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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: Downtown 81 Celebrates a Bygone New York’s Creative Energy

This time capsule of bohemian New York distorts its representation of the city for reasons more loving than lazy.

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Downtown 81
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Todd Phillips’s Joker takes place in 1981, in a Gotham City meant to evoke the New York City of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: garbage-strewn, violence-ridden, institutionally broken, on the brink of anarchy. But this vision of New York as a place where people live in perpetual fear is a cliché, a detail-absent caricature derived mostly from other movies, with Taxi Driver its most obvious reference and inspiration. Ironically, though not surprisingly, Joker can only simulate pre-gentrified Manhattan in its quest for “authenticity.”

The real New York of 1981 is the setting and subject for Downtown 81, a low-budget time capsule of bohemian Manhattan that distorts its representation of the city for reasons more loving than lazy. Like the city then, the film’s history is messy and beleaguered. The brainchild of French designer Maripol and her Swiss-born photographer husband, Edo Bertoglio, the film was written by cultural critic Glenn O’Brien and conceived in order to document the vibrant New York avant-garde scenes of the time. With a hip locale and cast, which included a pre-fame Jean-Michel Basquiat and several post-punk bands, it seemed primed for underground success, but post-production funding dried up and the film, originally titled New York Beat, was left incomplete until 1999. Unfortunately, in the intervening years the original dialogue recordings were lost, and since Basquist had died 10 years earlier, Saul Williams was hired to dub his voice, and the film was released to the public in 2000 as Downtown 81.

Downtown 81 frequently mythologizes its time and place. The “Once upon a time” prologue establishes this with a dreamy glide through the clouds and a female narrator intoning, “Any resemblance between the characters and the events depicted here and reality is purely magical.” The action occurs on a Lower East Side of demolished buildings and boarded-up windows that Jean accurately characterizes as looking “like we dropped a bomb on ourselves,” but while Jean is clear-eyed about the perils of the concrete jungle (“You can get anything you want here if you try,” he explains in voiceover, “You can get plenty of what you don’t want, too”), his adventures are often depicted as a series of urban whimsies through which he saunters as insouciant flâneur and DIY artist. He wakes up in a hospital for reasons unknown, gets evicted from his apartment, and encounters muggings, robberies, and hustles, viewing it all with utter nonchalance. The city takes care of its own, the film seems to say, and its moral and architectural degradations merely create occasions for reappropriative creativity, especially when Basquiat applies his absurdist graffiti to already heavily tattooed walls.

Like its occasionally wonky dubbing, this fairy-tale aspect of the film is sometimes endearing, sometimes irritating. Much of Downtown 81’s charm rests on having captured the thrill of art being created by like-minded weirdoes in their natural, incubating habitat, which means viewers get to see a Fab 5 Freddy rap session and a scintillating performance by James White and the Blacks, with White doing his best James Brown-by-way-of-Richard Hell routine. (Also performing in the film are DNA, the Felons, the Plastics, and King Creole and the Coconuts.)

But that charm fades in several frivolous asides, including a silly ending that has Debbie Harry transforming from bag lady to fairy godmother in order to provide Jean with a suitcase of money. This is supposed to resolve the film’s underdeveloped conflict—in which Jean must come up with roughly $500 to pay his rent, all while chasing a European model (played by Anna Schroeder) who might be his romantic and financial salvation—but it also marks the point where Downtown 81’s devil-may-care exuberance slides into a preciousness, and a sidestepping of reality, that’s no less juvenile for being 38 years old.

Other episodes work better, including one in which Walter Steding, of obscure No Wave band the Dragon People, recounts, in satirically mopey fashion, the indignities of life on the fringes of the music industry, vowing to never play again just before getting roped into another show moments later. And of course, there’s Basquiat himself, whose commanding presence as a neo-Beat wanderer and perceptual genius pervades every frame he’s in. As our guide, the easygoing yet street-wise Jean allows us to see the early-‘80s New York that’s been both romanticized and abandoned for its ubiquitous danger as a place where actual people lived, worked, and even thrived, his run-ins and shit-shootings with artist friends proving that New York City is more ragtag community of guarded aspiration than despair-plunging cesspool.

Ultimately, and despite its blind spots, Downtown 81’s gritty optimism in the face of unpleasant surroundings is a welcome reminder that, to quote Kurt Braunohler (which I admittedly learned from an NYCLink kiosk), “a true New Yorker doesn’t get ground down—he gets polished.” This is also a New York of the imagination—but a creative, not destructive, one.

Director: Edo Bertoglio Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 75 min Rating: NR Year: 2000

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Review: The Kill Team Seeks to Dispel the Illusion of a Clean War

This battlefront thriller has a clearer moral sense than other cinematic attempts to cope with the War on Terror.

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The Kill Team
Photo: A24

Based on true events from 2009, writer-director Dan Krauss’s The Kill Team suggests that the war in Afghanistan—America’s longest by an unhealthy margin—long ago reached the state of a self-perpetuating feedback loop. The story concerns a group of soldiers whose frustration and rage at the death of colleagues was channeled into a campaign of terror in the Kandahar countryside. Led and allegedly manipulated by a rogue commanding officer, the unit executed randomly selected villagers, framing them after the fact as insurgents by planting weapons next to their bodies and concocting false battle reports.

The Kill Team opens with the death of the team’s commanding officer, Sergeant Bruer (Zackary Momoh), who’s killed by an IED while offering candy to children. Throughout its telling of this and other events, the film sets up Private Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) as the audience’s surrogate, an eager and sensitive recruit who observes his fellow soldiers’ actions almost from an outsider’s perspective. He doesn’t smoke hash with his fellow soldiers, and he doesn’t, like them, begrudge the locals their differing traditions and language. He also doesn’t relish the opportunity to fight and kill. After Bruer is killed, his unit is assigned a new commanding officer, Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), an imposing, stone-faced figure who begins cultivating insecure attachments with the men under his command, bestowing and withdrawing favor at a whim in order to make them dependent on his approval.

While Krauss’s film examines the way that the young men’s subsequent embrace of an amoral warrior’s mentality leads to inhuman consequences, its reflection on both the inherent violence of war and the loss of a sense of mission among the occupiers remains incomplete. This battlefront thriller has a clearer moral sense than other cinematic attempts to cope with the conflicts formerly known as the War on Terror, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but it achieves this clarity largely by finding confining itself to a scenario with a clear moral dichotomy: that between the relatively innocent Briggman and the icy madmen Deeks.

In Deeks, the fictionalized version of the real commanding officer convicted of encouraging the young men to view all Afghans as animals, Krauss captures the sociopathy of a truly committed warrior. To play a killer who entices young men to join him in almost ritualistic slaughters, Skarsgård deploys the coldly attractive moral nonchalance familiar from his role as the vampire Eric Northman on HBO’s True Blood. “We kill people. That’s what we do,” Deeks explains softly and plainly to the uncomfortable Briggman at one point. Briggman averts his eyes, attempting to square the apparent truth of Deeks’s warrior philosophy with the “hearts and minds” mission his unit has often been sent out on.

Deeks turns missions into hunts, compelling the men under his command to find an Afghan man to be shot. In these scenes, which frequently cut away from the actual act—to, say, Briggman coming across the men discussing their cover, or to the body of an Afghan man lying on the ground behind them—we can see one end of a thread tying together American forms of authoritarian violence. The murder scenes captured from Briggman’s perspective on the margins, or just after the fact, strike an overtone that resonates with the police shootings and cover-ups that have triggered unrest at home while our Mideast wars have been raging.

The Kill Team gives us snapshots of a rural Afghan population whose hearts and minds are, as of 2009, very much not won over. Men and women alike shout fruitlessly in Pashto as their loved ones are pulled aside by the American soldiers. The trembling, battered face of a man picked up from the road outside the U.S. base, and whom Deeks attempts to convince Briggman to torture, is a powerful image that could stand as an indictment of the war itself. But the story limits its perspective to the experience of Briggman as he struggles internally, and in messages back home to his father, with what to do about the situation. The film’s focus on the private only becomes more acute as the circle around him tightens, the group of killers growing concerned that he will rat on them. The lives of the villagers killed becomes of secondary concern, as suspense in The Kill Team is increasingly driven by the question of whether Briggman will survive or be betrayed and murdered by his compatriots.

Krauss’s evident outrage at the commission of war crimes is something that’s sorely lacking in what meager public discourse about our continuing wars exists, but it doesn’t follow this outrage to what seems its logical, if radical ends. As the sergeant not entirely inaccurately asserts, the Army is there to kill. Given such a directive, perhaps liberal fantasies of a “clean war” are untenable. Warfare breeds bloodthirst; it produces people like Deeks. But despite glimpses of a larger critique of the American project in Afghanistan, and of the psychological and social sicknesses cultivated by two decades of continuous warfare, The Kill Team lets us escape from the horrors of war before it finishes demolishing the illusion of a clean one.

Cast: Nat Wolff, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Rob Morrow Director: Dan Krauss Screenwriter: Dan Krauss Distributor: A24 Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Black and Blue Provides a Quick Fix of Action-Movie Catharsis

The film’s command of action defuses concerns about whether it offers a thorough social critique.

2.5

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Black and Blue
Photo: Screen Gems

Deon Taylor’s Black and Blue is an intensely political, niche thriller that, if it generates much mainstream discourse, will likely spark angry boycotts from those on one side of the aisle and searing hot takes from those on the other. Step a few feet back from its fast-paced saga of a valiant solitary policewoman hunted through the streets of New Orleans as she attempts to return incriminating body-camera footage to her precinct and you’ll see a narrative that construes a cop as a Black Lives Matter hero simply for using her mandated body camera as she should. This is a major-studio film that may go further than many others, including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, in implicating police forces as systemic perpetuators of white supremacy, but it’s also one that handles the representation of poverty clumsily at best.

What’s more, Black and Blue’s action-movie tropes redirect its characters’ mistrust of authority into a narrative that tacitly approves of the militarization of the police and society at large. These same tropes, though, are part of what defuses such concerns about whether the film offers a thorough social critique. Despite its real-world trappings, Black and Blue comes off as fantasy, a story with the exaggerated features and simple satisfactions of a dream. Crooked cops will get their comeuppance, prejudices will be upended, and those not yet beyond redemption will be redeemed. Beyond the film’s spurious messaging about finding a middle ground between being black and being “blue,” its extended chase through New Orleans’s 9th Ward might offer simple, effective action-movie catharsis to those who’ve been outraged by this decade’s flood of videos of police offers shooting unarmed black people.

Perhaps unintentionally, Black and Blue’s setting and action reminds us that, with the advent of body cameras, the sci-fi dystopias depicted in various films from the 1980s and ‘90s have come true. Resembling the A plot of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the film’s main action is jump-started by the mafia-style execution of a young black man by police, an explosive event that’s captured on video by a woman wearing a camera. And in Black and Blue, that woman, rookie cop Alicia West (Naomie Harris), is also the one tasked with delivering the footage to the authorities. The shooting, committed by narcotics detective Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) and his circle of drug-dealing police officers, takes place in a scummy, abandoned factory, and when the assembled perpetrators notice the wide-eyed rookie filming them, they repeatedly shoot her. West unexpectedly survives, and so the film also brings to mind Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, another sci-fi classic that hinges on a piece of incriminating video footage.

Mostly shielded by her body armor but grazed by a bullet on her side, West somehow slips away from the murderous cops. Black and Blue tends to solve such narrative impasses via the magic of montage: We see West stumbling away down a passageway but don’t see exactly how she escapes. Now pursued by the extensive cabal of officers, she makes it to a convenience store where a childhood friend, Mouse (Tyrese Gibson), reluctantly helps her patch herself up. Mouse and the tight-knit community of the nearby Kingston Manor apartment complex, the film makes clear, don’t like cops; an earlier scene has Mouse and his sister, Missy (Nafessa Williams), refuse to acknowledge that they know West, who’s recently returned from two tours in Afghanistan after growing up in their neighborhood. As seen from the perspective of West and her partner, Kevin (Reid Scott), this impoverished area is full of shifty-eyed gangsters, and Black and Blue veers into problematic terrain early on when it lays ominous bass notes under close-ups of black men slinking around in and out of the cops’ view.

The filmmakers, though, deploy such hammy racism mostly to undermine it. Deacon Brown (James Moses Black), an officer who saves West from one of the aforementioned black youth, is quickly revealed to be part of Malone’s conspiracy, and therefore complicit in the murder of unarmed men and the attempted murder of West herself. While Black and Blue indulges some of the worst stereotypes about black poverty, the dehumanizing practices of the police are portrayed as the truly pernicious social force. And West must ultimately reintegrate herself with the film’s black community: After skirting from place to place within the 9th Ward, her ultimate recourse is to bring the body camera to Kingston Manor and let the people there, including the hot-headed local kingpin, Darius (Mike Colter), see the footage for themselves.

What follows is a fun, if muddled, climax that upends some of the expectations set by the bulk of the film. While Black and Blue is much more comfortable dispatching the gangsters who are trying to kill West than the cops shown to be their moral equivalents, the intense showdown at Kingston Manor proves that the film’s typical action-movie ethos of violent retribution can also extend to figures of authority. And while it settles in a place that offers a less probing critique of the status quo than its makers might be intending, its over-the-top climax provides a brief, cathartic release from the real-world issues its story raises.

Cast: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Mike Colter, Frank Grillo, Reid Scott, Nafessa Williams, James Moses Black Director: Deon Taylor Screenwriter: Peter A. Dowling Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Photo: Focus World
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins


Them

50. Them (2006)

Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams


Black Death

49. Black Death (2010)

Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager


The Invitation

48. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Midsommar

47. Midsommar (2019)

Anybody who’s seen Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. From early on, there’s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the film’s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cult’s summer solstice festival. The film masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a mass terror, aligning our foreknowledge of that with the anxiety felt by the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), in the wake of a recent family tragedy. The result is a deeply unnerving film about the indissoluble, somehow archaic bond between self and family—one more psychologically robust than Aster’s similarly themed Hereditary. And it’s also very funny. Pat Brown


Mulholland Drive

46. Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Ed Gonzalez


Sinister

45. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Maniac

44. Maniac (2012)

Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez


Depraved

43. Depraved (2019)

What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife


28 Days Later

42. 28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who’s struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp


Piranha 3D

41. Piranha 3D (2010)

Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager

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Review: Zombieland: Double Tap Shrugs Toward the End of the World

Behind the film’s self-awareness and irony is a hollow emotional core.

1.5

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Zombieland: Double Tap
Photo: Columbia Pictures

“Double tap,” the belated Zombieland sequel’s namesake, refers to the rule of shooting a zombie more than once in order to ensure that it’s dead. Like the rest of the rules devised by the series’s dweebish protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), it’s spelled out in large on-screen text, an amusingly self-aware touch in the original 2009 film that has, a decade later into our irony-poisoned present, lost its luster.

Part of that is because the sequel highlights these rules more frequently and prominently, injecting them with flashy text effects that are more distracting than funny. But it’s also because self-awareness doesn’t feel nearly as refreshing as it did in 2009, with seemingly every big studio movie nowadays winking and nodding at audiences, trying to swaddle us in layers of protective irony (that writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to script the vacuous Deadpool films is no accident). Zombieland: Double Tap effortlessly operates in the same groove as the original, but that’s less a compliment than a measure of a failure to evolve.

Revising the world of Zombieland feels like returning to a television program you gave up on watching; though the cast has aged, the character dynamics remain largely the same, if slightly more exaggerated and perhaps overly familiar. Boisterous gunslinger Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is a little more cartoonish now, while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) is all grown up. She’s more than old enough to drive, and thus old enough to run away with a pacifist hippie, Berkeley (Avan Jogia), prompting Columbus, Tallahassee, and conwoman Wichita (Emma Stone) to track her down. They’re a makeshift family now, despite still referring to one another by the city aliases that were meant to prevent getting too attached.

A newcomer to their group still goes by her real name, Madison (Zoey Deutch), and as a caricatured dumb blonde, she typifies much of the film’s easy, uninspired comedy. The supremely overqualified cast powers through tiresome, pop culture-laden exchanges via sheer charisma; Stone, though unfortunately reduced to playing a “jealous girlfriend” type, is particularly expressive. But returning director Ruben Fleischer, despite pairing with the usually excellent cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, too often shoots the actors in close-up, robbing much of the film of the chemistry that the actors display in wider shots.

Double Tap also plays unthinkingly into the zombie fantasy as survivalist gun porn, even going so far as to add a Gen Z commune of idiot pacifists who melt down guns into peace symbols. This sequel, however, is too mediocre for such an idea to register with more than a shrug. The film isn’t using the concept to make a point, after all; behind the self-awareness and the irony is merely a hollow emotional core, a lack of anything to say because saying something would require ambition rather than complacent winks and nods.

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenwriter: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff

In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.

Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.

Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.

The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.

In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center

By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.

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Tell Me Who I Am
Photo: Netflix

When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.

Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.

Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.

In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.

Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?

Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.

That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.

Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

1.5

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.

Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.

The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.

Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence

Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.

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Trick
Photo: RLJE Films

In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.

Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.

But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”

Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.

Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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