard work or artistic integrity.

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Deniz Akdeniz, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Diplo Director: Nisha Ganatra Screenwriter: Flora Greeson Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 113 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan, Touching Is Dreaming

Throughout the film, it’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life.

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Crystal Swan
Photo: Loco Films

Darya Zhuk’s 1990s-set Crystal Swan centers around Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a young woman who refuses to conform to the provincial miserabilism of Belarusian life. Being a DJ, house music provides her with some much-needed escapism, but she dreams of fleeing to America—or, at least, a fantasy of America where every kid has their own bedroom and parents knock before they come in. That’s the antithesis of Velya’s life in Minsk, where her mother (Svetlana Anikey) spends her days chastising Velya and mourning the troubles caused by the collapse of communism: no money, no pension, no rules.

In order to obtain a tourist visa, Velya needs to show the American embassy that she has strong links to her place of residence. The jobless young woman pretends, then, that she’s a manager at a crystal-making factory, putting down a fake number for the workplace on the application form. But when she’s told that the embassy will call her back in the next few days, Velya rushes to find the home associated with the random number she made up.

Eventually, Velya discovers that the number belongs to a family in the countryside who are in the midst of making preparations for the wedding of their eldest son, Stepan (Ivan Mulin), a bitter young man traumatized by his days in the army and resigned to marrying a woman he doesn’t love. Velya ends up spending the next two days with the dysfunctional family as she tries to convince them to lie for her when the embassy calls. The presence of a weird girl from Minsk trying to use the supposed simpletons so she can flee to America makes some in the family resent her and others to question their previously held truths, as if Velya brought with her from the big city the prickly reminder that resignation is not all there is to life.

Zhuk crafts an exquisite tale of doom and gloom colored by a farcical ethos, from Velya’s no-holds-barred audacity and kookiness (shades of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan) to the physical comedy-derived drunkenness as the lingua franca of family get-togethers. But the film’s most remarkable quality is perhaps the way Zhuk so delicately arranges these two currents—namely, the more absurd elements that initiate the film and the progressively visceral sequences where Velya might as well be the little girl with the dead cat in Sátántangó, a much more nihilistic take on post-Soviet desolation. In the latter moments, Velya assumes the position of the terrified child watching the pathetic theater of her elders through the window, and the desolate future that awaits her if she doesn’t run for the hills.

Crystal Swan is also rich in analogical pleasures, which are rooted in the film’s narrative premise and rife with metaphorical possibilities, as in the way Zhuk pays special attention to the materiality of ‘90s objects and the sounds they make. The entire plot revolves around a telephone that will supposedly ring. But when and if it does, will Velya be there to answer it? Will anyone be around to hear it? Bulky phonebooths, posters on teenager’s walls, the mechanical clicking of a photo camera—none of it feels like anodyne technological kinks.

When a VHS tape gets stuck in a VCR, people are forced to go outside and play. Cassette tapes appear as a potentially radical archive passed on to Stepan’s younger brother, Kostya (Ilya Kapanets), who may think twice—thanks to the liberating power of house music—about the naturalization of violence. It’s as if mundane objects hold the remedies for the wretchedness of everyday life. How they work and how they break appear as opportunities for daring to seize the possibility of going elsewhere and for debunking supposedly irreversible things.

Cast: Alina Nasibullina, Ivan Mulin, Yuriy Borisov, Svetlana Anikey, Ilya Kapanets, Anastasia Garvey, Lyudmila Razumova Director: Darya Zhuk Screenwriter: Helga Landauer, Darya Zhuk Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Lovebirds Is Weighed Down by Plot Incident and Silly Twists

Once the film shifts into a broader comedic register, it no longer capitalizes on Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae’s gift for gab.

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Lovebirds

Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) are past the honeymoon phase depicted in the brief prologue to The Lovebirds. When we pick up with them four years later, they’re in the midst of a heated argument that, after some time, reveals itself to be about something far more petty than it first appears: whether they can win The Amazing Race.

At its best, Michael Showalter’s film revels in loose, digressive humor, as in a scene where Jibran and Leilani discuss the differences between a gangbang and an orgy. The couple is playful and clever in equal measure, yet every fight between them confirms that their relationship is past its due date. That is, until an encounter with a killer cop (Paul Sparks) on their way to a friend’s party that makes them realize that they’re better off together—at least until they can exonerate themselves for the crime that will likely be pinned on them.

The film’s opening act banks heavily on the chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae, who effortlessly bounce witty, seemingly improvised lines off one another. Throughout, you don’t doubt that their characters are still very much in love, even as you understand that they’ve grown tired of dealing with each other’s shortcomings. When the film rests primarily on Nanjiani and Rae’s verbal riffing, it’s quite winning and consistent in delivering jokes that are not only funny, but also speak to the root causes of Jibran and Leilani’s personality clashes.

While it’s initially content to keep its focus on the bickering duo as they continue to drive each other mad while trying to solve the murder they witnessed, The Lovebirds regrettably becomes weighed down by plot incident and silly twists. The film foists the couple into a bizarre underworld of political corruption, widespread blackmail, and sex cults, shifting into a significantly broader comedic register that no longer capitalizes on its stars’ gift for gab. As Jibran and Leilani’s relationship woes progressively take a back seat to the formulaic unfolding of a needlessly convoluted, and rather dull, mystery, The Lovebirds slowly derails as it settles into the predictable patterns of many of the action rom-coms that have come before it.

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Kyle Bornheimer, Catherine Cohen, Barry Rothbart, Andrene Ward-Hammond, Moses Storm Director: Michael Showalter Screenwriter: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Painter and the Thief Suggests an Intimate Hall of Mirrors

Throughout the documentary, Benjamin Ree upsets conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.

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The Painter and the Thief
Photo: Neon

For The Painter and the Thief, director Benjamin Ree filmed Oslo-based painter Barbora Kysilkova for three years as she befriended Karl-Bertil Nordland, a drug addict who was convicted of stealing two of her paintings from a museum. The documentary initially thrives on forms of misdirection, as Ree allows us to believe that we’re watching a traditional study of contrasts: between an established professional woman and a tormented bad boy. We’re also led to assume, potentially by our own prejudices, that Kysilkova will be the film’s central consciousness, with Nordland as an intimidating and remote “other.” Through skillful chronological scrambling that consistently redefines moments, underscoring the subjectivity of each person, Ree upsets these conventions, offering a moving portrait of two lost souls.

The Painter and the Thief suggests an intimate hall of mirrors, in which artistic creation parallels addiction. Kysilkova responds to Nordland’s life force, basing several drawings on him, while Ree utilizes them both for his cinema, while Nordland at times consumes drugs, particularly during a painful relapse. No person is singularly understood as being “used” here, as the various relationships are symbiotic, with Nordland’s addiction suggesting a substitute for the intoxication that Kysilkova and Ree achieve through art-making. Nordland has the soul of an artist as well, as he’s sensitive, observant, and given to poetic observations, suggesting a vessel who’s looking for a purpose, which Ree and Kysilkova each provide. (You may wish that Ree had brought himself more into his own frames, adding another mirror and deepening the film’s auto-critical texture in the tradition of, say, Robert Greene’s work, but Ree probably, and understandably, didn’t wish to distract from his commanding subjects.)

In a primordially powerful moment, Nordland weeps when he sees the first photoreal canvas that Kysilkova has rendered of him, as she’s turned him into an elegant man in a white hoodie swishing a glass of red wine. In her lifelike yet slightly stylized paintings, Kysilkova physicalizes Nordland’s dreams of stability and respectability, granting him the gift of her attention. The paintings allow Nordland to enter a world he felt beyond him, symbolically rejoining community after years of the semi-isolation that’s fostered by addiction. Little of these impressions are directly expressed, which would dilute the spell, but Ree’s intimate compositions allow us to feel as if we can read the stirrings of Kysilkova and Nordland’s souls.

We first see the thief through the painter’s eyes. Tall, with a lean, tatted-up frame, Nordland is charismatic and sexy, suggesting an outlaw version of actor Timothy Olyphant. There’s something else about Nordland that perhaps only people with experience with addiction will be especially alive to: His visceral emotional pain suggests a perpetual atonement for his wrongdoings, and this atonement suggest the potential for transcendence, which appeals to artists and people with savior complexes, such as Kysilkova.

Transcendence arrives much later when Nordland goes to prison for another crime, after a lengthy stay in a hospital for a car accident that nearly killed him, and gradually cleans up, grows out a beard, and puts flesh as well as muscle on his body. Nordland is a stubborn survivor who’s willing to suffer for the camera and canvas alike; he’s volatile, profoundly lucky, and seems to achieve a hard-won grace. Drinking coffee with Kysilkova near the end of The Painter and the Thief, he’s softer, cuddlier, and less threatening that he was before prison, and, rediscovering carpentry, he’s even becoming an artist. At a certain point in the film, Nordland resembles less a subject of Kysilkova’s than an old coconspirator.

The viewer also sees the painter through the thief’s eyes, though these alternating perspectives harmonize as Ree continues to hopscotch around in time, offering more context and allowing us to grow to love both people equally. While Kysilkova sees Nordland, Ree sees both of them, to whom he has astonishing access. Meanwhile, Nordland also sees more of Kysilkova than she probably knows, as Ree has an acute understanding of how people can damn near smell one another’s pain, finding their own emotional water level. Kysilkova was once abused by a boyfriend and fled to Oslo to escape him. Devastated, she gave up painting for a while until a new boyfriend helped to rehabilitate her self-confidence. And the first painting she created upon her rebirth, “Swan Song,” is one of the ones that Nordland stole with an accomplice who wasn’t caught. This resonance is almost too good to be true, as Nordland almost literally accessed the secret heart of Kysilkova’s torment.

One of the film’s most palpable tensions is pointedly undiscussed. Kysilkova and Nordland appear to be attracted to one another, and they touch and converse with the sort of casual sureness that usually arises from sustained romance. Perhaps Ree believes that the distinction between a sexual and artistic union is unimportant or none of our business, though Kysilkova’s boyfriend is clearly concerned at times. And maybe the distinction doesn’t matter, as Kysilkova and Nordland have enjoyed a relationship that seems to have healed them, allowing them to face their gnawing hatred of themselves. Whatever labels are applied and whatever other additional actions were taken, Ree has caught a love story in a bottle.

Regardless of their romantic status, The Painter and the Thief ends with an unmistakable consummation: on a medium shot of Kysilkova’s painting of the pair laying intimately on a couch together, Kysilkova’s face replacing that of Nordland’s ex-girlfriend, the actual model for the painting. This is a projection of Kysilkova’s, perhaps of a desire she won’t or can’t actualize, which she instead utilizes to fashion a beguiling, idealized communion. In this canvas, the various social distinctions between Kysilkova and Nordland have been obliterated. Ree has enabled two people to broker a connection on camera in front of us. To capture such a birth, or to at least appear to, is to perform a kind of magic act.

Director: Benjamin Ree Distributor: Neon Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Inheritance Is Elevated by Simon Pegg’s Effective Anti-Typecasting

Pegg occasionally fulfills the nightmarish potential of the film’s fairy-tale premise.

2.5

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Inheritance
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Vaughn Stein’s Inheritance pivots on a good sick joke that suggests a near-literalization of the idiom “skeleton in the closet.” Lauren Monroe (Lily Collins) is a district attorney who pursues Wall Street hustlers as symbolic atonement for the wealth of her family, which includes a congressman brother, William (Chace Crawford), and a father, Archie (Patrick Warburton), who seems to be involved in a little bit of everything. William is running for reelection while Lauren is trying a huge case, and it’s believed that her victory will cement her brother’s own. But Archie dies suddenly, his will nearly stiffing Lauren of his money, though there are mysterious instructions left behind for her to investigate a family secret. Under the woods on the Monroe property is a bunker containing a man who calls himself Morgan (Simon Pegg) and claims to have been imprisoned by Archie down there for years.

The notion of a mogul keeping a prisoner underground on his property is delectably strange, suggesting the sickness—a true soul rot—of Archie’s ego. Morgan also resonates as an embodiment of Lauren’s fear that she can’t be free of her family’s sins, and that, if nudged by opportunity and desperation, she’s capable of committing those same sins. As Morgan says, if Lauren’s as good as she believes herself to be, she’d immediately spring him from his cage; instead, she plays a game of cat and mouse, somewhat reminiscent of the relationship at the center of The Silence of the Lambs, in which she hectors and consoles Morgan into revealing why Archie would take such insane effort and risk to contain him. Lauren even asks a question that will have occurred to most viewers: Why didn’t Archie just bump Morgan off?

The resolution of the film’s mystery is ordinary, though that isn’t surprising given that Matthew Kennedy’s script is host to all sorts of missed opportunities. Based on the opening montage, one expects the narrative to ping-pong between Lauren’s big case, William’s reelection campaign, and Lauren’s verbal duels with Morgan, but the various subplots are essentially left hanging by an ending that seems to be missing scenes. Inheritance also lacks the obsessive sense of interiority of a great thriller; it’s almost entirely composed of plot, with only passing emotional reverberations, which might’ve been stronger if Morgan’s presence were vividly shown to have an effect on Lauren’s relationships with her work and family, or if she had been more tempted to indulge her father’s potential penchant for evil. Lauren lacks the fevered torment and poignant self-loathing of Clarice Starling, as she’s essentially a tour guide leading us through the traps that Stein and Kennedy have devised.

Yet Inheritance is enjoyable nevertheless, mostly for Pegg’s effective anti-typecasting. Slim, with long gray hair and a region-less American accent, the actor informs a potentially gimmicky character with striking elegance. There’s an unexpectedly lovely moment when Lauren takes Morgan out of the bunker and he savors the darkness of the surrounding woods, observing that “it’s more beautiful than I remembered.” Pegg invests such scenes with pathos, allowing Morgan’s crisp voice to become momentarily, poetically halting. And Pegg occasionally fulfills the nightmarish potential of this fairy-tale premise, allowing one to savor the film’s central question: Is Morgan a figure in the key of Hansel or of the big bad wolf?

Cast: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Connie Nielsen, Patrick Warburton, Chace Crawford, Michael Beach, Marque Richardson, Rebecca Adams, Alec James, Josh Murray, Mariyah Frances, Lydia Hand Director: Vaughn Stein Screenwriter: Matthew Kennedy Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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