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Plastic Bag (Ramin Bahrani, 2010)

There is some fantastic staging at work here.

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Plastic Bag

Ben Begins:

After all the praise I’ve lavished on Ramin Bahrani’s three feature films, it will come as no surprise to hear me say that this short is just as great. But pretend for a moment that I’d never even seen Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. Or, that I didn’t know beforehand that Plastic Bag was by Bahrani. The excellence of it would have spoken to me regardless. It just so happens for me personally that I was feeling a little sad and vulnerable when I watched it, which only made me that much more receptive to the artistry of this less-than-twenty-minutes of outstanding cinema. It made me cry. Hard.

There is some fantastic staging at work here. It might look easy to move a bag around on location, but there are moments in Plastic Bag when the thing takes on an organic visual presence. It sometimes appears to travel with muscular intention and even to gesture. The romantic interaction with the other bag is airborne ballet. The theatrical level approaches that of genuine puppetry. I make note of this upfront because obviously it is the audio narrative that literally gives voice to the bag, so I mean to acknowledge the contribution of the cinematography to the entire anthropomorphic fabrication. The thing often looks alive.

That it always sounds alive is a tribute to the uniquely affecting quality of hearing Werner Herzog deliver English lines. Much has been made of him interjecting his own personality in his documentaries. Regardless of how one feels about this either way, it cannot be denied that his speaking voice is a kind of aesthetic artifact in its own right. Setting aside Herzog’s reputation as an artist and, even more, his cultural celebrity, it was a stroke of genius by Bahrani to cast him in this role. The timbre and cadences of Herzog’s speech are absolutely perfect for the forlorn pathos of the character.

And the characterization is there to perform in the first place. Plastic Bag is nothing if not a brilliant screenplay. The text achieves poetic concreteness. What might have seemed little more than a gimmick—yet another brave little toaster (hey, Plastic Bag starts off cute and funny enough)—soon takes on truly tragic proportions when we seriously contemplate what the protagonist is saying. His words make us pay attention to the setting as he is situated in it. We are made to confront the environmental crisis as it is experienced by him. Hello—we’re talking about empathetic dramatic identification with a plastic bag. A plastic bag people! Brilliantly shot, brilliantly read, brilliantly written. Yes, the music really works too. The whole tone of the piece changes when it enters.

Thematically, the level of profundity achieved by Plastic Bag is staggering. At first glance, it might seem that the personification of a lifeless object must necessarily advocate spirituality. To animate the inanimate certainly has the potential to point in this direction; and further, to give self-consciousness and voice to a thing is to positively humanize it with those attributes of cognition most commonly equated with soulfulness.

Meanwhile, the plot of Plastic Bag is all about the bag seeking the source of his origin. The bag is searching for “my Maker.” He had a personal relationship with an entity that he conceived to be God or at least a demiurge. He believes he has been forsaken. He searches for reunification. Even in the depths of his despair and doubt, he is able to overcome the worldly utopian misguidance that is the pantheistic cult of the Vortex and hold true to his journey to return to The Creator. How can this not be a religious parable?

It isn’t because Plastic Bag makes it plain that the bag is operating according to bogus mythology. He holds that life was breathed into him when he was separated from the bunch at the grocery till, but this was actually not his birth. The individual who activated him and subsequently engaged with him just enough for him to idealize his own telos did not, in fact, create him. Towards the end, when he questions if his Maker was ever real and wonders if he just dreamed her up—this is him reflecting critically on his own mythology and considering that it may very well be bogus.

At the very end, when he states that if he ever re-encounters his Maker he will proclaim that he should have been made mortal—for the audience this definitively points beyond the individual consumer who once used him for various domestic functions to his true creator, the collective social structures of industrial science and technological production that really did make him never to rot. What is more to the ecological intelligence, the bag’s desire for mortality is the highest expression of common sense, truly no nonsense materialism. Rust never sleeps but plastic doesn’t rust. Hence, the gyre now swirling in the Pacific, a mass of jelly two times the size of Texas.

The relative non-biodegradability of a plastic bag is practically—according to any time scale we can honestly fathom—an absolute indestructibility. In other words, an eternal life. Contra the entire history of metaphysical longing, in Plastic Bag it turns out that living forever is a bad thing. Eternal life is necessarily Hell for those of us who see no supernatural escape hatch from our corporeal being. The protagonist of Plastic Bag makes it to the massive mess of Jell-O in the sea, only to discover that it is not the Heaven for plastic it was made out to be by the secular priests self-crucified on the fence. Following this, he knows he should have been made not to last. He wants to die. He wants to recycle himself in the metabolism of nature.

A ghost is a disembodied spirit unable to reside in the hereafter because a crime against nature has been committed here on earth. Unable to rest in peace, the spectre haunts the living. The bag in Plastic Bag is an inverted apparition, an embodied ghost. Forever trapped in an undead body, he is a kind of zombie; except mindful, oh so mindful. All too corporeal yet cursed with immortality, the bag also cannot rest in peace. Unable to pass away on this planet, he is haunted by a memory of the living, a sole survivor because a crime against nature has been committed here on earth.

And Dan:

Plastic Bag held me rapt from its opening to its closing frame, sunrise to sunset. I have seldom been held in such thrall by a film; I have never been so moved by a film about an inanimate object. Plastic Bag is among the best short films I have ever seen. And I really enjoyed your study of the aesthetic at work—the poetry and ballet of the bag traveling through this world both ugly and beautiful—as it was one of the most impressive accomplishments of the film. Bahrani seems to have literally breathed life into this bag. It becomes he as he appears to inhale and exhale, applauding and adoring the movements of his personal god while she summons and interacts with his life, then dancing like a ballerino over what can only be the post-apocalyptic surface of the earth. Bahrani here confirms his position—well struck in his feature films, which are chock full of subtle and affecting lyrical imagery—as a master poet of the ordinary. I am reminded of William Carlos Williams and his red wheelbarrows and white chickens.

Furthermore, your examination of the bag’s heart of green was something I was particularly tuned into and connected with. However, I was also drawn to this sole survivor as a lost soul. In highlighting the “ecological intelligence” of Plastic Bag, you glossed over the striving of the bag to reunite with his Maker as “bogus mythology.” But the bag’s spiritual journey touched something deep inside of me.

While I enjoy a good walk as much as the next guy, I do not climb mountains. Yet, I am riveted by stories of mountain climbers who strike me as setting out to reach a place in nature where God is somehow more obvious to them. I could not put down Jon Krakauer’s study of a famously doomed Everest expedition, Into Thin Air; likewise, I was completely absorbed by the troubled Andean expedition recounted in Touching the Void. Any attempt to find God in this earthly realm is compelling for me. I really dig the metaphysical poetry of John Donne because of this. The Passion of Joan of Arc is among my favorite films of all time, and not just for its formal brilliance; I am captivated by Joan’s mysterious adoration of a God who appears to have abandoned her.

Plastic Bag is tapping into this as well. I am not a religious person. Forget about a church of any kind, I do not even have a particularly spiritual bent. Nevertheless, I feel it is valid to appreciate the spiritual striving of others in broad terms of existentialism. A specific search for God is a case of the general search for The Meaning of Life, or at least a meaningful life. I relate to the bag’s spiritual journey on this basic level. He is a seeker.

In focusing on the quest of the bag to find his Maker, I feel it is valid to see this in broad existential terms because of the plainly allegorical approach taken by the film. Just as the bag searches for meaning, so too do we. At first, the bag is content, finding meaning—and even joy—in servitude to his perceived Maker. Secure in his initial religious faith, the bag is an inspired utilitarian, believing his life has meaning only if he is being slavishly useful to his Maker. This leads to the ultimate degradation of being a dog’s pooper scooper, perhaps an inevitable outcome for anyone who seeks meaning through vassalage to a lord. Once he is cast aside, abandoned to the landfill and deprived of his previous mission in life, the bag can only embark on a lifelong journey to fill his existential void.

And I do mean void. The bag is literally hollow. But of course, he is also metaphorically hollow. The bag’s hollowness is a reflection of his lost utility. The bag felt fulfilled when he was actually filled; used by his Maker to carry tennis balls, hold ice, wrap dog crap, whatever. Once he is disposed of, he finds himself fired from the job he was made for, by the very Maker that supposedly made him for it. He is able to travel the world because of this—not weighed down by her needs/uses—but rather than embracing this freedom, he feels a desperate lack of purpose. He wants to return to his Maker so he can feel useful again. So he seeks her out.

There are profound distractions along the way. In one of the film’s most visually affecting passages, he engages in a momentary flirtation with love. The brevity of the encounter suggests the impossibility of maintaining a bond with another without a bond with the Maker to sustain it. In any case, he is compelled to keep moving, continue seeking. The journey proves fruitless until he finds his way to The Vortex, symbol of shared faith. He is converted to The Vortex by other bags martyred on barbed wire, becomes a pilgrim and is baptized upon leaving the land for the ocean.

At first, he believes he has been reborn. Mixed in with all the rest of the rotating plastic, he feels that his journey is finally over, he is happy at home, swirling around in the sea—like the religious masses circling the Black Stone in Mecca—in this continent of like-minded, similarly-bodied types. But faith comes with a price. Consciousness must be left behind. These similarly-bodied types have become no-minded. Eventually, the bag leaves because, “no one thought about anything.” He must set out again independently.

The solitary nature of the bag’s quest is central to my existential reading. The bag rarely meets up with his own kind. More essential, even when he does, he is unable to establish a lasting connection. Exactly why he cannot master the wind enough to stay together with the other single bag he loves for an instant is not clear, but his passing incorporation into The Vortex leads to a loss of self he cannot abide. He leaves before becoming gelatinous himself and forever stuck in the collective glop. There may be solace in the mass of the group, but there is no enlightenment for the individual in The Vortex, so he quickly returns to his solitary position. He remains a stranger in a strange land to the extraordinarily bitter end, surrounded by Otherness he cannot transcend.

The bag remains, above all else, an intelligent, sentient being whose ongoing survival necessarily makes him curious about what it is he is surviving for. He could be any one of us. It is not enough to simply believe, he wants to understand that his life has meaning. He begins to question if his Maker exists, or if he has created her out of his own imagination. He wonders why his moments of choice have proven so rare over the course of his long life. His inspired utilitarianism has proven futile. His romantic love fleeting. His experience with alternative religion unsatisfying. And in the end, reunion with the Maker appears unattainable.

The bag reaches the point of absolutely solitary crisis. He desires his own death. This is a completely understandable end-game for such a loss of faith, such a total erosion of purpose and meaning, such existential torment. I cannot help but feel sad at the film’s close because the bag begs for a death he cannot have.

What Bahrani has accomplished here is no mean feat. He has personified a piece of plastic and in the process made me care deeply about an otherwise insignificant man-made object. Credit must certainly be shared with fellow writer (and newcomer) Jenni Jenkins, Bahrani’s regular cinematographer Michael Simmonds and composer Kjartan Sveinsson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), but the truly vital collaboration is that with Werner Herzog. There is such a gravitas to Herzog’s voice, borne out of a life of questing and uncertainty, of searching and not finding, that I cannot imagine a better fit for the existential subject matter of this piece.

Then Ben:

Your existentialist appreciation of the bag’s changing consciousness of himself is fine by me as long as we are analytically clear that my ecological take on the film rests exclusively on the material substance of the protagonist’s body, whereas you only touch on this in the course of mostly attending to the form of his body. Everything I argue has to do with the elementary physical fact of his plasticity as it relates to his theoretical conception of himself. You are far more concerned with his bag-ness as a narrative phenomenology or lived personal experience. I acknowledge that the dramatic personification of the character through the plot fundamentally resides in his bag-ness and I am open to suggestion about how to interpret this, but not at the expense of my understanding of his understanding of his plastic materiality.

I fear you do contravene my ecological take insofar as you treat his death wish as the consequence of him reaching the point of crisis as a bag, rather than what I take it to be—the crisis itself that he undergoes as a piece of plastic. When you say his death wish is the “understandable end-game for such a loss of faith, such a total erosion of purpose and meaning,” I hear you saying that he cannot bear to live anymore, that he is suicidal for his own tortured sake as a bag. That’s not what I hear the character/Herzog/Bahrani saying at all. Rather than a negation of the world, I hear the piece of plastic positively embracing the world. He has figured out that it would have been better for all concerned if he had been made to biodegrade. His crisis is that he is physically incapable of acting on his will to do so.

I don’t know about him and his search for his God, but he’s certainly on to the truth of the matter. His existential suffering as a bag may take a number of twists and turns but in the end, his tragedy is as a piece of plastic and his pain in being one is profoundly practical. His growing knowledge is connected to his decreasing alienation from the material world, his increasing sense of belonging in nature. Your concern for the bag’s Otherness notwithstanding, he steadily comes to embrace the organic. Let me sketch some detail onto this contour I have just drawn.

His initial contact with life and its messy waste makes him simultaneously repulsed and envious of biological being. He is jealous of his Maker’s dog for the affection she shows to the pet and revolted by his slobber and his feces. After he escapes the landfill and travels the planet, however, he is completely past these petty, self-centered first approximations. No longer repulsed at all, he is attracted. The bag has come to be comfortable with the “monsters.” No longer envious of this or that particular biological stuff, he wishes to become that stuff in general.

Indeed, he wants to become the most general sort of that stuff, what he once picked up after the pet of his Maker so long ago. The fish nibble away little bits of him and he can only wonder what will happen to those bits, but WE know that that’s as close as he’s going to get to becoming real shit returned to the life cycle. Yes, he remains inorganic. So yes, unable to die and become compost he “remains a stranger in a strange land.” But no, not “to the extraordinarily bitter end.” The bag is not bitter. He is full of tragic passion. He has a practical desire. It’s the exact opposite goal of Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner. LESS life fucker! That is what he will demand of his Maker should he ever find her.

What you aptly called the bag’s green heart is no doubt beating loudly in your ear, but you run the risk of becoming deaf to it when you stare so long at the existential contortions of his shape. Hence, you are much bleaker about the message of the film than me. I get the impression from you that you get the impression from the film that our situation is hopeless. But I take the allegorical dimension of Plastic Bag to be more actively engaged in the material world, more critically didactic, more a challenge to invent synthetic materials that do biodegrade. I believe it is a film that any elementary school teacher could show to the class. Nay, I believe it is a film that every elementary school teacher should show to the class.

And Dan:

I am not so full of angst as it may appear. I hear what you are saying about the protagonist’s positive passion. I neglected to address that. You are too strict about only applying this to him as a piece of plastic though. You acknowledge that his bag-ness is the fictional vehicle for him being a person in the first place, but then you refuse to see how it must therefore be implicated in this passion he feels and the tragedy it entails.

It is his bag-ness that allows him to travel as he does and change his mind about the “monsters.” He acknowledges the beauty of things as he flies overhead. After he submerges himself in the sea, he feels familiarity with a jelly-fish. They look enough alike for him to experience a hint of kinship. By the last act of the film, when he has returned to the sky and is flying higher than ever, there is a wonderful moment where he is floating above the whole earth and sees that he looks just like it, then he turns to the sun and notes that he looks just like it too.

So, he certainly does come to positively recognize himself in everything, to see his body as belonging in nature. The point is that this identification he feels is all about his form as a bag. But his quest ends up proving his sense of Otherness, not eliminating it, because no matter how much the bag-like appearance of those around him resembles his bag-ness, his elemental substance—his plasticity—is still alien. In fact, he is not part of anything and nothing is part of him.

I feel for the bag—as a bag—because he wants to trade his material substance for a different material substance, transform from inorganic to organic. That transformation is allegorical for the human aspiration to seek a similar transformation at the end of life—from material mortality to spiritual immortality—which is just as hopeless a quest as the bag’s desire to die as an organic being. Is it really that much of a stretch to see human beings as plastic bags? That is, we view ourselves as separate from the world around us, and hence have a quest to escape our bodily existence (that which connects us to the world around us) by achieving non-corporeal everlasting life. And there is definite irony in the fact that we are equally doomed to frustration and failure. The bag gets what so many humans desire—immortality—while humans are doomed to mortality, because of the very organic nature that the bag can never achieve.

But even without the religious impulse, all of us experience certain expressions of alienation from existence that push us to seek transcendence in material ways that are just as hopeless a quest as what spiritualism chases. I return to the hollowness of the bag as representative of the inner vacancy experienced by modern individuals, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Just as the bag in order to feel fulfilled needs to fill up his emptiness again and again with stuff assigned to him as worthwhile by his Maker, people—falling prey to the advertisers who insist that this will make it so—fill the emotional hole inside themselves by consuming more and more stuff, thereby creating the ecological crisis that the plastic bag adds to, much to his anguish. The emptiness remains. Which pretty much boils down to him being existentially all by himself. This is much of what makes me sad. He is so very alone.

Then Ben:

I grasp that your existential reading of the film hinges on the falsity of Cartesian dualism for the plastic bag and the human being analogously. Hence, you expend considerable effort to expose the substance/form contradiction in both generally and you compare the specifics of how this plays out for each respectively. This is all very well. But the pronounced materialist interpretation I bring to Plastic Bag compels me grasp the substance/form contradiction of the plastic bag as asymmetrical. I prioritize substance over form when it comes to deciding which side of the contradiction is the essential source of the protagonist’s problem.

As far as I can see, a very similar story could be told about a plastic package or a plastic cup or a plastic bathing cap. Or the same point from the opposite direction, the story simply could not be told about a bag made of paper. You claim to feel the pain of the bag—as a bag—and no doubt you do over the course of the story. But the pain we feel at the very end of the tale—you know, when the moral of the allegory as a whole is finally delivered—this is his pain at being synthetically ripped from the womb of Mother Nature, his anguish about being born a piece of plastic. And there is not one, single, comparable moment in the film where he regrets being born a bag.

This registered, I grant that the essential manifestation of the protagonist’s problem is registered on his form as a bag, about which you have made some provocative statements. I like the general connection you are making between the bag, consumerism and ecological degradation. This is astute. For the bag is first and foremost a shopping bag. This is the activity that he was created for and this is indeed his original activation.

But then the woman moves from shopping to other domestic endeavours and in so doing re-uses the bag for all sorts of jobs. This is soundly ecological on her part and, by association, on his part too. But even if it somehow wasn’t, I cannot see any of the tasks performed by the bag as analogous with recreational shopping conducted by people out to fill their existential emptiness by consuming more and more. This is because the bag is not a consumer, recreational or otherwise. The bag is a producer, a worker.

In keeping with this, I do not view the hollowness of the bag as so much nothingness as you do, negative space that only borrows the value of the objects that fill it. I see it rather as a site of contained potential, which the bag realizes with his labor. Because he is not a closed shape but rather an open one, he has an orifice. This “mouth” is what enables him to work with his “gut” in which he holds and carries things, his particular skill.

Listen though, you can still see him as existentially burdened in accordance with this if you’d like. Instead of a recreational consumer, the bag would be a type of workaholic. You are quite disparaging about the bag’s sense of self being based on his duty to service, associating this with a vulgar instrumentalism and serf-like status. I am not so bothered about this and could just as easily find nice what you find nasty. But either way, you are right to regard the bag as having a utilitarian ego upheld by a metaphysic. No doubt, the bag has a kind of Protestant work ethic, which I referred to before as “bogus mythology” insofar as the bag labors under the misconception that his human employer is his creator. And I think it’s just great that in the end he begins to transfer his allegiance from his Maker to matter. Instead of the Lord, he wants to work for Mother Nature. His tragedy is that he can’t do it. But admittedly, up until this agonizing epiphany, he suffers from a sort of Stakhanovist productivism, underwritten by the myth of the Maker.

Dan Again:

I think you turned me into your straw man here. If you review the discussion up to this point, I am confident that you will observe that I never countered your assertion that the bag’s plasticity is the more elemental aspect of his tragic existence. Furthermore, while I find your suggestion to view the bag as a workaholic reasonable enough, I am not especially moved by it. You put too much of a happy face on the bag’s form in the first place. Even if I agree with you that he has an orifice, I do not agree with you that this “mouth” is a productive appendage as much as I see it as constantly needing to be fed. Hunger is as good a metaphor as any to describe the bag’s terrible longing.

You seem to think this hunger goes away at the end of the film because the bag is on the verge of some sort of enlightened atheist conversion. But his realism is cold comfort. And it is hardly confirmed. It remains true that the bag never feels as content as when his contents came from his Maker. You speak of his tragedy, but you refuse to extend this to include his incapability of self-fulfilment; as a bag he has the potential to be filled, but he necessarily needs to be filled from without. Yet nothing from without can fill him. All things blow out, wash away.

Despite making a mental connection with the biosphere, he recognizes that he cannot keep it inside of him and put himself inside of it; or if you prefer, he is only IN this world, not OF it. However the point is verbalized, he is existentially on the outside looking to get in, pining for a physical transformation that will take away his emptiness. A transformation that will not—hell, cannot—occur. Hence, my overwhelming feeling of great sorrow at the finish of the film is not just about him as a piece of plastic but also about him as a bag.

But Ben:

No, not a “transformation” Not a transFORMation. What he pines for in the very end is transubstantiation. Please forgive my pedantry, but my disagreement with you completely comes down to this difference between sideshow shape-shifting and miraculous substantive change. I employ this Catholic concept in order to insist on the ontological guts of the matter. At the same time, it serves to support your analogous treatment and comparison of the substance/form contradiction for the plastic bag and the Christian believer. But the price you pay for this support is the priority on substance shared by me and the church, even though the Pope and I are diametrically opposed when it comes to choosing between natural matter and divine spirit as substance.

Enough scholasticism though. Maybe you are right when you say that I put too much of a happy face around the bag’s orifice, give his life a spin too positive. But as far as I can tell, the guy gets around and it’s not all bad. That mouth of his never shuts up and the tourism its openness facilitates leads him to conclude that the world is worth saving. You are definitely right that I reckon our plastic hero is on the verge of an enlightened conversion; not necessarily atheistic but certainly secular, in the etymological root sense of the term—OF the world. Or should I just trust that you at least agree with me that he is FOR it? Jesus, he’s for it body and soul. In that order. And there’s the pathos. Personally, I’m hoping the fish eat him all up. I know it’s not the answer in the real world, but it is the happiest possible ending in the reel world.

And Finally Dan:

The bag’s movement is definitely moving, his journey is wondrous and terrible, his joy real but ephemeral. The tragedy is, the bag will have an eternity to contemplate those fleeting moments of happiness and fulfillment.

Having seen what he has done so far in his relatively young life, I find it hard to predict exactly where Ramin Bahrani is going to take us next, but one thing is certain; he is as accomplished and important a filmmaker as there is in America today. Made us talk and talk for hours and hours—that’s right ladies and gentlemen, this is the abridged version—with only 18 minutes of celluloid.

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Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom

The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

1.5

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.

It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.

The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.

Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.

What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

2

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What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Photo: KimStim

With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.

Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.

Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.

In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.

We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.

Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick

Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.

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Good Boys
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.

That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.

Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.

The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.

Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery

The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.

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Cold Case Hammarskjöld
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.

Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.

Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.

Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.

Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.

Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.

The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.

Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.

Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen

The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.

2.5

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Blinded by the Light
Photo: New Line Cinema

As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.

What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.

Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.

Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.

Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization

The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

2.5

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47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Photo: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.

In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.

Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.

Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.

Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.

Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing

Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

1.5

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Photo: Hulu

Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.

Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.

Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.

Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.

Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival

At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.

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Aquarela
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.

The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.

From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.

Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.

Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time

These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.

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Blade Runner
Photo: Warner Bros.

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson


Altered States

100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.


Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea

99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)

A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson


Flash Gordon

98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson


The Invisible Man

97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)

James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith


The Brother from Another Planet

96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)

A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson


Days of Eclipse

95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith


Voyage to the End of the Universe

94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)

While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene


The Thing from Another World

93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)

Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager


The World’s End

92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager


Liquid Sky

91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)

The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez

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Film

Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Is Scarier When It Stays on Point

Once it gets past what feels like submission to genre demands, the drama reaffirms its focus on the central themes.

2.5

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Photo: CBS Films

Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books are full of horror stories taken from folklore and presented like fairy tales—just a few short pages of action, populated with stock characters stripped of inner lives, set in nondescript American Anytowns. This film adaptation retains the archetypal settings—here bundled into a semirural mill town in Pennsylvania—but opens up the emotional and psychological lives of its heroes and villains. Screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman haven’t adapted the omnibus source material as a horror anthology, instead incorporating a selection of the books’ hair-raisers as set pieces within a larger narrative about the power of storytelling and the Vietnam War.

Though set in 1968, from Halloween to Election Day, Scary Stories avoids flower-power signifiers. Instead, the film’s time period is established by presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s frequent appearance on television screens and repeated reminders of the conflict in Southeast Asia. In this modern-seeming milieu lives Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a pubescent misfit with a few similarly uncool guy friends. Fleeing bullies while the townsfolk trick-or-treat, they meet Ramón (Michael Garza), the new kid in town, and show him a haunted 19th-century mansion, shrouded in fog and bathed in moonlight, where the supposedly kid-killing Sarah Bellows once lived, whispering scary stories through its walls to children. These outsiders stumble upon her secret room and then her secret book of stories, which Stella takes. Soon, new ones begin to be written as if by magic—and in fresh blood!—targeting the kids with death by monsters from American folk tales.

As in 2015’s Goosebumps and its 2018 Halloween-themed sequel—both adapted from another keystone in millennial literary horror nostalgia—the source material itself is a central plot device in Scary Stories. During the day, Stella and her friends run around town, looking for explanations for what’s happening: from microfilm at the library, the records room in an abandoned sub-basement of a hospital, or the Bellows’ former maid’s now-elderly daughter. Then, usually at night, a new story scrawls itself in the book, and the frights begin, often nearing their climaxes with extended stretches of tension-ratcheting silence.

The filmmakers, at first, take their time getting to the spooky stuff, reveling in midcentury American suburbia in autumn and the circumstances of its characters. But too often the supernatural slayings feel disconnected from the preceding character development. The high school bully, Tommy (Austin Abrams), freshly signed up to kill commies overseas, is turned into a scarecrow, which doesn’t feel like a deliciously ironic comeuppance. And one of Stella’s pals, Auggie (Gabriel Rush), a horndog who resents his stepdad, is dragged into a hellish dimension by a rotting corpse for tasting a stew cooked with one of the ghoulie’s toes.

But once Scary Stories gets past what feels like submission to genre demands, and the many characters are reduced by attrition, the drama reaffirms its focus on the central themes. Ramón turns out to be a draft dodger on the lam, not wanting to be shipped off to the jungle after his brother came home in pieces; he’s attacked by body parts able to disassemble and reassemble into a monster man who calls him a coward. Often, the film’s various creatures—based on Stephen Gammell’s original, evocative illustrations—feel like manifestations of the war overseas, come home to roost on the streets of Podunk, America.

Meanwhile, Stella confronts the kids’ demonic assailant, Sarah, a scribe made mean by the torment meted out by her family. Like the recent Ma, Scary Stories is about how the abused can become abusers, seeming to appeal to bullies through self-interest. But Scary Stories also offers its victim-victimizer a chance to break the cycle, through storytelling—by rewriting her narrative. Sarah Bellows came to see herself as village gossip described her, the same way Stella blames herself, based on small-town whisperings, for her mother’s leaving her and her father (an effectively sadsack Dean Norris). This, the film argues, is the power that unreclaimed stories have: if not literally to kill us, then to destroy us inside.

Cast: Zoe Maragret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Gabriel Rush, Natalie Ganzhorn, Austin Abrams, Kathleen Pollard, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows Director: André Øvredal Screenwriter: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman Distributor: CBS Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Book

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