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Red Beard (1965, Akira Kurosawa)

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Red Beard (1965, Akira Kurosawa)

Ben Begins:

The liner notes to the Criterion edition quote Kurosawa on Red Beard: “I wanted to make something that my audience would want to see, something so magnificent that people would just have to see it.” Instead of the quantitatively vague “people,” he should have said everyone. The film truly has something for everyone. Red Beard really is magnificent for its grand variety of scenes and wide range of mini-stories, all integrated into the central narrative with plot relevance, thematic significance and visual elegance. The entertainment value of the thing is off the chart. At the same time, all of the auteur’s elements are on display. The sheer stylistic density of Red Beard would be enough to single it out as the director’s definitive work. But what really seals the deal is that Red Beard is Kurosawa’s most fully developed and by far and away his most positive humanist statement. While very successful in Japan, that the film was not a commercial success upon its release overseas is downright bizarre to me.

In our discussion of Ikiru (1952), we addressed the desperate post-war circumstance conditioning that film. Kurosawa had achieved international celebrity two years prior with Rashomon, a forlorn search for justice that denies the possibility of absolute truth. Approximately 15 years later, Red Beard is coming out of a time when Japan is undergoing protectionist re-assimilation into the global capitalist system. This happened under Most Favored Nation terms of trade that allowed both domestic tariffs and non-tariff access to the US market, still in its own economic Golden Age. In short, prosperity is trickling down for most as promised. Life is a hell of a lot better than it was immediately following the bombs when many in Japan were actually dying of stomach cancer. Kurosawa himself was probably at the peak of his powers and popularity. In retrospect we can observe that Red Beard caps his own Golden Age and his own retrospective observation about his ambition for the film at the time supports this. At that moment, Kurosawa indulged in the goodness of humanity without even the slightest trace of cynical restraint.

Red Beard has a Dickensian faith in regular working people. The basic notion is that even if they don’t do the right thing at first, they’ll come around to the right thing in the end. The moralistic adoption of the orphan at the end of Rashomon rings false. Red Beard is sincerely about this kind of love. All the characters are adopting each other all over the place in every conceivable way. Plot-necessary villains aside, the best is brought out in everyone. There’s a few Gift Of The Magi mix-ups, with less happy conclusions than O. Henry would have provided, and even some inexplicable weirdness for the sake of campfire ghost story thrills, but it’s all benign at the end of the day. The film is tremendously uplifting; outstandingly positive; deep comedy. This is no small achievement considering the whole show is about dealing with death. I dare Disney to enter Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and come out alive, never mind alive and well as Kurosawa does. Alive and kicking is more like it; as in, kicking ass aesthetically on behalf of booting butt ethically.

Red Beard takes on the gloom of human doom just as directly as Ikiru. But whereas Ikiru takes a solitary existential approach to human mortality, Red Beard takes a fully communitarian approach that celebrates the human spirit without recourse to spiritualism. This difference plays out politically in plain relief. The protagonist in Ikiru, Watanabe, undergoes a private transformation that allows him to undertake a personal project with radical political ramifications. The telling of this is sublime but unrealistic insofar as the character transcends suffering alone and acts without the support of associates. The protagonist in Red Beard, Yasumoto, is publicly mentored by the title character to discard his aristocratic snobbery and voluntarily enter into the collective work of alleviating the suffering of others. The realism attending this is as anti-Disney as anti-Disney can be. Forget the healing arts, the medical craft is explicitly reduced to nothing more than palliative care. But even more remarkable, the division of labor in the hospital is fundamentally egalitarian. I dare say, it’s socialistic.

On the face of it, Ikiru and not Red Beard is the more political film. Ikiru eviscerates the government bureaucracy for both its feudal vestiges and false American promises in the face of proletarian poverty. But I maintain that Red Beard is ultimately the more political film. It’s just that its politics are embedded in an ideal of a humane society. Red Beard presents a microcosmic model of a perfectly cooperative and, at bedrock, non-hierarchical polity. The medical clinic is a mini-village of ethically transparent social relations. Note that the economic basis of this unalienated little town is in no way utopian. The dependence on the state for financing and the need to extort inflated service fees from the wealthy in the real world is all too plain. Similarly, the little boy who steals rice from the hospital kitchen sends the same signal in the other direction. But the way everyone gets along and cares for each other shoulder-to-shoulder, it’s as groovy as a hippie commune.

The social leveling depicted in the context of living and working together does not erase the designations of skilled and unskilled labour as this accords to men and women respectively. Unlike Ikiru, Red Beard does not have an implicitly feminist organizing principle. Nevertheless, the social leveling within the division of labor is very pronounced. Initially it is hinted that the character of Red Beard is a ball-busting tyrant. He turns out to be the farthest thing from it. Instead of a boss, he is an example. Not a ruler, a leader. As the film progresses, everyone working at the hospital is shown to be performing different but equally valuable work. And their status within the organization is revealed to be equal too. That the hospital is not exclusively a work site but is also the worker’s residence is not trivial in all of this. The egalitarian work ethic in Red Beard runs so deep, it applies to those residents of the hospital who do not work, properly speaking; the patients. I would go so far as to say that the patients do work. Their job is to die. To die with dignity.

I am stretching beyond the literal to the metaphoric, to be sure, but one thing is for certain. The patients have status equal to the health care staff, including the doctors. This is ground zero for the egalitarianism of the film. This is the large leveling. The point is not that everyone has to die sometime and that it is possible for anyone—even an elite medical professional—that dying will entail horrible suffering. That’s an individualistic leveling with which any liberal can be comfortable. No, the leveling between the doctors and the patients is class leveling. This is true literally insofar as the doctors come from privilege and the patients from poverty. But it may, and I say should, be interpreted at a much more general anti-elitist and class-analytical level.

On behalf of this, in my estimation the key chapter in the story is the transformation of young doctor Yasumoto into the patient of the girl rescued from the whorehouse. This role reversal is more than some moralistic sermon about walking that empathetic mile in the other guy’s shoes. And never mind the fabulous dialectics about his illness being her cure. The big news is that they are made into equals. Everything about the clinic resonates out from and replicates in miniature this leveling. And of course, everything in the film as a whole resonates out from the clinic and is meaningful only in relation to it.

Red Beard

Dan replies:

What’s so profound about Ikiru, for me, is that it is a movie made by a man who still had forty years of living to do. Kurosawa wasn’t a young man, but Ikiru has the wisdom the we associate with seniority. That is, the lessons Watanabe learns and the way he reshapes and rededicates his life, this feels like the kind of signature statement you’d expect of an artist as he nears the end of his career, not as he was approaching the apex of his talents. The film is really quite remarkable in this regard alone, never mind the rest of the things (performance, cinematography, editing, score and more) that serve to emphasize its excellence.

Red Beard, on the other hand, tells the story of a young man. It is the sort of artistic comment you’d expect to see at the beginning of a career, a mission statement for the director’s art. Yet with Red Beard, Kurosawa is rededicating himself to such matters just as his powers begin their slow decline into mere good-ness. It is the film that marks, for many of us, the end of Kurosawa’s greatest period. It would be an interesting experiment to show these two films to someone who has never heard of Kurosawa and ask the viewer to guess the age of the filmmaker in both cases. I suppose it is yet more proof of the artist’s superior skills and expansive outlook on life that he was capable of making an older man’s film when he was younger and a younger man’s film when he was older.

I completely concur on Kurosawa’s indebtedness to Dickens. (All that’s missing is a “god bless us, every one” at the end of the poisoned child/family episode). But I’m going to say something that will be anathema to those who hold literature far above film in the pantheon of artistic endeavours. I believe that both Ikiru and Red Beard are better than pretty much all of Dickens’ work. They have a more clearly enunciated understanding of the social reality of the characters. Kurosawa does not rely upon artificial conventions, such as the kind of coincidence that mars the ending of Great Expectations or Oliver Twist, or the sudden emergence of a savior, the benevolent benefactor, to get his characters out of jams. Conclusions emerge out of reality in Kurosawa and sometimes those conclusions are damned bleak (Ikiru, Lower Depths, Ran). And even the relative optimism of Red Beard is well-earned and does not happen without substantial emotional and material costs to the characters.

I like your idea that the clinic is, first of all, a socialistic enterprise, in that there is little to distinguish between the various ways that different people with a variety of skills and training provide health services at the clinic. I’m also down with your suggestion that since they all live in the same place where they work, the clinic is sorta one big hippie commune. I am also certain that the curing of the young doctor by the damaged girl is a key to “unpacking” the film’s core message. This passage falls pretty much at the film’s center. It is the heart and soul of Kurosawa’s film, as it is in these moments that the young doctor’s physical cure and socio-political consciousness are guaranteed.

And speaking of Yasumoto’s transformation, you compare it to Watanabe’s in Ikiru and find it much more realistic. I have to agree. Think about this by considering which of the two characters we are better able to identify with. Watanabe’s conversion takes place pretty much all on his own (once he escapes the writer and the bubbly fellow employee), and his ability to stick it out, to maintain the course of his cause while all about him conspire to make it nigh-impossible, strikes me as the kind of superhuman achievement that few of us could really aspire to emulate. Yasumoto, conversely, is converted through deed after deed, through immersion in a world that wears down his arrogance and self-involvement, that pretty much dares him to remain separate and distinct from it. Further, once Yasumoto throws himself into the fray and joins the cause, he has a network of support that would be pretty much essential for most of us who decided to dedicate our lives selflessly to greater/higher causes.

As for the patients’ job being to die with dignity, that is indeed an interesting notion. Of course the doctor’s job is to bear witness to the death, which carries with it the responsibility to remember the life that is lost. It adds a significance and a weight to the patients’ passing that a doctor is there to record the memory. Even deeper than this, I think, the doctors at the clinic record much more than simply the memory of these patients’ deaths, but also their entire lives. This is why the stories that they tell of their patients—and which the patients tell of themselves to these doctors—are also the great levelers. We see that these are people, despite their poverty and suffering, who have led lives of no small consequence, and they are as worthy of remembrance and commemoration as any of the shoguns that Yasumoto might have ended up tending to.

Then Ben:

Your observation of the doctors’ work of bearing witness was entirely neglected by me and your treatment of it supports my thesis, so thank you. Yet I want now to take your treatment and turn it inside-out too. You are absolutely correct that the doctors validate the lives of their patients by listening to their life stories. Red Beard explains to Yasumoto explicitly that this is in their job description as far as he’s concerned. But at the same time, this witness-bearing validates the lives of the doctors themselves. And they need this validation desperately. Why? Because as I’ve already noted, according to the film, medical science is little more than palliative care. The doctors cannot literally save lives but they can metaphorically save lives and this work of memorization is what empowers them to do the dross, futile toil of easing a person into that good night.

What the above interpretation shows is that the doctors and the patients need each other. The role reversal that best demonstrates this is not some superficial, symbolic recognition of the other. It is actual, practical reciprocity. The pivotal event in the story, the curing of the doctor by the damaged girl, is not just the curing of the doctor. That would be merely a moment of half-leveling (hence, not really leveling at all) from the perspective of the doctor-as-patient. No, the curing of the doctor by the damaged girl is also and maybe even moreso the undamaging of the girl, the curing of the girl by the girl herself, from the perspective of patient-as-doctor. That her efforts to heal another constitute her own self-empowerment is supported by dialogue, by the way. She tells Yasumoto that Red Beard told her as much. The upshot of this genuinely mutual aid is that it becomes impossible to say who is taking care of whom—and that’s precisely the point! The leveling is real and has established the solidarity of equals. Sure, sure, it’s all about love. And later Red Beard explains to Yasumoto that the girl will have to learn to spread her love to the whole hippie commune, and of course the Tiny Tim type tot is the vehicle for this. But there are politics inside that love.

And then Dan:

And you love to get inside politics. But what about the action outside the commune? You touched on the magnificent variety of the film. The film certainly is as full of wide-ranging elements as any Kurosawa. Hell, he even throws a gratuitous samurai showdown into the mix, to see if we’re paying attention. This scene is extremely emotionally gratifying but is also intellectually dishonest given the tenor of what has gone before. The fact that Red Beard is able single-handedly to dispatch so many foes without sustaining even a bruise is a terrible betrayal of the film’s otherwise stellar realism.

But Christ! When Kurosawa pans across the carnage after Mifune has leveled that entire crew, I felt like I was looking at a miniature of the wounded soldiers in the Atlanta scene in Gone with the Wind. The sounds of the bones being broken is later matched by the sight of these beaten deadbeats crawling around in the dust with compound fractures. Pretty grizzly stuff. Later on, Red Beard gives some lip service about how he should never have done it, that a doctor’s job is to heal, not to hurt. This is hot air given that he was trying to do just that (trying to protect the girl from further harm) and these soon-to-be vanquished foes were preventing him from doing so. He had no alternative. To leave the girl there, alone, would have been an even greater abrogation of his duties as a doctor, no? So, the message is that the martial arts were called for. It’s an outstanding action sequence, but it’s cowboy crap.

Red Beard

Back to Ben:

Hey, I love to get inside politics so much, I’m going to get inside the politics of the action outside the commune. For me, the lack of realism has to do with Kurosawa failing to take the group principle outside of the hospital. The source of the problem is that the egalitarianism of the clinic is not carried into the fight scene. It borders on gratuitous violence—however brilliantly crafted—because it is a phony succession of duels fought and won by our hero all by himself. That Red Beard combats with the surgical precision of, uh-huh, a surgeon, that he fights like a technician and not a sportsman, that he is conducting a ruthless military campaign and not playing at war like a perverse dilettante—none of this saves the scene from being bogus. It is bogus because—to cop a line from the cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, who once rode with a bike gang—ten guys can kick the shit outta anyone. And the offer of Hippocratic guilt afterward as a rationalization is the lame icing on the bogus cake.

I can easily imagine an alternative version of the fight scene that supports my egalitarian interpretation of the film. Instead of Red Beard going it alone, he and Yasumoto, together, fight it out with the gang, whose numbers are realistically reduced, but who still outnumber our two. Because the odds are against our two, this means that rather than a heroic clean sweep we get a genuine scrap. Shucks, some phony drama can occur, pretending that the outcome is uncertain. Of course, this is neither here nor there because the good guys win the battle, beaten up but not beaten back. In other words, instead of Clint Eastwood (Yojimbo), your basic buddy-comedy fight scene, but played completely seriously. Red Beard and Yasumoto should have limped home with the girl they rescued, bringing in a few minor wounds of their own to be licked by the rest of the hospital staff. Why Kurosawa went with the necessarily fake cowboy rather than the potentially realistic buddies is beyond me. Bloody thrilling bit of business though.

Back To Dan:

Want some sex to go with that violence? The fight scene may be gratuitous but it makes perfect sense in the main plot. The sub-plot about the psychotic female patient who tries to seduce/murder Yasumoto is not so easy to connect. It’s inclusion shows the Kurosawa definitely pulled out all the stops for Red Beard. This character plays into some standard figures in Japanese fiction; the creepy, mysterious “dark” lady who makes regular appearances in J-Horror films these days. (See The Ring or Pulse or The Grudge for contemporary examples).

But I think she’s also there for another reason. Red Beard and Yasumoto have a conversation about whether her psychosis can be attributed to her horrific upbringing full of sexual abuse. Red Beard rejects this excuse. He says that many girls have suffered similarly yet they haven’t turned into murderers, so this cannot be used to justify the woman’s behavior. The whole nurture/nature thing is up for grabs at this point, but Kurosawa seems (rightly, I think) to be abandoning it as quickly as he seizes on it. After all, while it might be interesting to argue how much of each play a part in determining who were are, the truth for these doctors is that such information is not particularly useful. They cannot cure the larger disease in society; they are only able to address the symptoms in individual patients. There are clear limitations on the ability of medicine alone to cure what really ails us.

Ben Again:

I must admit that I don’t know what to make of the kiss that almost happens with the spider woman. I mentioned before that unlike Ikiru, Red Beard does not challenge patriarchal assumptions. The way sexuality is brought into the relation between Yasumoto and the would-be psycho killer would seem to support this. The sexist routine of a crazy bitch coming on to a fine fellow in order to destroy him is as old as the hills. But in Red Beard, more is at stake. (Namely, my political interpretation—ha!)

Nutty sexuality undermines the potential for real solidarity between romantically social equals. Remember, for much of the scene it is unclear if she really is nuts and dangerous, and just as uncertain whether or not Yasumoto, still resistant to his destiny, will become her renegade ally. They are equals up to this point in the narrative. Yasumoto is on her level insofar as he has not taken on the responsibilities of being a doctor; indeed, he is getting drunk. But even more, the two of them originate from the same aristocratic class. Then she makes her move and any hope of friendship between them falls apart, to put it mildly. Seems a shame to bring this about by way of a sexist trope.

On the other hand, and contra my initial assertion, there is perhaps a faint glimpse of feminism in the film. I am thinking of the long recollection of the dying patient who recounts how an earthquake made a tragedy of his love life. This is almost a movie unto itself. Of course, it is intended to explain why this man was so respected by his community, what motivated him to be a good person in the first place. What is interesting to me about his tale is that his tragedy involves the breaking of a bond between real romantic friends, true married equals. The marriage custom in 19th-century Japan that arranged for a wife to “belong” to her husband is under severe scrutiny in the tale as this custom leads to the unintentionally assisted suicide of the man’s wife. Yasumoto’s wedding at the end of the film contradicts this modern sensibility, however. He informs his bride that as his wife she will have to accept his vocational calling. This being a masculine take on Mother Theresa’s devotion to the poor does not get it off the sexist hook.

As for your comment about the larger meaning of palliative care in Red Beard, I agree that the film points beyond the clinic to implicate the broader society with respect to what really ails us. On this score I cannot emphasize enough the house call to the rich patient’s house. This visit to the magistrate is a very short scene, but it speaks volumes. Here the power of money and the ruling authorities are attacked outright. I dared to say previously that Red Beard is socialistic. Now we come to the anarchist aspect within this, the reddest part of the beard, if you will. The owning and governing class is identified as a ’’tax” on the resources of the commune and therefore must be “ripped off” in return. That this is essential to the material subsistence of the hospital was set-up at the start when it was explained that the facility is pathetically under-funded by the state.

In case the corrupting influence of moneyed power remains unclear to the audience, the message is driven home when Red Beard is questioned by the rich man’s henchman. The latter cynically disregards any palliative purpose in order to supposedly articulate a realistic position about the futility of medicine. It is on this basis that he ridicules any rationale for its market worth. Red Beard does not dispute the stupidity of putting a price-tag on medical service, but he turns the point on its head to retrieve the palliative purpose—among social equals! Yes, you cannot put a price on caring for the sick who live and work side-by-side with the healthy, all together in an egalitarian society.

And finally, Dan:

You touched on the tragic tale told by Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), about the earthquake that brought terrible sorrow into his life. One of Red Beard’s more memorable sequences, it unfolds in a detailed reminiscence that is as visually stirring as it is emotionally wrenching. You are right that this is almost a movie unto itself. But I want to highlight that it is simultaneously vital to the main story. It leads to one of Yasumoto’s deepest epiphanies. Yasumoto does not receive wisdom suddenly, but gradually, and it is in this that Kurosawa’s film achieves the miraculous. The layers of Yasumoto’s egoism are worn away, one patient at a time, and nobody lets the scales fall from Yasumoto’s eyes like the noble, self-sacrificing Sahachi. Despite his own poor health, and the ill blows that life has dealt him, Sahachi chooses not to cave in to bitterness or cynicism, but instead toils away ceaselessly to provide his fellow patients with their basic necessities. It is fitting then that the young doctor learns from the humble Sahachi that contentment comes only when he gives himself up to the downtrodden people he has at first scorned. It is in Sahachi’s testimonial to the restorative powers of selflessness that Red Beard achieves something as majestic and poetical as a Shakespearean soliloquy, and as moving and precise as a Verdi aria.

Sahachi’s understanding is rough and ready compared to the sophisticated consciousness of Red Beard, but both of them are Yasumoto’s teachers. And the two of them teach out of the same lesson book. In making him represent an ideal of human conduct, Kurosawa may have felt a personal connection with the character of Sahachi. After witnessing the aftermath of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and subsequent riots, Kurosawa commented that the scene was one of unimaginable horror. He saw “corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at an intersection, and every manner of death possible to human beings displayed by corpses.” He tells us that when he tried to turn away, his brother would not allow it, telling him to look at the devastation carefully. The best of Kurosawa’s films are a challenge to look into our greatest fears and at our most terrible afflictions, whether personal or systemic, without turning away. Arguably the best Kurosawa film, Red Beard does not turn away.

Red Beard

Dan Jardine is the publisher of Cinemania.

Ben Livant is the current Blog Slave in Residence at Cinemania.

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Review: Superintelligence Keeps a Lid on Melissa McCarthy’s Comic Energy

The big disappointment of the film is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde.

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Superintelligence
Photo: HBO Max

Melissa McCarthy successfully transitioned from television to film playing outcasts who chafe at conventional standards of appearances and manners. The exhilaration of the actress’s performances, especially in Paul Feig comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, resides in the volcanic force she lends characters who might be reduced in to wallflowers in your run-of-the-mill production. Such visceral comic energy represents a revenge-of-the-oppressed transcendence, as these vehicles find a diminutive, overweight middle-aged woman stealing productions out from under more traditionally sophisticated stars via the profound force of her personality and talent. McCarthy is a veritable superstar-as-everyperson, which is a rare pose for an actor to convincingly master.

The big disappointment, then, of Ben Falcone’s Superintelligence is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde. At first, Carol (McCarthy), a computer programmer who quit her job years ago out of frustration with corporate heartlessness, appears to be the sort of stunted ne’er-do-well that the actress specializes in playing. Superintelligence’s early scenes are its sharpest, parodying how Google- and Apple-type companies attempt to launder the complacency they demand from consumers and employees alike with therapeutic babble about wellness and self, which Carol isn’t able to convincingly sell. After a botched interview for a new dating site amusingly called Badankadonk, the viewer is primed to wait patiently for Carol’s rage to explode in characteristic McCarthy fashion, as a satirical rebuke against the faux-progressive hivemind of our social media age, yet this combustion never occurs.

Superintelligence is less a parody of modern consumerism than a bland gene splice of a rom-com and a 1980s-era film in which a loner befriends either an alien, a robot, or, in this case, a sentient, super-intelligent program voiced—in another amusing touch—by James Corden. Porting a narrative with such a distinctly Cold War-era makeup into the modern day also has satiric potential, for suggesting the similarity between past and present anxieties about technology run amok. And this commonality is acknowledged by the film in exactly one joke, in which the sentient program emulates the computer from John Badham’s WarGames in order to screw with characters who’re all old enough to get the reference.

Falcone and screenwriter Steve Mallory soon skimp on another wellspring for comedy, as the program gifts Carol with wealth and fashionable baubles—the sorts of privileged things that she comes to resent less once she’s capable of attaining them. Such hypocrisy, alive and well in virtually every present-day American, is acknowledged in a few fleeting jokes and soon forgotten, and even the general premise of a super-intelligent program as a kind of modern god-slash-genie is sidelined. Superintelligence is a junkyard of missed opportunities, as the unutilized ideas and gimmicks are revealed to exist as window dressing adorning a simple, frictionless kind of comedy-of-remarriage between Carol and the man who got away, George (Bobby Cannavale), who’s defined only by his sweetness and availability.

Superintelligence is probably intended by Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and regular collaborator, as a conventional star vehicle in which McCarthy plays the sort of wistful lonely heart that was once monopolized by the likes of Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. The film’s conventionality is meant to show that McCarthy needn’t always play the tormented weirdo with reserves of inner rage; she can also be a regular lead with regular problems with a regularly good-looking man as her “one and only.” But such generic and insidiously conformist attitudes, though born of reverence, insult and inhibit McCarthy’s talents.

McCarthy was authentically weird, profane, and confident, and therefore sexy, when playing a character who stood up to all those sexist men in Spy, which positioned her opposite of Jason Statham romantically without treating it as a big deal. By contrast, Falcone self-consciously lionizes McCarthy as an avatar of normalized romantic longing, trapping her in the process. The filmmakers here fatally forget that we love Melissa McCarthy because she isn’t a princess.

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, James Corden, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Ben Falcone, Josh McKissic Director: Ben Falcone Screenwriter: Steve Mallory Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan

The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

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Crock of Gold
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.

MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.

Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.

MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.

MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.

Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).

Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.

Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020

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Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship

Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.

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Uncle Frank
Photo: Amazon Studios

Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.

That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.

When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.

When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.

Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More

The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.

2.5

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The Croods: A New Age
Photo: Universal Pictures

Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.

Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.

This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.

Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Noir City: International 2020

The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.

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The Fifth Horseman Is Fear
Photo: Sigma III Corporation

Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival, co-presented by AFI Silver and the Film Noir Foundation, featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados across the United States.

A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.

This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.

One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.

Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.

Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.

Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.

While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.

As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.

Noir City: International runs through November 29.

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Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is a Moving Swan Song for Chadwick Boseman

Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering that pursuit and escape are inextricably intertwined.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Photo: Netflix

In the canny opening moments of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the camera swoops over the heads of two black men sprinting through the woods at night, tripping over branches in their haste. The sequence, calculatingly staged to evoke an antebellum-era escape, invites our assumptions about who these men might be and from whom or what they might be running, but it turns out that the two men are just music fans on the move to catch a concert performance by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Southern singer dubbed “Mother of the Blues.”

It’s a pain-to-pleasure illusion that runs in reverse throughout the rest of George C. Wolfe’s film, which has been thoughtfully, gently adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s 1984 play. Though Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), here a fictionalized version of the real-life pioneering recording artist, may command sell-out crowds and booming record sales, she also knows what she ultimately represents for the white managers and producers who profit from her talent: “They don’t care nothing about me,” she explains early in the film. “All they want is my voice.” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom chips away at the seeming triumph of a celebrated chanteuse to reveal the bitter truths below the surface.

Ma Rainey, gilded and painted, is playing a part. With gold teeth and coarse coats of makeup highlighting a face often frozen in a withering sneer, most often directed at the white men who pay her but sometimes at the rogue trumpeter in her band, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), or at her chorus-girl lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), she’s miles away from vulnerability.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of a few hours in the recording studio where Ma presides over her deferential manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), disgruntled producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), and her four-man band, which, in addition to Boseman’s Levee, includes Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass, and Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone. For Ma Rainey, as long as the microphones are on, she has total power, and she relishes in elongating that reign through the power of refusal: she won’t sing until she has her Coke; she won’t move on until her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who stutters, perfectly delivers the introduction to the recording; and she won’t sign the release form that would liberate her white manager and producer from her say-so.

Davis, coarsely, tauntingly, slowly slurping on that Coca-Cola, communicates Ma Rainey’s premeditated defiance: As long as she controls the recording session, she rules over the white men who crave her sound, her strength and talent arising not in spite of her black body, but through it. And if that simultaneous tribute to, and desecration of, her artistry is ultimately heartbreaking to her, Ma Rainey isn’t about to let them see through her armor.

For the rest of the band, though, things are different. Levee has visions of forming his own band, of getting his original songs recorded, of winning over Ma Rainey’s beloved Dussie Mae. His jaded bandmates have seen it all by now, though, and they know Levee’s cocksure dreams will backfire. What they cannot anticipate are the frightening ways in which Levee’s grief has already hardened into powder kegs. If Ma finds small, sustaining triumph in refusal, Levee leans heavily on the blinding comforts of denial, and Boseman offers a deliriously frantic performance of contradictory extremes that eclipses the rest of the film when he’s at his most urgent and sweltering. Of the other bandmates, it’s Turman’s Toledo who most memorably emerges from Levee’s shadow: He’s the oldest of the musicians and the clearest-eyed in his surety that the rewards of individual artistic glory, the kind that Ma embraces and Levee pursues, will make scant difference in improving black lives in lasting ways.

Wolfe, best known as the razor-witted playwright of The Colored Museum and the original director of Angels in America, takes a hands-on approach in sending sparks of activity through the film’s claustrophobic spaces. In the small basement room where the band practices as they await Ma Rainey’s arrival, the camera often ricochets from man to man, as frenetic as the film’s briefer depiction of the Chicago streets above. Successful in the early scenes at animating what could otherwise feel static on screen, that perpetual motion may also somewhat undercut the boiling stillness that eventually erupts. Wilson’s trademark undercurrent of simmering rage against the divine—the same desperate resistance that distinguishes the climaxes of plays like Fences and The Piano Lesson—only sneaks in occasionally, and, when Levee’s restless hopelessness explodes into destructive action, it neither feels wrenchingly inevitable nor cathartically shocking.

That’s not through any fault of Boseman’s. Indeed, though Davis’ gritty, authoritarian presence at the mic complexingly layers the seductive highs of stardom and the exhausting veneer of Ma Rainey’s temporary, performative power, it’s Boseman who most movingly gives voice to the ghosts that haunt Wilson’s play. In his final role, Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering, within the mirages of 1920s blackness, that pursuit and escape, fleeing from and running toward, are inextricably intertwined.

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Colman Domingo, Taylour Paige, Jonny Coyne, Michael Potts, Joshua Harto, Dusan Brown Director: George C. Wolfe Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Happiest Season Is Paint-by-Numbers but Earns Its Emotional Payoff

The film translates the often difficult realities of a specific kind of marginalized love into a story with broad appeal.

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Happiest Season
Photo: Hulu

Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season isn’t a radical holiday movie. Indeed, from a certain, say, militant queer-feminist perspective, it might be considered a counterrevolutionary one. Early on, it asserts its comfort with outdated notions of coupledom that are peddled by the average romantic comedy when Abby (Kristen Stewart) tells her friend John (Dan Levy) that she’s planning to propose to her girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), on Christmas morning. Abbey reveals not only this affront to John’s anti-heteronormative inclinations, but that she’s going to first ask for the blessing of Harper’s father, Ted (Victor Garber). “Way to stick it to the patriarchy, really well done,” John archly replies.

The rest of the film, like Abby, proves eager to mimic the innumerable non-gay Christmas movies that preceded it, trotting out the quirky family, the handsome hometown ex-boyfriend, the misunderstood suitor, the betrayal that must be rectified, and the final holiday moral—namely, that family is important. The plot of Happiest Season is best summed up, in short, as “gay Meet the Parents.” But this assimilationist bent certainly doesn’t stop Duvall’s film, which is stacked with a supporting cast of solid comic performers like Levy, from sharpening humor that surely seemed mild on the page. It’s even much more affecting than most of its heteronormative predecessors, in large part because the stakes of its comedy of errors are greater than whether or not one man “lets” another man into the family.

Abby and Harper begin Happiest Season as a blissfully happy couple, still young and in love enough to risk trouble with stunts like sneaking onto a stranger’s roof to gaze at neighborhood Christmas lights, and, when they’re chased away, pausing their flight to make out in an alley—a clean alley, though, as they live in post-gentrification Pittsburgh. In the heat of the moment, Harper invites Abby, whose family died tragically some years ago, to come home with her for Christmas. It’s only when they’re on the road that Harper finally brings herself to confess that she’s lied to Abby about being out to her parents; that her family believes Abby is her (straight) roommate; and that she told them that she invited Abby along because she’s an orphan.

Harper, it turns out, is the favorite daughter of an important local family whose priorities are dominated by her mild-mannered but ambitious father, the very embodiment of soft patriarchy. Ted’s running for mayor, and Harper can’t risk causing a scandal in her small Pennsylvania town by coming out in the middle of his campaign. We’ll learn that, in addition, favorite-child Harper also has to maintain her edge in her lifelong competition with her humorless, extremely hetero older sister, Sloane (Alison Brie). With these characters’ gazes fixed on Harper’s strange new roommate, the masquerade that Abby’s forced into grows increasingly difficult—particularly as Harper’s first love, Riley (Aubrey Plaza), appears on the scene and lends Abby both a sympathetic ear and surprising insights into Harper’s past.

There’s a delicate balance between comedy and distress that the films needs to strike in relation to Harper’s multilayered betrayal, because the scenario pulls double duty: It’s amusing when her oblivious, bougie family keeps treating Abby like a refugee from a Victorian orphanage, but wrenching when Abby must watch her would-be fiancée flirt with her old boyfriend, Connor (Jake McDorman), to keep up appearances. Sometimes, DuVall doesn’t quite find this balance, and what’s meant as frivolous comedy elicits anxiety. At times it’s more intuitive to be feel distressed by Abby’s plight—like when she’s arrested by overzealous mall cops (Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus) because she’s mistaken as a shoplifter after Harper ditches her to hobnob with Ted’s campaign donors—than amused by it.

But then, it’s remarkable that a film that’s in so many ways a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy actually delivers to much emotional heft. If by Happiest Season’s midway point it’s easy to write off Harper as too privileged and selfish to be truly worth all this trouble, Stewart makes Abby’s decision not to immediately split believable by leaning into her wallflower persona, communicating silent heartbreak and confusion on the margins of her character’s jittery, awkward interactions with the denizens of Squaresville, PA. It might be going too far to call DuVall’s film groundbreaking, but like the best rom-coms, it smuggles a few nuggets of truth into its predictable formula, translating the often difficult realities of a specific kind of marginalized love into a story with broad appeal.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Mary Holland, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Jake McDorman, Ana Gasteyer, Michelle Buteau, Sarayu Blue, Burl Moseley Director: Clea DuVall Screenwriter: Clea DuVall Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: The Two Sights Hypnotically Ruminates on Corporeality and Oblivion

With his first solo feature, Joshua Bonnetta is again contemplating death and the traces it leaves behind.

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The Two Sights
Photo: Cinema Guild

It’s become something of a cliché for experimental docufiction hybrids to be shot on 16mm, and at this point it might even be safe to say that such works have kept Kodak from discontinuing production on the film stock. While the use of small-gauge celluloid within this body of work has occasionally felt pro forma, even in some cases pointlessly fetishistic, one of its more conscientious practitioners is multidisciplinary artist Joshua Bonnetta, whose 2011 conceptual travelogue American Colour traced the lifespan of the now-extinct Kodachrome stock—on which the film was shot—from the final Kansas-based lab to process it back to its origin place in Rochester, New York. And his last feature, El Mar La Mar, co-directed with Sensory Ethnography Lab alum J.P. Sniadecki, embraced grain and other material defects as a corollary to the film’s emphasis on natural decay in the Sonoran Desert, site of an unconscionable death toll from unsuccessful border crossings.

In his newest and first solo feature, The Two Sights, Bonnetta is again contemplating death and the traces it leaves behind, this time in the remote climes of Scotland’s northern archipelago. Operating in such an exceedingly beautiful region, however, Bonnetta might as well have just chosen film for its pictorial incentives. A waterlogged expanse of misty steppes and vertiginous drops into crystal-blue waters, the Outer Hebrides islands in which the film is set—Barra, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, and North Uint—total a population of just over 20,000 people, and Bonnetta keeps them largely out of frame, preferring instead to ruminate on grandiose bisections of land and sky. Composed of a series of mostly static shots, the film is visually reminiscent of Peter Hutton’s Iceland-set Skagafjördur, though Bonnetta, at least as interested in the sonic dimensions of cinema as he is in its pictorial qualities, centers a large portion of The Two Sights’s meaning on its soundtrack. That prioritization is rather forcefully apparent when the director himself plants a boom mic in the center of the film’s opening shot.

This moment, which comes halfway through the shot, triggers a sudden shift in the soundtrack from one field recording to another, making it apparent that what we heard prior wasn’t actually tethered to the image. That’s a hint that much of the sound to come will be layered and orchestrated rather than simply recorded along with the image—a truth that perhaps sounds self-evident when stated in this way, but which Bonnetta suggests may not be top of mind to audiences of films that appear to document objective reality. And while The Two Sights certainly does appear to be just that, there’s much to imply that Bonnetta is constructing a more multilayered tapestry, an archive of the unseen.

On its surface, the film presents a smattering of voiceover testimonials from unseen Hebrides residents, who relate stories of strange happenings on the islands, most involving deaths or hauntings. The stories of these lost souls are never visualized, though Bonnetta pairs them with footage that feels roughly analogous, if not like an outright projection of a mental image. One fishermen’s recollection of getting dangerously caught in an eddy while seeking lobster is accompanied by shots around a fishing boat, with one floor-level angle of water lapping up on the vessel seeming to conjure up an approximation of his experience. Another distressing tale of a man’s confrontation with a beached whale finds Bonnetta’s camera surveying a shoreline, as if encouraging us to project our imaginations onto the scene.

As Bonnetta offers these fill-in-the-blank visual inducements, his soundtrack performs a similar act, blending—via long, imperceptible cross-fades—field sounds recorded by the director himself with archival audio sourced from the region. With the exceptions of folk-music clippings that are most obviously archived, the distinctions between past and present material become nearly impossible to discern and indeed negligible, as Bonnetta’s subject is, after all, the layering of history atop the current moment. The visual devices that he employs create impressions of liminality, of a fine line between corporeality and oblivion—namely through shots that would seem to be dead photographs were it not for the dance of grain or one single plane of movement, flipped camera perspectives that don’t immediately register as such, subtle plays with manual aperture shifts, and plenty of water reflections.

A similar impression is evoked by one resident when describing the entirety of the Hebrides region, which she calls “a thin place” where there’s “little distinction between heaven and earth.” That same mystery is, of course, tantamount to the allure of celluloid, it being a medium that preserves the past while at the same time being impermanent. The Two Sights hypnotically embodies something of a paranormal investigation, all the more haunting for being unable to extricate itself completely from the void opened up by its subjects.

Director: Joshua Bonnetta Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Collective Is a Searing Chronicle of Institutional Corruption

The film fiercely reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy.

3.5

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Collective
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

On October 30, 2015, a fire breaks out during a free rock concert at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania. The club has no fire exits. Twenty-seven people are killed right away and 180 are injured. Dozens more die soon after, many of them not because of the severity of their burns, but from bacterial infections contracted while in intensive care—and this after the Romanian government assured the victims that they would receive the same medical care that they would receive in Germany. The government’s attempts to save face begin to crumble and mass protests spread across Romania.

In Collective, Alexander Nanau trails investigative reporters exposing the astonishing offshore fraud scheme involving hospital disinfectants which led to dozens of avoidable deaths in the wake of the fire. Hexi Pharma, the company that provided the antiseptics to hundreds of hospitals diluted them at 10 times the recommended ratio, leading doctors to operate with bacteria-laden scalpels and maggots to grow from the unwashed bodies of the survivors.

What follows is a familiar public relations spectacle that institutions unleash once their criminal incompetence has come to light: a cringe-inducing display of corporate speak, barefaced lies, evasion of responsibility, and crooked in-house investigations that find no wrongdoing. Nanau’s unobtrusive camera follows the events as they unfold, which puts the viewer in the anxiety-giving position of television audiences enthralled by the most surreal of breaking-news cycles. Collective inhabits that cinematic sweet spot where the national specificity of a film’s subject matter gives palpable rendition to a rather universal logic.

It turns out that corruption is a dormant metastasis. And uncovering it is like opening a Pandora’s box, finding another box inside, and another one after that, each filled with a stranger-than-fiction plot twist and each more rotten than the other. Collective attests to the political urgency, and the documentary-esque realism, of Romanian filmmakers working in the realm of fiction, such as Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Calin Peter Netzer. Those filmmakers’ stories can, in fact, look tame in retrospect, as Nanau’s film unveils a national health care system where doctors bribe their managers so they can be transferred to clinics where patients are known to offer heftier bribes to the doctors who will operate on them.

In the documentary, the sleuthing aimed at restoring the integrity of a community, however belatedly, is the work of reporters undaunted by the potentially lethal consequences of speaking truth to power, through reportage, press briefings, and TV appearances. Collective pays considerable attention to the collaborative nature of journalism and its minutia—the research, the phone calls, the laying out of a webpage, the brainstorming with colleagues, the intimidation and counter-attacks. The film reminds us that without investigative reporting there’s no democracy, and that traditional expectations around impartiality and objectivity may be untenable in the face of horror. It proves that journalistic integrity is achieved not through neutrality, but by pledging fierce allegiance to the public’s interest.

Director: Alexander Nanau Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Film

Review: Jiu Jitsu Falls Short of Its Predator-Meets-Mortal Kombat Promise

Nicolas Cage’s amusing turn as a kooky hermit with an affinity for newspaper hats often feels awkwardly spliced into the film.

1.5

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Jiu Jitsu
Photo: The Avenue

Despite his prominent placement on the poster, Nicolas Cage isn’t the central element of Dimitri Logothetis’s Jiu Jitsu. Rather, Alain Moussi plays the main character, Jake, a conveniently amnesiac fighter in a group that battles a silent interstellar warrior, Brax (Ryan Tarran), who emerges from a portal in a Burmese temple every six years, demanding hand-to-hand combat or else he’ll destroy the Earth. But for as much as that premise may suggest Predator by way of Mortal Kombat, the film doesn’t display the mounting tension and proficient choreography that would otherwise make the material sing.

From a technical perspective, large chunks of this sci-fi martial arts film don’t quite hold together. Logothetis uses longer-than-usual takes for several early action scenes, but the results are deeply unflattering to the film’s stuntmen since most of the characters’ blows look weak and unconvincing, while mediocre sound design and overuse of slow-motion only highlight the issue rather than disguise it. Throughout, ugly comic book art serves as transitions and occasional establishing shots. And strangest of all, the film fails to create a sense that the actors share the same space even in basic dialogue scenes.

Cage’s amusing turn as Wylie, an idiosyncratic hermit with an affinity for newspaper hats and an insistence on calling Brax “the spaceman,” often feels awkwardly spliced into the film. Most group shots show a stand-in from the back or at a distance, with all characters except Jake appearing to give him the silent treatment. Perhaps the most shocking moment in the film is a cut to Frank Grillo’s Harrigan finally, though still vaguely, reacting to something Wylie says after long stretches where the hermit might as well be Jake’s imaginary friend.

Still, Jiu Jitsu’s shoddy production isn’t without its diverting charm. For one, the film manages to offset Moussi’s void of charisma by bouncing him between more dynamic actors like Cage, Jaa, and Grillo, while Tarran’s portrayal of Brax as a guy in a suit rather than a CGI creation gives him a tangible, Power Rangers-like sense of presence. We even get a bizarrely memorable first-person sequence that follows Moussi until he momentarily steps out from behind the camera’s point of view, engages in a fight, and then seems to absorb the camera into his body as he’s knocked into the lens. Even though Logothetis succeeds at very little of what he’s experimenting with—he even botches a recreation of the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Carl Weathers handshake from Predator—it isn’t totally boring to see him try.

Cast: Alain Moussi, Nicolas Cage, Frank Grillo, Rick Yune, Marie Avgeropoulos, Tony Jaa, JuJu Chan, Eddie Steeples, Ryan Tarran Director: Dimitri Logothetis Screenwriter: Dimitri Logothetis, James McGrath Distributor: The Avenue Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Video

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