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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 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.

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Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.

2.5

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.

Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.

Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.

Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.

Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.

It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.

Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study

Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.

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Joan of Arc
Photo: 3P Productions

Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc may not have earned the French filmmaker many new fans, but it did serve to further his apparent embrace of a more mirthful directorial approach. As radical as any film that the New French Extremity-adjacent auteur has made, Jeanette is also unexpectedly accessible: a full-blown pop-rock musical in which a preteen Joan of Arc frets over her God-given mission to save France during the Hundred Years’ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.

Dumont’s follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the “adult” years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while it’s almost as surprising as its predecessor, it’s considerably less exhilarating. Whereas the latter half of Jeanette, following a time jump, replaced child actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme with the teenaged Jeanne Voisin, the now 10-year-old Prudhomme has been reinstated in the title role here as the 19-year-old Joan. Right away, this recalibration is extremely dissonant, and it’s one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joan’s trial, during which she’s lectured and berated—like the child that she physically is—by misogynistic, condescending “graduates of theology.”

Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the film’s proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songs—sung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wise’s Augustin Charnet—that play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhumme’s armor-clad Joan, looking pensively into the camera. Dumont briefly seems to be up to something rather brilliant here, reconfiguring the musical tropes of his Joan of Arc saga as a means to manifest the “voices” that the Joan of historical record claimed she heard in her head. But that interpretation gets ever more foggy as the filmmaker goes on to present various musical-esque scenes, but in fractured and recontexualized forms. The most jarring example of this is a lengthy, wordless interlude that features a battalion of soldiers on horseback moving in elaborate patterns, dance-like, a sequence which Dumont shoots in a way that recalls Busby Berkley musicals, with shots from above of the choreographed horses.

At least one aesthetic decision carries over from Jeanette: Only a handful of sets are used in Joan of Arc, and each change usually heralds a major shift in Joan’s lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The film’s first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles Péguy’s play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joan’s trial and punishment, is based on another Péguy work, Rouen.) However, whereas Jeanette mostly limited itself to exterior shots of the idyllic French countryside, the contrasts in Joan of Arc are striking: The film moves from its opening passage, set amid cascading dunes, to the clean, vertiginous, and imposing interior space of the Royal Chapel, a place that serves to decisively dwarf an already diminutive Joan.

It’s in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authority—each drolly introduced in a kind of roll call—gather and almost instantly turn into savages, indiscriminately lobbing insults and explicating their own intolerance with unfeeling displays of intellectualized theological reasoning. Naturally, Joan retaliates, steadfastly refusing to disavow her devotion to her own spiritual dogma.

The best part of these trial scenes, and of Joan of Arc in general, is Prudhomme, who, despite her age, gives an extraordinarily committed, and convincing, performance as the teenaged Joan. The cinema is filled with iconic portrayals of the Maid of Orléans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. It’s a pity, then, that Dumont’s film doesn’t really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythos—apart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmaker’s effort to tap into the currents of modernity that run through this centuries-old story can be traced back through film history, at least as far as Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—which is, of course, predicated on the particular presentation of the cinematic image.

Dumont does, at least, seem perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking—the aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the film’s composer, French popstar Christophe—and attempts subtle gestures of subversion. Take the final shot of Joan of Arc, which is not unlike the last act of grace and salvation (and blatant homage to Robert Bresson’s Mouchette) that concludes 2010’s Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer film—for which Bresson infamously voiced his distaste—is rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joan’s fatal immolation in profile, and from a considerable distance.

Joan of Arc, though, has bigger problems than an over familiarity with its source, as its themes and dynamics also recall other, stronger Dumont films. The articulation of interiority through stylized visualizations of the adolescent Joan is audacious and intriguing, but its philosophical meaning isn’t nearly as fleshed out, nor as emotionally accessible, as the transformation undergone by a devout young woman into a radicalized religious extremist in Hadewijch. And the psychological understanding of Joan—the process of her victimization—isn’t as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumont’s similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc can’t even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanette—all of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumont’s influences and his preoccupations, but one that never coalesces its potential into the major work it clearly strives to be.

Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-François Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy

Bertrand Bonello’s quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.

3.5

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Zombi Child
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between Mélissa and Fanny’s perspectives in the film’s present-day scenes opens the story up to a more complex examination of how the girls view and relate to their own heritage and culture.

Not unlike Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which in its final moments made a jarring jump from a brothel in the early 20th century to modern-day Paris and prostitutes working a city street, Zombi Child explores the factors that have allowed a social practice, voodoo, to become a constant of history. Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a “mambo,” or voodoo priestess, and she’s the only surviving member of Mélissa’s family in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Mélissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates Mélissa’s initiation into her tight-knit “literary sorority.” But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: Mélissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when she’d rather be listening to music sung in her native Créole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into Mélissa’s past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.

The other half of the film’s time-jumping narrative concerns Fanny’s grandfather, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), who, in 1962, becomes the victim of a voodoo curse that puts him in an early grave and results in the reanimation of his corpse and him having to perform manual plantation labor in a perpetually “zombified” state. Throughout this section of Zombi Child, Bonello fractures the spatial and temporal coherence of scenes, stringing together elemental, horror movie-adjacent visuals, like the recurring image of an iridescent moon shrouded in clouds and first-person perspective shots that careen through dense sugarcane fields. A clear contrast is established early on between the perpetually dark Haitian landscape and the antiseptic, white-walled interiors of the classrooms in which Fanny and Mélissa are lectured by professors spouting one-sided lessons on world history. But just as its racial politics start to seem too explicit, Zombi Child suddenly and radically reframes itself.

Clairvius’s death turns out to have been the consequence of familial jealousy, and his exploitation as a slave comes at the hands of black plantation farmers, not white men—at least not that we’re made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, that’s a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of “zombification” during the early 20th century. This has the effect of recasting a supernatural fiction narrative as reconstructed history.

Bonello also never gives us the racially charged confrontation that Mélissa and Fanny’s relationship seems to be building toward, as he’s interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fanny’s refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of Mélissa’s ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the other—an undead history rising up to claim a living one. Mélissa, though, draws her identity from her past and her present, and in the same moment that Fanny has her communion with the spiritual forces of voodoo, Mélissa delivers an aural history on the subject—a kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.

The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture (notably, Mélissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie.

The film’s most intriguing facet, though, is the way Bonello plays with temporality. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe

The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.

2.5

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Diamantino
Photo: Kino Lorber

Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naïve but intense imaginations. He lives in a colossal chateau and sleeps on pillows and sheets with his face printed on them, and spends much of his waking life riding the seas on a yacht that’s big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, he’s oblivious to his star power and the weighty expectations placed on him by soccer fans.

Throughout the film, writer-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt delight in playing up the precarious balance between Diamantino’s self-absorption and his sweet absent-mindedness. Unencumbered by an entourage, Diamantino rarely interacts with anyone besides his loving, supportive father, Chico (Chico Chapas), whose humble kindness is rather jarring when set against the palatial trappings of the family’s digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesn’t exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppies—playful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.

Diamantino’s carefree, seemingly unflappable temperament, however, is disrupted when he spots a raft of refugees while boating, and his glimpse at real human misery shakes him to the core—so much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, he’s too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The film’s manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantino’s daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when it’s blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his country’s spectacular defeat. And all the while his evil twin sisters (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) scream at the television set playing the game inside the family’s living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.

This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrity’s political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness that’s disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the film’s freewheeling style. Humiliated into early retirement, Diamantino announces his embrace of the sort of celebrity activism that regularly comes in for ridicule, declaring that he will adopt a refugee child to honor both the humanitarian crisis and his late father. The Portuguese secret service, already investigating him for suspected money laundering, uses Diamantino’s proclamation to set up an undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), to pose as a Cape Verdean refugee child, Rahim, in order to get into his house to gather clues for their case. And while Aisha only finds hilarious evidence of the player’s innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkle—a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)—to the film’s already dense array of plots and themes.

Aisha and Lucia’s presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the film’s hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aisha’s infiltration of Diamantino’s home, mostly from how quickly she discovers that his innocence is beyond a doubt and that his cruel sisters are comically guilty, as they keep their offshore accounts on a desktop shortcut. Diamantino’s interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his character’s over-eager treatment of “Rahim,” serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the man’s emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Lucia’s petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.

That Diamantino and Aisha’s relationship comes to define the last act of the film ultimately detracts from the riotous vision that Abrantes and Schmidt sketch of roiling EU tensions and the way celebrity culture can be just another element in the viral branding of extreme politics. Diamantino is on its strongest footing when depicting how its main character becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU. One scene sees him starring in “Pexit” commercial as a folk hero from the Reconquista, during which Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The right-wing politicians who fund the ad clearly pledge allegiance to the historical figure’s Islamophobia, though it’s also obvious that they hope that the pleasure Diamantino takes in dancing around in his costume will undercut that impression.

Elsewhere, Diamantino is used as a lab rat for a company that attempts to clone him in order to produce the world’s best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because it’s impossible to believe that scientists and supercomputers fail to fathom how a man who lives on an all-sugar diet and daydreams about puppies on the pitch could be the world’s best athlete. The filmmakers draw a line between the absurdity of these experiments and the insidious quest for racial purity behind most eugenics movements, suggesting that neo-fascists are so prone to celebrity worship that they might mistake their favorite star for the master race. It’s rich, relevant material for satire, so it’s a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantino’s relatively straightforward pursuit of happiness.

Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Maria Leite, Filipe Vargas, Joana Barrios Director: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Screenwriter: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness

The film is content to peddle the naïve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.

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The Tomorrow Man
Photo: Bleecker Street

The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jones’s The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isn’t meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, he’s posting conspiracy theories on an internet forum or glued to the local news. At least, that is, until a female news anchor (Wendy Makkena) starts to directly address him, at which point he turns off his television and tries to get his head straight. But Ed can’t really seem to find a way of easing his troubled mind. Indeed, even after engaging in extended human contact via phone conversations with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil), the old man inevitably launches into diatribes packed with half-baked ideas and comprehensive survival advice.

You’d be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nichols’s film thrives in the ambiguous space between objective reality and the mind of its strange yet plausibly prescient protagonist, The Tomorrow Man never gives credence to any of Ed’s protestations of doom and gloom, seeing them as symptoms of his loneliness and isolation. And while his extreme paranoia is unmistakably a form of mental illness, Jones increasingly treats it with less and less concern as the film moves forward, instead using it as fodder for both quirky comedy and the catalyst for a light-hearted septuagenarian romance.

Enter Ronnie (Blythe Danner), the beautiful but equally socially awkward woman whom Ed meets while stocking up on supplies at the local grocery store. Her subtly twitchy awkwardness serves as the perfect balance to Ed’s boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that he’s found a kindred spirit, one who’s equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, there’s a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnie’s deep, dark secret: that she’s a hoarder.

It’s a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnie’s burgeoning love affair and Ronnie’s clumsy efforts at tempering Ed’s cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actors’ effortlessly charming rapport enlivens, at least in brief spurts, a film that otherwise reduces its characters to their eccentricities, from her love of war documentaries to his appreciation of ball bearings.

But The Tomorrow Man displays an utter lack of interest in exploring how Ed and Ronnie came to be so reclusive. Following their initial meet cute, the film gets caught up in its pursuit of preciousness. And Jones’s indifference to the more disturbing elements of his characters’ interior worlds effectively reduces serious mental health issues to harmless neuroses. Late into The Tomorrow Man, Ed takes to the message boards to post that “sometimes people need to be who they are even if they don’t want to be who they are.” It’s a sentiment of acceptance that’s hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And that’s because Jones is content to peddle the naïve notion that, regardless of your situation, love is the panacea for all that ails you.

Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena Director: Noble Jones Screenwriter: Noble Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations

In Jim Jarmusch’s film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.

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Dead Don't Die
Photo: Focus Features

Jim Jarmusch’s strength has always been his ability to craft films that seem lackadaisical and navel-gazing on the surface, but which are actually very methodical, revealing essential truths about the socioeconomic conditions of modern American life. The filmmaker’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, zips through vignettes set in the small town of Centerville in the days leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and for an hour-plus, the film is sharp, acerbic, and surprisingly melancholic, probing at the generational divides between its characters, who behave in vastly different ways throughout the end of days.

Eventually, however, and perhaps because Jarmusch senses that his trademark deadpan doesn’t have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. It’s not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesn’t seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care. There’s much evidence here to suggest that Jarmusch’s prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the film’s zombies roam around murmuring the names of the products they consumed when they were alive (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, coffee, and so on), writing this all off as a lame literalization of the most prevalent theme from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message he’s imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.

The Dead Don’t Die is at its best when mulling the contours of the relationships between the cross-generational cast of characters. Neither Cliff (Bill Murray), the resigned, veteran cop, nor Ronnie (Adam Driver), his self-aware but generally unfeeling rookie partner, are particularly well drawn in and of themselves, but their repartee makes them interesting, as Cliff’s air of wisdom and experience dissipates when he finally realizes that Ronnie understands the rules of their genre-inflected universe better than he ever will, and Ronnie, all stoical resolve, is unable to process Cliff’s sobering, earnest emotional outbursts.

The Venn diagram of all things Jarmuschian and all things Lynchian has always shown a significant bit of overlap, but in working with an ensemble cast that throws together longtime collaborators with a gallery of fresh faces—all populating a mosaic of small-town life that’s pervaded by ethereal dread—Jarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Don’t Die and David Lynch’s series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakers’ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.

To that end, The Dead Don’t Die feels most poignant when it threads the experience of its various characters and exerts a kind of equalizing force over them. The best example of this, and also something like the film’s philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The song’s ingratiating, hummable melody eventually illuminates how art can have disparate effects on audiences. For the carefree hipster played by Selena Gomez, the tune is an outlet for escape as she drives through the countryside. But it becomes downright oppressive when Cliff gets sick of Ronnie playing it in their police car and chucks the CD out the window.

That range of response is also reflected in the overall trajectory of the film, which begins in a register of playful irreverence—even as characters spout pronouncements of environmental disaster wrought by fracking, or ponder what kind of creature may have mauled two women found dead at a diner—before gradually succumbing to its anger. That isn’t inherently bad, of course, but the film’s dreary, didactic denouement proves that Jarmusch is unable to translate his righteous fury at the state of the world into a cinematic statement as compelling, creative, or weird as The Dead Don’t Die manages to be when it’s simply content to be a hangout movie that just so happens to be set during the zombie apocalypse.

Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Tom Waits Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels

The choreography is as brutal as you expect, but the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising.

2.5

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Photo: Lionsgate

At the end of another knock-down, drag-out pummeling in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 3: Parabellum, the man with the samurai sword sticking out of his chest says to Keanu Reeves’s John Wick, “That was a pretty good fight, huh?” It’s a throwaway gag, the kind that action directors like to use for a breather after a particularly bruising melee. But it also comes off as something of a gloat—one of a few signs in the film that stuntman turned director Stahelski, for better and worse, is content to coast on a winning formula.

The third installment in this series about a hitman who would really like to stay retired and mourn his dead wife and dog picks up about five seconds after John Wick: Chapter 2 ended. Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick a one-hour grace period before he’s “excommunicado” from the Continental, neutral ground for members of the criminal underworld, after killing a crime lord. A $14 million bounty has been put on his head, and as roughly one in seven people in the world of the film appears to be an assassin, that means that at least two or three killers with dollar signs in their eyes chase after Wick down every Manhattan city block.

The immediate result of this in the film’s pell-mell opening stretch is that the ever-resourceful Wick kills many, many, many people. He kills them with knives, hatchets, and in a particularly imaginative sequence set in a stable, by getting a horse to kick an assailant in the face. Much of this stretch is mindful of what made the prior films in the John Wick series tick. In other words, Stahelski puts Wick through an increasingly absurd and bloody series of confrontations whose intensity plays off Reeves’s hangdog demeanor with deadpan comic timing.

That fidelity to what’s expected of a John Wick film is initially a relief, at least before the filmmakers start looking for new dramatic terrain to explore. Normally this would be a positive development. After all, just how far can you stretch a concept that’s essentially Run John Run? But all the little story beats that break up the central chase narrative, mostly in the form of hints about Wick’s origin story, ultimately do little to develop the story or character and just serve to pad out the running time with more human obstacles for Wick to stoically annihilate.

Having more or less set the entire criminal universe against him, Wick has to call in just about every favor he has. Given his long and only hinted-at backstory, that leaves the film’s writers a lot of room to play with. Jumping from one roost to the next, Wick asks for help from the Director (Angelica Huston), a member of the high-level crime lords known as the High Table, and Sofia (Halle Berry), an ex-assassin who owes Wick a debt and who’s just as good as he is with a blade and a gun, only she has a pair of kill-on-command canines at her side.

It’s satisfying to watch as John Wick 3 expands the glimmers of fantastical world-building that had previously gilded the series’s retired-killer-on-the-run narrative. The outré garnishes like the gold-coin currency, the killer spies disguised as homeless people, and the Continental—lavish, crooks-only hotels that suggest what might happen if Ian Schrager got the chance to whip up something for the mob—work as a baroque counterpoint to the stripped-down economy of Wick’s dialogue. His response to what he needs for help as the High Table’s stormtroopers close in for the kill? “Guns. Lots of guns.”

The returning cast continues to provide greater and more nuanced depth of character than is called on from Reeves, especially Lance Reddick as a serenely authoritative Continental concierge, a scrappy Laurence Fishburne as the lord of the homeless, and the ever-lugubrious McShane as the New York Continental’s sherry-sipping manager. Asia Kate Dillon also makes a fierce new entry to the series as the Adjudicator, a steely emissary from the High Table.

The production design doesn’t disappoint, either, with its chiaroscuro portrait of an always rainy and crowded New York. Splashes of neon and lens flare play off the antiquated production design. Anachronisms like old-fashioned yellow cabs and 1970s-era computers are paired with a cutting-edge armory of high-tech weapons and oddball details like the criminal underworld secretaries costumed like Suicide Girls who decided to enter the work force.

As for the action choreography, it’s as brutal as you expect, though the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising. Wick piles up bodies by the dozen and never puts one bullet in a goon’s head when three or four will more effectively splatter his brains over the wall. Besides the previously mentioned throwdown in a stable, though, the only other fight scene in the film that stands out is the one set inside an antique store: The unarmed Wick and his blade-preferring attackers have murderous fun smashing open and utilizing the contents of one display case, throwing knife after knife at each other.

But the further the film illuminates the spiderweb of criminal enterprise undergirding its world, the more burdensome the overlong story becomes. The somewhat blasé tone that played as just slightly tongue-in-cheek in the first John Wick is starting by this point to feel like complacency. But given the repetitive nature of much of this entry’s narrative, the eventually numbing action choreography—punch, flip, stab, shoot, punch, flip, stab, shoot—and the setup for more of the same in a now seemingly inevitable John Wick 4, it’s possible that even fans could wind up as exhausted as Wick himself.

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn Director: Chad Stahelski Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 130 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Perfect Is a Series of Lurid Pillow Shots in Search of a Soul

Eddie Alcazar’s film is a purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath.

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Perfect
Photo: Brainfeeder Films

Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect is the sort of purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath that you’ll either adore or loathe. There are stilted allusions to everyone from Nicolas Winding Refn to Panos Cosmatos to Mel Gibson to the granddaddies of modern cinematic surrealism, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. But these references add up to nothing more than a catalogue of fetishes.

There’s a narrative in Perfect—sort of. A beautiful young man billed in the credits as Vessel 13 (Garrett Wareing) calls his equally beautiful mother (Abbie Cornish), who appears to be roughly the same age. Sonny boy has done something bad, having either beaten his girlfriend to death or nurtured an elaborate fantasy over the act, which, in this world, is more or less the same thing. The mother, all icy, well-tailored matter-of-factness, sends Vessel 13 to a remote spa somewhere in a mountainous jungle where she once spent time herself. There, he’s advised to choose his path, which entails cutting chunks of flesh out of his face that resemble cubed tuna tartar, and inserting crystal silicon into the exposed wounds.

Vessel 13’s acts of self-surgery are the film’s most original flourishes, involving some fun horror-movie gimmickry. The instruments for cutting the flesh come in a see-through plastic container, with cardboard backing, recalling an action figure’s packaging, complete with a mascot that suggests an anime Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Vessel 13’s scalpel is basically a drafting knife—a nice touch, given that this man is tasked with making himself over.

But much of Alcazar’s film is fatal hokum passed off as a mystical quest for transcendence. In place of most of the dialogue is an ongoing voiceover, which is composed of non-profundities such as “The way out is really the way in,” “In this great illusion of love, an object cannot exist without something else to reflect itself back onto itself,” and, most hilarious of all, “The problem with the truth is that once you know the truth, you can’t un-know it.” Few films could recover from such an unceasing tide of nonsense.

Meanwhile, Vessel 13 wanders the spa’s grounds while gorgeous young women hang about an atmospheric pool seemingly posing for a special collaboration between Rue Morgue and GQ, which Alcazar complements with a neon-bathed lightshow designed to flout his bona fides as a serious arthouse figure. The self-surgeries gradually turn Vessel 13 pale and bald, fostering a weird likeness to Jason Voorhees from 1980’s Friday the 13th. Why would the spa’s treatment, which turned Mom into, well, Abbie Cornish, transform this young man into a ghoul? It has something to do with facing your inner ugliness and expunging it so that you may become a carefree hottie again, and frolic on the beach with a new, even hotter woman without fear of bashing in her brains. Erasing said ugliness also involves elaborate black-and-white visions of a quasi-Aztec society, where Vessel 13 sees himself as a barbarian eating a live human baby. By this point in the film, one might as well shrug and ask, “Why not?”

Perfect is desperately evasive about what it’s actually eaten up with: sex. The film feels like an excuse to corral a bunch of good-looking people together at a hip location and fashion a variety of lurid pillow shots. That’s not an inherently unpromising desire, though Alcazar can’t lay off the self-aggrandizing mumbo jumbo, and a sense of humor would’ve helped. The filmmaker honestly appears to believe that Perfect is an examination of privilege, particularly our ruthless standards of beauty, when it’s really just an embodiment of the same. This interchangeable collection of sequences has no soul.

Cast: Garrett Wareing, Abbie Cornish, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto, Leonardo Nam, Maurice Compte, Alicia Sanz, Sarah McDaniel, Rainey Qualley Director: Eddie Alcazar Screenwriter: Ted Kupper Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ritesh Batra’s Photograph Lives and Dies by Its Frustrating Excisions

In pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, the film transforms its main characters into blank slates.

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Photograph
Photo: Amazon Studios

Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set Photograph is a film as reserved as its protagonists. Full of quiet, contemplative shots of would-be lovebirds Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), the film strikes a muted tone that serves as a conscious contrast to the high-blown romances of mainstream Indian cinema. Even as it takes a subtler, more realistic approach to romance across class and religious divisions in India, it almost self-reflexively resembles a Bollywood love story, but only in outline form, as if its stillness were an effect of its having lost the musical numbers that typically define such films.

In the tradition of so many works about star-crossed lovers, Rafi and Miloni come from different worlds. Rafi is a Muslim from a rural village who works as a street photographer, attempting to force his services on tourists visiting the Gateway of India. Miloni is a young, bourgeois Hindu excelling in, but not particularly excited by, her courses on chartered accountancy. They meet one day when Rafi convinces Miloni to pose for a photograph, using his usual pitch that a photo is a material memory—the preservation of a moment that would otherwise fade away. Miloni poses for the photograph, but lost in her thoughts, she leaves with one of the two copies before Rafi can hand her the other.

Separately, the twentysomething Miloni and fortysomething Rafi are each coping with pressure from their elders: Miloni’s parents want her to move to America to study, while Rafi still deals with admonitions from his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) that he hasn’t yet married. To mollify her, Rafi includes the photo of Miloni in a letter, claiming she’s his fiancée, and soon the grandmother announces that she’s on her way to Mumbai to meet the prospective bride. It’s at this point that anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy can guess where this masquerade is headed, and that the film isn’t going to be interested in a rewriting any rules. If anything, the places where the story does diverge from the expected path, as in a conversation between Rafi and a ghost, are more mystifying than meaningful.

Rafi’s plan to hoodwink his grandmother is contingent on Miloni’s participation. Luckily, he runs into Miloni on the bus, but Batra leaves their conversation out of the film, cutting to Miloni agreeing to the scheme. Her motivation, beyond the general impression Photograph gives us of her kind-heartedness, is that she’s lost the original photograph Rafi gave her. The photo was confiscated in class by her creepy accountancy teacher (Jim Sarbh), whose attraction to Miloni becomes a minor subplot. It appears Miloni liked her own image so much that she’s willing to play the part of Rafi’s fiancée in exchange for a new picture.

Batra excises other pivotal plot points from the film, giving scenes an elliptical, allusive tone. The point, underlined by Rafi and Miloni’s visits to a movie theater playing Bollywood musicals, appears to be the filmmaker’s belief that he’s telling a familiar story whose more rote moments don’t need reiteration. Photograph tries instead to focus on interstitial, lived-in scenarios, like Rafi lying awake in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with four other street photographers, or he and Miloni enjoying shaved ice and kulfi, an ice cream-like desert.

But in pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, Photograph transforms its main characters into blank slates. For one, the absence of the scene in which Miloni agrees to lie to Rafi’s grandmother makes Malhotra’s character seem inscrutable, a meekly smiling void. In a society chock-full of imaging technologies, the prospect of a new photograph doesn’t seem a particularly strong motivation to entangle herself in Rafi’s lies—particularly considering that he involved her by using her image without her knowledge. Photograph’s admittedly clever conclusion suggests that Batra wants to make his audience swoon, but the film’s contrivances and conspicuous excisions undercut our connection to the characters.

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Vijay Raaz Director: Ritesh Batra Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: The Wandering Soap Opera Is a Riddle Stubbornly Wrapped in an Enigma

After a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor the film.

2

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The Wandering Soap Opera
Photo: Cinema Guild

The most remarkable aspect of The Wandering Soap Opera isn’t in the film itself but in its trajectory to the screen. The late master filmmaker Raúl Ruiz shot a collection of sequences in his native Chile way back in 1990 before abandoning the project. Then, several years after his death in 2011, Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s widow and frequent collaborator, decided to complete it. It’s a path that echoes that of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind and Manoel de Oliveira’s The Visit or Memories and Confessions, and one that brings a ghostly tinge to the satiric vignettes that comprise the film.

The Wandering Soap Opera is divided into a series of chapters that initially abide by the campy conventions of Latin American soap operas: melodramatic dialogue, a gloomy sound score, stiff acting, implausible scenarios, and ridiculously unconvincing special effects. This is a world where every man seems to have salt-and-pepper hair, don a suit and tie, and hold a stake in some financial company. They’re also constantly in the process of either seducing a woman or conducting some shady business practice with another man over rounds of scotch. The sequences, however, eventually turn these conventions into what seems to be some kind of national critique or allegory, and through the surreal exaggeration of the genre’s tropes.

In the film, one character says that soaps are “the fourth power,” another does mean things to a pig, and another caresses a bunny rabbit. An actress says she has multiple names: Alma Rios, Alma Comunista, and Scheherazade. A ghostly character is juxtaposed to a soap scene, like a double exposure, in order to deride it, remarking on its artifices. We’re told that nothing is real or happens in a soap opera. It’s all just fake characters commenting on other fake characters, someone says, conflating the film itself with how audiences consume soaps.

In one sequence, a woman responds to the incessant flirting of a man by asking if he’s a leftist and establishing his politics as prerequisite for him to touch her. In the same vignette, the woman keeps reminding the man that “people are watching” them. She eventually tells him she loves men with big muscles, which prompts the man to hand the woman a chunk of raw meat. This and other scenes unfold in very cryptic fashion, suggesting some kind of master plan toward a biting political critique that at times feels like we’re too illiterate to enjoy.

There’s a strong presence of a political code in this darkly humorous film, but it never seems as if we can quite crack it or what it’s in service of. And this opaqueness makes many of the sequences seem either too cerebral or just downright dull. The exception is when the over-the-top approach is such that the film veers toward complete absurdity, allowing us to completely revel in the nonsense on screen instead of wanting for meaning. As when a bearded man sucking on a popsicle asks a stranger where La Concepción Street is located, only for another man to join them and let them know that his wife’s name is, yes, Concepción.

That particular sequence becomes an unbridled play of associations that recalls the best segments of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales. In the Ruiz film, all characters end up revealing some intimate knowledge of or silly relationship with the word “Concepción.” Suddenly the characters decide to push somebody’s broken-down vehicle while chatting about how awful it would be for a father to name his daughter Concepción, knowing that sooner or later she would get the nickname of Concha. Someone then wonders if “Hermes” is spelled with or without an “H,” before then heading off to a bar called “H” with a man named Homer.

It would seem that we’re in the middle of someone’s dream, and after a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor The Wandering Soap Opera. Or to regress to a child-like state, where the pleasures of language aren’t in sense-making, but in the sheer joy of uttering or hearing gibberish for gibberish’s sake.

Cast: Luis Alarcón, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes, Consuelo Castillo, Roberto Poblete, Liliana García Director: Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento Screenwriter: Pía Rey, Raúl Ruiz Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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