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Point Blank: No Country for Old Men

The Coens’ narrations often hint at, but rarely confirm, the existence of deliberate, supernatural forces.

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Point Blank: No Country for Old Men
Photo: Miramax Films

“What you got ain’t nothing new,” a retired lawman says in No Country for Old Men, counseling a colleague who’s so traumatized by a recent mass murder case that he’s thinking of quitting his job. That’s hard truth, and the fact that the sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is more introspective than some of his colleagues doesn’t make it go down any easier. Bell’s astonishment at the violence unleashed by his quarry, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)—an assassin tailing a Vietnam vet (Josh Brolin) who filched a briefcase full of drug money—is so deep that it spurs Bell to reconsider his life, his job, the nature of morality, the mind of God, the shifting cultural character of the border country he calls home, and the profound ways in which the United States changed between World War II and the Reagan era. Bell is one of many characters forced by Chigurh’s rampage to consider his place in the universe: who he really is; what he stands for; whether he believes what he believes and behaves as he does by choice, predisposition or predestination; whether evil exists and whether God, if there is one, cares one way or the other.

All these elements and more come through in a movie packed with laconic lawmen and criminals that has very little exposition and almost no music. I haven’t read the Coens’ source material (a novel by Cormac McCarthy), which means I’m not sure whether virtues I attribute to the Coens are partly attributable to the novelist; in any event, No Country is an unsettlingly effective movie, different from, yet consistent with, everything the brothers have made till now. The film’s leisurely ruthlessness—picture a John Carpenter ghoul loping toward its prey—is not just another demonstration of the Coens’ eerie aesthetic assurance. The novel’s title is drawn from William Butler Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” but the Coens’ film adaptation seems more aligned with another Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” with its warnings of a “blood-dimmed tide,” a paralysis and decay in the face of seismic social upheaval.

Perhaps because so many current theatrical films have tried to address the post-9/11 world in a boringly prosaic way, the terse period piece No Country has been framed by critics as an assessment of America’s moral health circa 2007. To a limited extent, it is that; given the time and place in which it was produced, it couldn’t be otherwise. But it would be a mistake to presume that the Coens’ main intent is to render judgment on U.S. foreign policy (or domestic morality) post 9/11, or even post-Reagan (the film is set in 1980). The film actively discourages such a narrow reading.

No Country’s message, such as it is (the Coens aren’t message-y directors) is not about Where We Are Now. It’s simpler and more encompassing, less reminiscent of reportage or the editorial page than the admonitions of a philosopher or court jester: Get over yourselves, Americans, and everyone else, too. Look beyond yourselves and the time you live in. What is happening to the United States and the world—and every individual—is a variant of a dynamic that recurs throughout personal and political history, as predictable as the end of one year and the start of the next. What you got ain’t nothing new.

Bell narrates No Country for Old Men, or at least begins to. But pretty soon his narration all but disappears. This strikes me not as a mistake, but a telling aspect of the movie’s vision. Because Bell is played by Tommy Lee Jones, a star who specializes in hard-bitten, smart-alecky, “rebel” authority figures, we’re predisposed to view Bell as a voice of wisdom, an amiable patriarch, and in certain superficial ways, he is that. But in a grander sense, he doesn’t know shit. He’s the latest in a long family line of local sheriffs. He’s proud to inhabit such a mythic post. But he also fantasizes (openly) about what it must have been like to do his job in an earlier, more exciting time, when the world supposedly held more possibilities for heroism. This is a nod to modern Western convention—Bell is a lawman in a closed frontier—but the character’s wistful unease is universal. He could be a ballplayer wishing he could have tested himself against Babe Ruth, or a musical performer pining for a time when Broadway meant something. He’s a representative of a settled, complacent mindset: a guardian of the dominant culture. Bell’s belief that he lives in a time of fixed realities and diminished potential is indicative of the mentality that makes a dominant culture vulnerable to aggressive revisionists. To the people Bell hopes to stop, the future is a wide-open road. The status quo’s defenders are speed bumps.

Bell has no idea that his circumscribed perspective as a sixty-something white Texas lawman hampers his ability to understand the forces at war in his territory: Mexican drug runners and Anglo-American bankers, strange bedfellows who have nothing in common but an implacable urge to make a quick fortune. The horrors Bell encounters expand his perceptions—his sense of what’s possible, for better or for worse (mostly for worse). But his evolution ends before it can really take root, and his final monologue has a defeated, even mournful tone. Bell gives his word that he’ll find and save the Vet, Llewelyn Moss, before Chigurh (or other drug thugs) can kill him; but he arrives too late. (Shades of Fargo: Marge Gunderson’s smart police work cracks the case, but when she arrives at the kidnappers’ hideout, she finds a dead victim and a perp feeding his partner’s corpse into a woodchipper.) Llewelyn’s death is made more poignant by the Coens’ decision to have it occur off-screen; likewise the sequence with Llewelyn’s wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), refusing Chiguhr’s demand that she flip a coin to determine a fate that’s ultimately settled behind the door Chighur shuts in the film’s penultimate sequence.

The Coens’ shift from up-close, graphic violence to obscured or elliptical violence cements the sense that we’ve been privy to a mysterious but fundamental change in the universe. We see bloodied flesh close-up when it’s a new phenomenon; when it ceases to be noteworthy, the filmmakers stop showing it. A notable exception is the climactic car wreck that injures Chigurh. It has the hallmarks of a deus ex machina, but it occurs too late to prevent the assassin’s campaign of terror and it doesn’t so much end his rampage as interrupt its denouement. Chigurh enlists two teenage boys in his escape, paying one of them $100 for a shirt to use as a sling (echoing Llewelyn’s furtive bribery of tourists on a U.S.-Mexico border bridge). It seems significant that the killer’s escape is aided by kids who have no connection to, or stake in, the apocalyptic crime war we’ve been watching. The accident scene’s whiff of cosmic retribution reminded me of the Coens’ shooting gallery-like dispatching of the bad guys in The Ladykillers. But given the rest of the story, I doubt that’s what was intended—and did my eyes deceive me, or did Chigurh have the green light when his car got rammed?

Spiritual but not religious, the Coens are Stanley Kubrick-style secular theologians. Their awe of the unknown is comprised of equal parts humility and philosophical-scientific curiosity. Their films tease our suspicion that powerful, unseen forces move the universe—moral and ethical forces that sometimes seem to be rendering judgment or sending a message.

But at the same time, the Coens insist that no man can verify if these forces actually exist or if we insist they do out of vanity—in order to convince ourselves that our existence matters to anyone but us and our loved ones. The confluence of forces that suggests fate or justice might be evidence of a higher power (represented in the conversation between Bell and the old lawman about what God wants), chance (Anton Chigurh’s tossed coin, which decides if a person lives or dies—an intriguing hint that on some level, this stone-cold psychopath feels guilt and perhaps wishes to reassure himself that his bloody deeds were inevitable) or free will (a subject broached in the scene where Carla Jean declines the coin toss to force Chigurh to accept responsibility for his deeds). Or it could be the result of electrons colliding to produce a result that might have been different had a single electron bounced differently. This free will vs. destiny thread runs through all of the Coens’ work, even their most maligned and dismissed movie, The Hudsucker Proxy—a comedy in which the story’s microcosmic society, the Hudsucker Corporation, persists no matter what executives, workers, stockholders and outside agitators do to influence it. That film’s most revealing image is dolt hero Norville’s blueprint of three ridiculously successful toys, all represented by the same drawing, a straight line (the side view: free will) and a circle (the overhead view: destiny).

The Coens’ narrations often hint at, but rarely confirm, the existence of deliberate, supernatural forces. Their narrators purport to know the whole story, but mostly they know what they saw, heard or read. Blood Simple’s narrator is dead; Hudsucker’s is a corporate servant who seems to have gleaned much of what he knows from newspaper reports and the company grapevine; Lebowski’s narrator is either a literary conceit or a figment of the hero’s bong-addled imagination, and in any event, he’s so self-satisfied and scatterbrained that he can barely follow his own train of thought. The most humble (and therefore trustworthy) narrator in the brothers’ filmography is H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona, whose after-the-fact account of a kidnapping gone awry mythologizes and caricatures what is, on its face, a rather sad little story, then accepts a few shreds of hope (a reconciliation with his wife; a coming-to-terms with adulthood; a dream of fertility and old age) as a truly happy ending.

In No Country, Bell’s narration primes us to expect answers, but its true purpose is to spur admission of how much we don’t know and steer us back to what we do know, or should know, based on a cursory study of history: The new order invariably overthrows the old, then gets comfortable, all the while nostalgically wishing it could have experienced what prior generations went through, back when the world was new and people were decent and there were rules or a code or somesuch nonsense. (It’s no coincidence that once Baby Boomers took control of the media, we saw a wave of films and TV shows characterizing the ‘60s as the most important decade ever, followed by a wave of movies mythologizing the World War II generation.) Once the new order gets settled, it becomes the old order; then, like clockwork, new forces arise that seek to topple the current powers-that-be. These new forces terrify the establishment by behaving not merely as if its written-in-stone traditions were Etch-a-Sketch doodles (in a conversation with Bell, the El Paso sheriff lumps in hippies with the forces of darkness), but as if the establishment itself is merely a glorified obstruction that will be inevitably be toppled or abraded by time.

No Country reinforces this theme from start to finish, in ways both small and large. In a grand sense, Bell, his fellow lawmen and the white, working class Texans down near the Mexican border are representatives of the Powers that Be, forced to reckon with a threat that seems fresh (Mexican drug runners, their American enablers and their unseen customers). But the “fresh” threat is the latest incarnation of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The Coens’ italicize this point by comparing (through compositions and editing) the murders Chigurh commits with an air-gun designed to kill livestock (and Chigurh’s impulsive shooting at a pheasant on a bridge, a moment reminiscent of warthog-from-Hell Leonard Smalls’ destruction of a lizard and a bunny in Raising Arizona), and the white Texans’ subjugation of the land and its resources (acknowledged in the early scene where Llewelyn snipes at antelope from a distant ridge). Once a man has decided (as Chigurh has decided, and as Leonard Smalls and Johnny Caspar and the kidnappers in Fargo decided) that another person (or creature) is a valueless object, he can kill without remorse. In the Coen Brothers’ universe, the abandonment of empathy (and the accompanying detachment from civilization’s agreed-upon laws and traditions) is a dark key that unlocks the door to absolute and terrifying freedom, leading to existential rampage. No Country makes the key-and-door analogy explicit: Chigurh uses the same air gun to blast through door locks and attack his quarry. The projectile is almost exactly the same width as the lock, and its passage leaves such a clean hole that it’s as if the lock never existed.

Though they are habitually described as snotty formalists with nothing on their minds but cinematic gamesmanship, the Coens’ body of work is one of the most sneakily moralistic in recent American cinema. To some extent, all of their movies poses questions that supposedly deeper filmmakers have broached time and time again: if we cannot be certain of God’s existence; if there is a possibility that no one’s watching what we do; if, to reference Johnny Caspar in Miller’s Crossing, “morality and ethics” are agreed-upon lies; if the evil can destroy the good with impunity, and if the wicked often die for reasons unrelated to a hero’s good deeds (throughout the Coens’ filmography, bad guys often destroy themselves through vanity or stupidity, or get snuffed out by coincidence or bad luck), then what’s the point of being good? Just because. “There’s more to life than a little money, you know,” policewoman Marge Gunderson tells the dead-eyed killer in the backseat of her police car at the end of Fargo. “Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”

In Raising Arizona, Leonard Smalls is a manifestation of H.I.’s untamed id; he literally enters the film through the hero’s nightmare. No Country visually quotes Arizona at several different points, notably in the sequence where Llewelyn discovers the wounded dog (the cutting between close-ups of his boots striding through the desert and the low-angled shot of his face as he walks exactly mirror shots of H.I. and Smalls in Arizona); in the aforementioned shooting at the pheasant; and in the overhead shot of Llewelyn lying awake next to his wife, thinking about the criminal adventure he’s about to embark on. In Arizona it seemed as if H.I. dreamed up Smalls; in No Country, the stalker appears first, and Llewelyn’s descent into criminal mayhem makes it seem as though he is an extension, or a would-be protege, of Chigurh. At times Bell, Llewelyn and Chigurh seem like aspects of one human soul, fixed on different spots in a moral continuum: the good (Bell), the evil (Chigurh) and evolving man (Llewellyn). Llewelyn initially suggests a younger version of Bell—with his narrow eyes, walrus mustache and broad-shouldered confidence, Brolin looks like a young Nick Nolte—but gradually, through manipulation, corruption and violence, he becomes more like Chigurh. When Chigurh tells Carla Jean that her husband is ultimately responsible for her impending death, he’s being self-justifying—but he’s not wrong. Sometimes you reap what you sow—and your loved ones do, too.

The Coens aren’t nihilists. There may or may not be a God in their imagination—the only Coen Brothers films that definitively confirms the existence of intelligent, purposeful, supernatural forces are Hudsucker and The Ladykillers, easily their dopiest, least consequential films—but the lack of theological clarity doesn’t necessarily mean that the Coens endorse their characters’ decision to be indecent or cruel. Quite the contrary, the Coens’ movies strongly endorse the notion that one should honor certain bedrock principles for their inherent rightness (or, barring that, for the benefits such a life might confer). Decency is the Coens’ version of piety. It’s not just a rock to cling to in hard times, but a quality worth cultivating for self-interested reasons, because it makes a character more likely to know love and comfort. The Fargo kidnappers live for the moment, and their existence is defined by cheap motor inns, bored hookers, an increased likelihood of getting shot in the face or stuffed into a woodchipper, and the impossibility of every truly trusting anyone. Straitlaced Marge, on the other hand, goes to sleep each night in a warm bed beside a man who loves her. In the Coens’ world, acceding to certain customs and laws means sacrificing visceral liberties to gain deeper and more satisfying ones: freedom from fear of loneliness and the nagging suspicion your existence is meaningless. H.I. and Ed McDunnough and Florence and Nathan Arizona are cushioned against despair by their love for, and commitment to, their respective unions. Leonard Smalls in Arizona, like Chigurh in No Country, is utterly alone in the universe, connected to no culture, beloved by no person; if they weren’t committed to the loner lifestyle, they could start a support group, and invite Visser in Blood Simple, Bernie Bernbaum from Miller’s Crossing, and the Fargo kidnappers to join.

Chigurh’s wraithlike presence makes him a Grim Reaper in a chili-bowl haircut. He’s half man, half literary device. Bell likens him to a ghost, and he does have a touch of the horror movie stalker about him. He lopes after prey like Michael Myers or the Terminator, verbally toys with them like The Hitcher and Richard Ian Blaney in Frenzy, and has a Droopy-like ability to materialize in places that his victims chose as sanctuaries. But he’s not a contented man. He only seems fully actualized when he’s killing people barehanded—as in the early scene where he strangles the deputy, his rapturous psycho grin photographed from overhead as if he’s daring God to intervene. When Chigurh uses a gun, he’s a Satanic cattleman putting down bipedal animals, like the (invented) farmer in the anecdote that Bell tells Carla Jean. Bardem’s astounding performance—he’s the most terrifying yet multifacted psycho since Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet —subtly hints at the fathomless despair that must fuel a man like Chigurh. Something in the way this murderer peers at his soon-to-be-victims suggests an internal, perhaps subconscious process of translation: a means of turning self-contempt into contempt. The apparent “code” that Bell attributes to Chigurh is the code of a fascist; to Chigurh, the wrong decision is one that goes against his wishes, and the penalty for resistance is death. He’s the freest man in the movie, and he knows it; he carries himself like a self-created dark prince. Yet he enters the story in handcuffs and leaves it bloody and broken-boned, trudging through the suburbs on foot.

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Review: The Infiltrators Uneasily Marries the Real and the Performed

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

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The Infiltrators
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Vast of Night
Photo: Amazon Studios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Record
Photo: HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5

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The High Note
Photo: Focus Features

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crystal Swan
Photo: Loco Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lovebirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Painter and the Thief
Photo: Neon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Inheritance
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Trip to Greece Is a Bittersweet Tale of Mortality and Transience

The series’s ambient preoccupation with death is foregrounded more than ever before with this film’s main dramatic subplot.

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The Trip to Greece
Photo: IFC Films

Though its tone is set by the effortlessly charming, mostly improvised back and forth between its two stars, Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series has often succeeded in exploring some relatively weighty topics, including aging, masculinity, and the nature of fame. Under the pretext of reviewing local restaurants for a newspaper, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take a tour of historic regions around the world, and the films (edited down from six-part TV shows initially broadcast in the U.K.) have increasingly used their locations’ historical significance to cast these trips in a philosophical light. Previous installments were structured around trips taken by William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and now, The Trip to Greece sees the pair retracing the journey of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, from Turkey through modern Macedonia and Greece.

Among the pleasures of this series are Coogan and Brydon’s virtuoso celebrity impressions. Their competitive deconstruction of the vocal textures of Michael Caine was one particular highlight, proving not just hilarious but also fascinating on a technical level. There are some diminishing returns on this front in the final installment, though Brydon’s career-spanning Dustin Hoffman recital is a worthy addition to the canon. The progression of the films up to this point has also seen these compulsive impersonations, and other impromptu riffs, settle pleasingly into a leitmotif that suggests ideas of performance and identity.

Along with the notion of retracing the steps of some imposing cultural predecessors, the pair’s bantering hints subtly at the roleplay that’s often forced upon them, by their profession and their advancing years. Brydon mostly embraces the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood, and his status as a “light entertainment” figure, while Coogan’s philandering and restless yearning for prestige casts him as the romantic hero of the tale. The conflict is spelled out plainly in one scene in The Trip to Greece, where the pair pose for photos with comedy and tragedy masks. This kind of gentle, surface-level symbolism has usually served the series’s themes in a more intriguing way than its occasional forays into contrived drama.

While this might seem an odd criticism to level at actors portraying themselves, there’s the sense that four successive installments of these travelogues have perhaps made the leads a little too comfortable in their respective roles. Despite the frequent references to Coogan ultimately being defined by the various iterations of beloved comedy creation Alan Partridge, he has now played himself on screen almost as often as his most famous character. This marks the sixth time he’s appeared as some version of the insecure, self-aggrandizing persona on which Patridge itself was based, with The Trip preceded by A Cock and Bull Story (another collaboration with Brydon and Winterbottom), and before that a segment in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. The conceit has become familiar enough that it no longer generates the same amount of meta-textual tension that it once did, but it’s still refreshingly honest, and Brydon’s more grounded self-portrayal continues to serve as an effective foil.

The series’s ambient preoccupation with death is foregrounded more than ever before with this film’s main dramatic subplot, which sees Coogan worriedly inquiring about the health of his elderly father, who’s hospitalized back home in England. In one of the most lyrical moments in the whole series, he dreams that he’s being rowed along a body of water, before confronting his dad on the shore. Alluding to the dead being ferried across to the underworld in Greek mythology, this also foreshadows the inevitable outcome of the storyline, and brings an even deeper undercurrent to the mostly unspoken loneliness of his character.

As usual, the climactic moment of pathos is juxtaposed with a more light-hearted moment of familial joy, as Brydon’s wife, Sally (Rebecca Johnson), arrives to accompany him for the final leg of the trip—at the exact moment that Coogan leaves to pay his respects to his departed father. This synchronicity is an effective way of marrying together the film’s contrasting moods within its own strictly realist framework. The reassuring consistency of Winterbottom’s series over the last decade may have called for a more satisfying ending than The Trip to Greece offers, though it’s perhaps fitting that a bittersweet tale of mortality and transience should ultimately expose some of its own limitations but still leave us wanting more.

Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Marta Barrio, Tim Leach, Cordelia Bugeja, Justin Edwards, Richard Clews, Kareem Alkabbani Director: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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