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Review: Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network Is a Political Thriller in Search of Thrills

The final product feels like more of an interesting and beautifully filmed anecdote than compelling political and human drama.

Chris Barsanti



Wasp Network
Photo: Netflix

Both too much and not enough, writer-director Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network takes a surprisingly little-known chapter in the post-Cold War espionage game and starts to blow it up into an epic-sized story before losing the thread. Based on Fernando Morais’s 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film starts out as a crisply paced, lavishly photographed, and character-based study of what the members of the so-called “Cuban Five” spy ring did and how they did it. Unfortunately, it spreads its attentions so wide and at times without consequence that the import of the events it depicts starts to get lost.

The most prominently featured member of the spy ring is René González (Édgar Ramírez), a pilot who supposedly defected to America in 1990 but was in fact infiltrating Miami’s anti-Castro Cuban-American community. Having left his wife, Olga (Penélope Cruz), and child behind in Havana, he tells the press that he hated Cuba’s shortages and material poverty. Supported by a network of dedicated anti-Castro émigrés, he seems to quickly adjust to life in capitalist America. One émigré group recruits him to fly over the Florida Straits, looking for rafters who they can identify for the Coast Guard to pick up. It isn’t long, though, before René and another pilot and Cuban Five member, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), are hired to fly bales of cocaine to Central America—a law-skirting way of funding the cause that seems to build on the same weapons-and-drugs pipelines laid the previous decade between Miami’s C.I.A. outposts (staffed partially by Cuban-Americans) and the contras in Nicaragua.

Assayas makes a clear attempt not to assign culpability to either side of this odd post-Cold War sideshow. We see footage of the 1995 pro-democracy movement crushed by Fidel Castro and also the real desperation of those fleeing Cuba. At the same time, the anti-Castro activists in Miami come across as more than a little shady, morally compromised, and puffed up; when one of René’s more unctuous contacts, José Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia), drops that he was “trained by the U.S. as a terrorist,” he’s looking to impress. The Cuban Five spies like René, Juan, and Gerardo Hernández (Gael García Bernal) who work with the anti-Cuban radicals are presented mostly as stand-up guys, excepting Juan’s somewhat Michael Corleone-style detachment toward his wife, Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas).

There are times, with its quick jumps between countries and deep ranks of shadowy secondary characters, when the film resembles a more genteel version of Assayas’s Carlos, which starred Ramírez as Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Unlike that nervy, jet-setting procedural, though, Wasp Network is missing a strong driving pulse. The action floats back and forth from Florida to Cuba with few moments of tension, any great sense of connection to its characters, or a sustained espionage plot to keep the narrative string wound tight. When Ramirez’s stolid and somewhat unemotive swagger isn’t used in the service of the kind of pumped-up action narrative that Assayas presented so boldly in Carlos, his presence can feel like a drag, especially when compared with Bernal’s performance, which is more emotionally connected to his character, and as a result leaves you wanting to know more about Gerardo.

Assayas fills the screen with handsome actors and sun-dappled, palm-shrouded backgrounds, and drops in the occasionally awesome music cue (the Feelies’s “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness” scores a sequence in which one of the Cuban Five slips back to Havana). But while his technical mastery remains top-notch, too much of the film drifts along without trying for dramatic buy-in. When it does strive to hit a crescendo, the results fall short. One segment showing the Cuban Air Force shooting down two émigré rescue planes in 1996, in reality a massive escalation of this quasi-war, is almost perfunctorily inserted into the film.

Assayas interrupts the story’s low-key rhythms about halfway through to deliver the big reveal of the Cuban Five’s spy status. However, burdened by clunky narration and a clumsy nod to Scorsese via its surf-guitar scoring, the sequence doesn’t deliver the kind of revelatory charge that Assayas seemed to be going for. While it was exciting to hear that Assayas had shifted away from his literate urban dramas, Wasp Network is ultimately a misstep. Because it never fully embraces the Cold War spy narrative and fails to dig in-depth into the story’s tangle of intrigue and moral murk, the final product feels like more of an interesting and beautifully filmed anecdote than compelling political and human drama.

Cast: Édgar Ramírez, Penélope Cruz, Ana de Armas, Wagner Moura, Gael García Bernal, Leonardo Sbaraglia Director: Olivier Assayas Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2020



Review: Introduction Takes Hong Sang-Soo’s Narrative Minimalism to the Brink

The film is a modern melodrama of grit, beauty, jagged edges, and resonant dead ends and false starts.

Chuck Bowen



Photo: Jeonwonsa Film Co.

It would be easy but shortsighted to dismiss Introduction as another collection of sketches by the prolific Hong Sang-soo. Like Yosujirô Ozu, Hong obsessively circles familiar themes embedded in plots pertaining to characters who talk at length about seemingly very little as psychic wounds gradually crystallize. But Hong’s films are easier to underestimate than Ozu’s, as they’re so piercingly minute in scale, sometimes seemingly to the point of nonexistence, though if one cares to look below their deceptively placid surfaces, the personal reverberations are often extraordinary. Each one uncovers new emotional contours as Hong continues to mercilessly hone his aesthetic, and Introduction is no exception.

With Introduction, Hong pushes his signature brand of narrative minimalism to a breaking point, even by his lofty standards. Divided into three parts, the film is literally about introductions, and Hong takes a nearly obstinate amount of time revealing his endgame, especially for a feature that only runs 66 minutes. In the first part, a doctor (Kim Young-ho) sits at his office desk, his face anguished. Admirers of Hong’s other films may assume that the doctor is the protagonist, and that he’s perhaps enraptured with a woman played by Hong muse Kim Min-hee. Instead, Hong follows the doctor as he goes about his day treating patients. A young man, Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho), arrives in the waiting room, though the doctor is distracted by the arrival of a friend, a famous theater actor (Ki Joo-Bong).

Gradually, we learn that Young-ho is the doctor’s son, a reveal that retroactively informs seemingly trivial events with a casual agony that’s characteristic of Hong’s work. We thought we were watching a story of older men reconnecting, which we were, but it’s a reunion that’s revealed to be haunted by a father’s estrangement from his son. The vignette isn’t without catharsis, but it’s symbolic and surrogated: A nurse (Ye Ji-won), who clearly has ties to Young-ho and his father, gives him the affection that his father denied him. The second part pivots on a similar misdirection, following a young woman, Ju-won (Park Mi-so), as her mother (Seo Young-hwa) introduces her to a painter (Kim) in Berlin who can hook her up with an apartment while she studies fashion. As the characters prattle on about seemingly minor things—their ages, the apartment’s view, the difficulty of breaking into the fashion industry—Hong gracefully establishes their insecurities and surrounding social frissons. Much is made in this film of the formal Korean language reserved for elders, which suggests here a bridge separating the uncertain young adults from their successful yet quietly miserable parents.

In this second part, it’s revealed that Young-ho is Ju-won’s girlfriend, and in this role he’s destined to once again be sidelined. Young-ho is at the center of Introduction’s structural perversity: He’s the protagonist of the film, yet he’s often forgotten by others, his absence gradually becoming an ironic and poignant presence in its own right. Here, Hong dispenses with one of the significant pleasures of many of his films: vicarious identification with a male artist with several lovers and all the time in the world to drink, who may be tortured but who lives a life of notable luxury. Such figures are in Introduction (the doctor, the actor), but they’re seen through the scrim of Young-ho’s pain. They’re un-sentimentalized, their selfishness and aloofness (as well as their own pain) compassionately excavated for all to see.

Even in the film’s third part, the one that most directly engages with Young-ho’s feelings of rejection, he’s effectively marginalized—pushed to the side of the screen, along with his close friend (Ha Seong-guk), while the aforementioned theater actor and Young-ho’s mother (Cho Yun-hee) lecture him over his indecisiveness about his own acting ambitions. The older man and woman are getting loaded on soku over a long lunch, and the former launches into a diatribe about acting and human passion that ranks among the most moving moments in Hong’s cinema. The actor is merciless with Young-ho, pompously yet earnestly castigating the younger man for his timidity and daring him to take the mantles of his own life and assume the center of the stage he’s been haunting over the course of this very film.

Introduction was shot by Hong in the same kind of ghostly black-and-white as many of his other recent productions, and it finds him continuing to refine a sense of negative space that communicates gracefulness and inner turmoil. When characters stand or walk alone here, looking into a pocket of bright white sunshine or stepping into a reflective rain puddle, they momentarily slip into their own skin after intricate, implicitly combative verbal jousting with family and friends. Here, Hong continues to compress the distance between himself and his actors, capturing moments of unforgettable behavioral acuity, which he fuses with his stark, expressionistic, nearly Bergman-esque compositions. The result is a modern melodrama of grit, beauty, jagged edges and resonant dead ends and false starts.

Cast: Shin Seok-ho, Park Mi-so, Kim Young-ho, Ki Joo-Bong, Ye Ji-won, Seo Young-hwa, Kim Min-hee, Cho Yun-hee, Ha Seong-guk Director: Hong Sang-soo Screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo Running Time: 66 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn Takes Satiric Aim at Romanian Society

After a while, it’s hard not to feel like Radu Jude is simply shooting fish in a barrel.

Keith Watson



Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Photo: MicroFilm

Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is every bit as strange and overstuffed as its title. The film is a kind of fire sale of Jude’s observations on everything from life during the Covid-19 pandemic to Romania’s dark history of fascism. Its dominant theme is the socially constructed nature of obscenity, explored through the story of a school teacher, Emi (Katia Pascariu), dealing with the potentially career-ending fallout that ensues after a raunchy sex tape she filmed with her husband is leaked online. This premise might have served as the basis for a mainstream sex farce—a point that’s winkingly acknowledged by the film’s subtitle, “A Sketch for a Popular Film”—but Jude takes it primarily as a jumping-off point for some playful formal experimentation and bitterly satirical jabs at Romanian society.

Divided into three roughly equal parts—each executed in a completely different style—with a sexually explicit prologue and three so-called “possible endings,” Bad Luck Banging is an ever-shapeshifting beast of a film. It opens in medias coitus, with a lengthy excerpt from Emi’s grainy homemade porno. Shot from the POV of her husband, who remains unseen except for when his lower torso and erect penis enter the frame, the tape could easily be mistaken for any number of amateur videos on PornHub. Opening a festival-ready art film this way is no doubt startling, and it is that instant feeling of shock and surprise that Jude interrogates.

The nature of our discomfort will be confronted head-on in the third and final section, but first Jude takes us to the streets of pandemic-era Bucharest, where (nearly) everyone’s wearing a mask and Covid is the ubiquitous subject of overheard small talk. In the first section, we watch as Emi runs errands and evinces a subtle yet palpably increasing anxiety. It’s gradually revealed that her video has been uploaded to the internet, where it’s been passed around by students and faculty at the school where she teaches. Jude films these scenes as if Emi’s being surveilled, mounting his camera in a fixed position at a considerable distance and following her movements with ominous pans before drifting away to observe seemingly unrelated details of the city—a church, a billboard, some street art. Bad Luck Banging recalls other Romanian New Wave works like Cristi Puiu’s Aurora and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, turning the mundanities of everyday life into an kind of opaque, existential mystery.

Jude, however, is less of a philosopher or psychologist than either Puiu or Porumboiu and more of a historian and social critic. It’s not surprising, then, that Jude is, in the film’s first section, less interested in Emi’s predicament than he is in everyday Romanians navigating changing social mores in the face of the pandemic. We hear people discussing superstitious stories about Covid, like the idea that a Eucharist spoon can kill the virus. In one scene set in a pharmacy, an older woman pulls down her mask to start speaking, causing someone off screen to yell at her to keep it on. These now all-too-familiar scenes of etiquette and public health colliding in the streets are oddly cathartic to watch on screen, perhaps because they remind us that even in this purgatorial liminal zone of the pandemic, art can and will emerge.

Just as Emi’s storyline is heating up, Bad Luck Banging enters its wildly discursive second section, “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs and wonders,” which gives us what its title promises: a collection of ruminations on sex, Covid, Romanian history, feminism, literature, and numerous other topics arranged as a lexicon of terms, like “French Revolution,” “Change,” and “Robots.” This stretch of the film finds Jude continuing to excavate the submerged horrors of Romanian history as he’s done previously in films like Aferim! and I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, targeting, for example, the Romanian Orthodox Church’s close relationship with dictators and the slave labor that built the Palace of Parliament. While no single theme orders the reflections contained in this section, Jude returns again and again to the maltreatment of women, closing in a segment ironically titled “Zen,” which informs us that 55% of Romanians believe rape to be justified in some circumstances.

This horrifying statistic looms over the film’s final section, entitled “Praxis and Innuendos (sitcom),” a parent-teacher association meeting-cum-show trial that plays like a cross between Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” In contrast to the obliqueness of the film’s first section and the eclecticism of its second, this third movement is often bewilderingly blunt. Filmed in the open-air courtyard of a school in a deliberately stagy and exaggerated fashion, it pits moralistic parents and community members against Emi, who defends herself with exasperated conviction. This section is mostly an occasion for Jude to satirize, in surprisingly broad strokes, the moral hypocrisy of Romanian society. But while it’s often fun to see him take aim at anti-Semites, misogynists, and crypto-fascists, it’s hard not to feel like he’s shooting fish in a barrel. That sense is driven home by the trio of alternate endings, the last of which in particular offers a bizarrely outré moment of catharsis that underlines the smug sense of superiority that infects this section.

Jude is a filmmaker deeply engaged with the history of his homeland, its very essence, and his exasperation at Romania’s self-serving nationalistic myths practically radiates off the screen. But whereas I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians expressed that indignation with supremely controlled fury, Bad Luck Banging resorts to clownish caricatures. Jude’s willingness to experiment with form is exciting throughout, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film’s all-over-the-place structure is ultimately a product of his failure to fully work through his ideas, as if the sheer quantity of different things happening here would excuse the fact that they don’t fit together in any coherent way. A film with too many ideas is preferable to one with too few, but unfortunately, all of Bad Luck Banging’s stray thoughts, formal strategies, and satirical sideswipes never add up to more than, well, a “sketch.”

Cast: Katia Pascariu, Claudia Ieremia, Olimpia Malai, Andi Vasluianu, Nicodim Ungureanu, Alexandru Potocean, Kristina Cepraga, Tudorel Filimon, Ilinca Manolache, Daniela Ionita Marcu, Dana Voicu Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: The Girl and the Spider Is Undone by Its Lack of Dramatic Scaffolding

The film trickles out its story world in discrete blocks of sound and image, withholding a great deal of narrative detail.

Carson Lund



The Girl and the Spider
Photo: Beauvoir Films

Given how scrupulously director Ramon Zürcher has structured The Girl and the Spider around the medium shot, it’s more than a little jarring when the audience gets a head-to-toe view of the film’s protagonist around the half-hour mark. The medium shot is to Zürcher what the two-shot is to Hong Sang-soo—a default formal strategy from which any and all deviations seem purposeful. Limiting our view and letting characters operate freely in the off-screen space has more than just visual implications in Zürcher’s enigmatic sophomore feature, which trickles out its story world in discrete blocks of sound and image and withholds a great deal of narrative detail. The spider of the title, which also makes a cameo in a number of scenes, proves an apt metaphor: Zürcher spins byzantine webs of audiovisual stimuli from an ultimately modest dramatic core, and not only is the larger narrative design unclear before it’s finally revealed, it’s easy to get stuck dwelling on the minutia along the way.

The scenario is simple on its face but peculiar in its details. Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of the residence in Bern, Switzerland that she shares with friends, and Mara (Henriette Confurius) is somewhat bitter about it. The apartment that Lisa is moving into is a modern, white-walled tabula rasa that her roommates—as well as family members and others in the group’s social circle—are helping to furnish and tidy up. Furniture carrying, packing and unpacking, and drilling into walls provide the film’s main action, even as these activities are often only visible in blurred negative space. Zürcher’s concentrates instead on the passive bystanders to this dynamic movement—like Mara, Lisa, and Lisa’s mother (Ursina Lardi)—as well as the inanimate objects that are passed from room to room and character to character.

That the moving process dominates the entirety of The Girl and the Spider, ostensibly lasting multiple days and requiring the commitment of a small army, is patently unrealistic given the relatively modest nature of the relocation. (This is partially justified by the fact that Mara is an architect and has played some role in designing Lisa’s new digs.) But this seems to be of only minor concern to Zürcher, as the constant hustle and bustle becomes so repetitive as to take on a sense of abstraction. The relentless uprooting in the mise-en-scène—further underlined by a construction project occurring outside the new building—mirrors the evident splintering of Lisa and Mara’s alternately platonic and erotically charged relationship. Moreover, it’s an excuse for Zürcher to employ his mannered, always-in-motion staging. People weave in and out of foreground and background in static shots, often bumping into and off one another before landing in elegant arrangements. No wonder the filmmaker shoots from medium distance so often: Any wider and you’d see the marks all over the ground.

This choreographic micromanagement is paired with a punctiliousness on the level of image: the bright, finely sculpted lighting evokes that of luxe stock footage; the sterile production design suggests a fondness for IKEA’s catalog; and the disciplined employment of primary colors belies the influence of Jean Luc-Godard’s Pop Art formalism, if not a kindergarten teacher’s classroom décor. Regarding a yellow couch brought into the new apartment, two characters share a brief exchange that highlights Zürcher’s emphasis on color’s psychological effects: “The color of jealousy,” one says, to which the other responds, “and of madness.”

There’s very little madness on explicit display in The Girl and the Spider, but veiled jealousy abounds in Mara’s silent gazes, as well as in the crisscrossing romantic and sexual dalliances among the supporting characters. As the moving process wears on, handypersons and seemingly marginal passersby shift from background to foreground and become subject to the same scrutiny that Zürcher directs toward Mara—which isn’t to say that they don’t remain ciphers. The common ground among the ensemble is that they all speak in riddles and regard each other as if they were museum dioramas, a strange habit for people who ostensibly share so much personal history. Of the peripheral figures, only Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger-Vinet), a friend who seems to long for Jan (Flurin Giger) and Markus (Ivan Georgiev) in equal measure, emerges as something more than a bizarrely reticent stiff—which has a lot to do with the tenderness in Litzenberger-Vinet’s eyes, often directed longingly off screen.

Eyes are equally foundational to Confurius’s performance. The actress uses them like a dedicated marksman, targeting her focus from across a room with fierce precision, but she’s just as capable of quickly redirecting it, and Zürcher deserves credit for casting a performer who can command a three-minute shot with the darting of her eyes alone. But the conflicts of The Girl and the Spider are so thinly sketched, with so much expositional context left up to speculation, that Confurius’s largely non-verbal turn comes across as little more than posturing toward emotional resonance, while the withering jabs taken by certain characters toward one another in the final act ultimately fall flat as a result of the same lack of dramatic scaffolding. Criticisms of The Strange Little Cat, Zürcher’s 2013 feature-length debut, as wispy formal experimentation without much in the way of human feeling seemed a bit beside the point given how secondary its narrative was to the filmmaker’s fetishistic eye for detail. Here, in the presence of a greater dramatic ambition, it’s a more relevant charge.

Cast: Henriette Confurius, Liliane Amuat, Ursina Lardi, Flurin Giger, André M. Hennicke, Ivan Georgiev, Dagna Litzenberger Vinet, Lea Draeger, Sabine Timoteo, Birte Schnöink Director: Ramon Zürcher Screenwriter: Ramon Zürcher, Silvan Zürcher Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Fabian: Going to the Dogs Conjures a Shared Nightmare of the Past

The film’s characters are suffused with a paradoxical kind of fear that can only happen in a dream.

Pat Brown



Fabian: Going to the Dogs
Photo: Hanno Lentz/Lupo Film

Dominik Graf’s Fabian: Going to the Dogs opens with a slow dolly shot down a stairway into an ornate subway station in Berlin. While anybody familiar with the film’s source material, Erich Kästner’s 1931 novel Fabian: The Story of a Moralist, will expect the story to be set in Germany’s interwar era, we’re clearly in the present day, as the people on screen are seen wearing, among other things, polos and jeans. But as the camera moves through the station and up an opposite stairway, the expected period clothing begins to appear on the commuters. Cresting the stairs, the camera finally situates us in the twilight days of the Weimar Republic—or, at least, in Graf’s consciously incomplete simulation of it.

Other signs indicate that we’re in the present, from the streets of black concrete to an especially pointed glimpse of stolpersteine, the brass stumbling stones inlaid into sidewalks to memorialize Holocaust victims. This kind of telescoped approach to historical fiction, one that emphasizes our position relative to the events we observe, recalls Michael Almereyda’s Tesla. Graf’s approach, however, resists overly jarring distancing devices, like a narrator with Google entries at her finger tips. Moreover, the frenetic, grimly playful aesthetic that the filmmaker deploys suits his subject, the chaotic society of the short-lived Weimar Republic, whose tumult and widespread anxiety gave birth, at least in Berlin, to some of the wildest experiments in art and life, before these were snuffed out by the German state’s slide into fascism.

After the slow, methodical tracking shot that opens it, Fabian erupts into a flurry of images, rapidly alternating between grainy low-gauge film stock and washed-out digital video. We’re introduced to Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling), a shell-shocked war veteran with a literature degree who’s settled for work as an advertising copywriter, in the midst of a raucous night out. Fabian goes home with an older woman (Meret Becker) only to discover that he needs to sign a contract with her husband in order to sleep with her, and may even be entitled to compensation for doing so. Disturbed by the cynical mixture of decadence and businesslike procedure that underlies his diverting Berlin nightlife, he flees back into the night.

Here and elsewhere, Fabian is unable to cope with the ethos of the times, the desperation-fueled abandonment of human relations that determines the life path of nearly everybody he comes across. An incompetent co-worker steals his idea for an ad campaign and he ends up jobless, and soon after meeting and falling in love with Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl), an aspiring actress who coincidentally lives in his building, Fabian is forced to accept that she’s become the mistress of a film producer in order to get a foothold in the movies.

In its general outline, this story of a young man unable to emotionally deal with his lover’s sexuality is overfamiliar. But Graf manages to enliven this hoary trope by keeping us at some distance from Fabian with an artificial, authorly voiceover narration that alternates between male and female voices. Despite, or perhaps because of, our remove from the couple, their courtship becomes the only genuine thing in a world that’s, well, going to the dogs. Marked by the kinds of goofy fun young people who immediately open themselves to one another partake in—conspiratorial sneaking around to avoid their landlady, hijinks at a lake outside Berlin, spontaneous late-night folk dances performed in the buff—Fabian and Cornelia’s earnest romance breaks through the tragicomic irony of the voiceover narration.

The aristocratic Labude (Albrecht Schuch), a colleague from Fabian’s PhD program, represents an exception to the insidious cynicism of society at large. Profoundly anxious over his postdoctoral thesis, Labude is also an active social-democratic rabble-rouser and an agitator for the principles of reason and justice. With his ideals, the man, like the commuters waiting on the train platform at the start of the film, seems to have come temporally unstuck, his thoughts not suited to the times—which is perhaps why the more disaffected Fabian always seems to have the final word in their conversations. At one point, when Fabian defends himself for merely observing rather than acting, Labude asks, “Whom does that help?” Fabian’s defeatist reply, “Who is to be helped?” casts a shadow over the whole film.

Eventually, both Labude’s socialist-lite political agitation and Fabian’s writerly attitude of distanced observation are swallowed up by the tides of history. While Kästner’s book, published less than two years before the Nazis took power, conveys the foreboding sense that the Weimar Republic was at its end without possessing the knowledge of what precisely was to come, we and the film have inherited those dreadful details as part of world history. Kästner’s darkly satirical book turns a rather sober glance toward a society in which its author was embedded, while the film, with its bricolage of images and the dream logic of its temporally dislocated places and grotesque caricatures, conjures a shared nightmare of the past. Its characters are suffused with a paradoxical kind of fear that can only happen in a dream—the dread before an immense catastrophe that’s unavoidable because it’s already happened.

Cast: Tom Schilling, Saskia Rosendahl, Albrecht Schuch, Meret Becker, Michael Wittenborn, Petra Kalkutschke, Elmar Gutmann, Aljoscha Stadelmann, Anne Bennent, Eva Medusa Gühne Director: Dominik Graf Screenwriter: Dominik Graf, Constantin Lieb Running Time: 178 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Next Door Is a Ruthless Satire of Complicity, Artistic and Otherwise

Unlike Malcom & Marie, Daniel Brühl’s feature-length directorial debut proves to be authentically self-castigating.

Chuck Bowen



Next Door
Photo: Beta-Film GmbH

Fusing a contemplation of Daniel Brühl’s role as an actor in the global movie marketplace, and its attendant luxuries, with a revenge-of-the-repressed narrative, Next Door superficially resembles Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie. But where that film was rigged to validate its writer-director’s on-screen surrogate, Brühl’s feature-length directorial debut proves to be authentically self-castigating. Brühl doesn’t indulge the faux-humility that pervades many Hollywood satires; in fact, Next Door is a ruthless satire of that very form of complicity, in which movie stars, and even everyday people, parrot politically correct bromides while living their lives as they please, oblivious to their surroundings, especially to the many underpaid quasi-servants who intricately enable middle- and upper-class existence.

Brühl plays a movie star named Daniel, who resembles him in various ways. Like Brühl, Daniel grew up privileged in Cologne and has prospered in show business. At the start of Next Door, Daniel is prepping inside his luxe Berlin apartment for an audition for a role in a top-secret blockbuster, bringing to mind his role in Captain America: Civil War. For a brief spell, then, we’re lured into thinking the film will be a fictionized riff on Brühl’s life, which will presumably hinge on the big audition, until a road block arises. Stopping at a bar on his way to the airport, Daniel is heckled by a regular, Bruno (Peter Kurth). The men offer a dramatic study in contrasts: Daniel is trim and groomed, having completed a morning ritual of exercise and sensible food, while Bruno is older, frumpier, and clearly accustomed to more robust breakfasts and a steady diet of beer. There’s nothing soft in Bruno’s gaze though, because from his first appearance in the film, the man radiates acidic intelligence and fury.

As the men engage in a battle of wills, Daniel Kehlmann’s script shrewdly toys with our loyalties. Daniel is a condescending shmuck who’s at the receiving end of the film’s subtlest jabs. At one point, he tells the bar’s owner that he’s glad she doesn’t have espresso, because it’s bitter and causes heart attacks, moments after we saw him drinking it at home. This sort of gesture is his idea of being humble, when a person who truly belongs in that bar probably doesn’t need to consider notions of humility. There’s also a sly running joke, first amusing before turning menacing, in which people—from the bar’s owner to his fans—enter the bar in the periphery of the frame without Daniel really noticing, which succinctly embodies his learned blindness to the proletariat, until the latter forces a reckoning.

Yet Bruno is very decisively not a working-class hero offered up for the sake of easy eat-the-rich sermonizing. The man is actively unpleasant, stewing in bitterness, and in his own way he’s every bit as entitled as Daniel, as evinced by the way he interjects himself into Daniel’s morning, insisting to the actor that his movies suck while insulting him personally. Daniel is quite justified in telling Bruno that his opinion doesn’t matter, as we recognize such statements as part of a well-honed defense for someone in the public spectrum.

Neither character is conventionally likeable, though both are arresting and relatable, collectively playing to both our envy and resentment of the social elite, which gives Next Door an anxious where-the-hell-is-it-going quality, even, and perhaps especially, when Daniel and Bruno’s conversations are placid and aggressive only in the passive sense. It becomes obvious early on that Daniel isn’t going to leave this bar and probably doesn’t even want to on a subconscious level, as the men use one another to exorcise their cultural demons. They come to find their mutual loathing companionable, and in this sense the film recalls many Hitchcock thrillers, especially Strangers on a Train, which also featured an agent of chaos named Bruno.

The script teases a variety of explanations for Bruno’s targeting of Daniel, most explicitly rooting his resentment in leftover tensions from Germany’s pre-reunification days. Bruno initially claims to be sympathetic to the Stasi, which, given East Germany’s financial destitution in relation to West Germany, would parallel the social divide existing between Daniel and Bruno. This conceit, though, is never examined at length, existing essentially as window dressing for a stalker scenario. Yet Brühl, wanting to honor the textures of everyday life, especially the way men enjoy luxuriating in their disappointments while getting soused too early in the day together, also never entirely commits to mining genre mechanics. Imagine Strangers on a Train without the ecstatic release of its set pieces.

Loose, under-explored ends continue to accumulate throughout Next Door’s second half, culminating in a finale that feels self-consciously incomplete. The resigned grace that the men achieve at film’s end, coming to terms with their desolation as the quality that unites them across vast social barriers, suggests a turning point rather than a conclusion, leaving us primed for a perverse buddy movie that never materializes. This irresolution is certainly in accordance with the film’s design, acknowledging the monumental inequalities that inform our lives, often without comment or catharsis. In Next Door’s case, such a conclusion works better in theory, seemingly existing as an exit strategy for filmmakers who couldn’t quite think of an ending.

Cast: Daniel Brühl, Peter Kurth, Aenne Schwarz, Nils Doergelo, Rike Eckermann, Vicky Krieps Director: Daniel Brühl Screenwriter: Daniel Kehlmann Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: A Shape of Things to Come Is a Haunting Immersion into a Life Off the Grid

The film suggests a fusion of an eco-doc and acid western, and this disparity between genres results in a mysterious tension.

Chuck Bowen



A Shape of Things to Come
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Lisa Malloy and J.P. Sniadecki’s A Shape of Things to Come suggests a fusion of an eco-documentary and a bleak acid western, and this disparity between genres results in a mysterious tension. At times, Sundog, the lean, bearded recluse at the center of the film, resembles a fun-loving hippie, drinking beer, dancing in a local bar, and reading novels and enjoying life alongside various animals in a makeshift ranch-slash-ecosystem in the Sonoran Desert near the Mexican border. Elsewhere, he appears to have real teeth, aiming a high-powered rifle at surveillance towers and surveying the Border Patrol vans with contempt while nonsensically muttering to himself. You may find yourself divided between enjoying the film as a celebration of a man’s self-sufficiency in an age where we’re deeply dependent on the grid, or fearing him as a self-righteous eccentric who, in his own way, embodies the very sense of social exceptionalism that he resents. For Sundog, it’s his way or the highway.

Much of A Shape of Things to Come is an engaging immersion into Sundog’s day-to-day life. The film offers a reminder of how fascinating the contours of various processes—in this case ranging from Sundog’s hunting and butchering of animals to his harvesting of toad venom in the middle of the night—can be when artists have the confidence to observe their subjects without having them fit a prescribed narrative. And this willingness to put aside traditional narrative parallels Sundog’s shunning of conventional society. Sundog’s life appears to be transcendently devoid of noise, of everything from the shrill constancy of advertisements to polarizing political discourse. One of the film’s most exhilarating scenes finds him simply taking a bath in an outdoor tub, hearing natural noises and savoring a moment of reflection and comfort. When he sinks down into the water, it’s as if he’s returning to the womb.

A certain expectation of violence, accompanied by an ambiguity regarding the circumstances of the film’s creation, prevents A Shape of Things to Come from becoming a soft and cuddly celebration of a fogey living his life on his own terms. Malloy and Sniadecki’s shaky cinematography exudes a beautifully neurotic quality that evokes Vincent van Gogh’s landscape paintings. In an early image, Sundog is shot in a canted angle as he walks among an assortment of plants, which suggest frantic brushstrokes, embodying Sundog’s restless headspace. The film also traffics in more obvious symbols, such as the foreboding shots of a sky rife with planes (emissaries from the corrupt and polluted world that Sundog has left behind) and of a rattlesnake that may as well be a temperature read of Sundog’s growing frustration with Broder Patrol’s surveillance programs. Such feverish moments, particularly a scene in which Sundog appears to commit a serious crime, call into question whether we’re actually watching a documentary or something closer to an experimental thriller.

Throughout A Shape of Things to Come’s 77-minute running time, Malloy and Sniadecki invite the audience to read all kinds of deep, haunting meanings into their film’s title. It could allude to Sundog’s blossoming madness, or to the madness of a metal and plastic world we’ve constructed almost out of spite to the natural one we inherited, or both. In this rather disturbing light, you may feel as if Sundog will succumb to the machine of corporate modernity, as his understandable rage may destroy his ability to enjoy the remarkable little sanctuary that he’s managed to carve out in the middle of an unforgiving patch of earth.

Director: Lisa Malloy, J.P. Sniadecki Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Raya and the Last Dragon Is a Gorgeously Rendered Celebration of Hope

The film sticks the landing as a manifestation of what unfettered trust in our shared humanity could look like.

Dan Rubins



Raya and the Last Dragon
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s Raya and the Last Dragon recalls—and improves upon—the lifelike richness of recent Disney entertainments like Moana, and shares a somber-minded maturity, some broad plot elements, and a commitment to representing multiple Asian cultures on screen with Avatar: The Last Airbender. Of course, while that Nickelodeon series drew upon East Asian traditions, this film meticulously merges elements from various Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

But, in its expansive world-building and aesthetic variety, Raya and the Last Dragon most viscerally conjures up the experience of watching a Star Wars film. Raya’s (Kelly Marie Tran) journey from land to land—from the floating marketplace of Talon to the marble palaces of Fang—captures the sense of communities with their own rituals, color palettes, and unique problems (such as, in Talon, con-artist babies feigning sweetness). And the script by Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and playwright Qui Nguyen compellingly unspools the widening mythology of a fantasy world without sacrificing the momentum of its protagonist’s saga.

At the start of the film, Kumandra is a fractured kingdom, marred by violent power grabs among five isolationist nations and haunted by the Druun, smoke-like monsters that have transformed thousands of citizens to stone. Six years after her father (Daniel Dae Kim) fell victim to this scourge, Raya is on a quest to rebuild a shattered magical gem and reanimate a legendary dragon that once saved Kumandra and banished the Druun centuries ago.

If this plot progresses with the steady predictability of a video game—in each land, Raya will obtain another piece of the gem and recruit members for her ragtag team of adventurers—the lushness of those landscapes and Raya’s evolution stave off any sense of repetitiveness. Raya, crucially, has trust issues: It was her own youthful mistaken faith in Namaari (Gemma Chan), a fellow “dragon nerd” from a neighboring land, that caused the destruction of the gem and the release of the Druun years earlier. Each of Raya’s new companions forces her to confront her fear of misplacing her trust, and the film nicely reflects the girl’s demons on a geopolitical scale in the refusal of the five nations to unify against the threat they face.

As Raya’s would-be savior, the water dragon Sisu, Awkwafina gives the sort of distinctive, scene-stealing voice performance that inevitably calls to mind Robin Williams’s Genie from Disney’s Aladdin. Against the lofty backdrop of a high fantasy epic, Awkwafina’s speed-talking, self-deprecating wryness, familiar from her past comedy roles, seems itself otherworldly, a contemporary presence in a mythic landscape. Adorable sidekicks in the grand Disney tradition also abound in Raya and the Last Dragon, like the part-pill bug, part-armadillo Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), playing the role of both pet and transportation, and Captain Boun (Izaac Wang), a child chef and sea captain who’s lost his family to the Druun.

Though Raya is a gutsy, noble heroine with an admirable self-belief in her own intelligence and strength, the shock of her betrayal by Namaari has left an unshakable aftertaste that sometimes leads her to act impulsively out of rage or vengeance. The specter of the girl’s anger lends a level of real peril to the extended fight sequences that seem to journey beyond Disney’s usual low-fear fare. Through her martial arts battles, usually with Namaari, alternatively with weapons and hand-to-hand combat, the intense choreography suggests that both young women are fatal dangers to each other. There’s a refreshing rashness to Raya that, building on the inner turmoil of Frozen’s Queen Elsa of Arendelle, asks audiences to accept a heroine’s imperfections, even when they’re sometimes scary in action. These violent clashes aren’t the only elements of the film that linger in darkness: When Raya and Sisu meet the gruff Tong (Benedict Wong), all alone in a devastated realm, Raya’s gaze hovers on an empty crib in the corner, a wordless illumination of a loss too painful to discuss.

Raya and the Last Dragon avoids a more somber, bittersweet ending that it could have just as easily pulled off: Mortality and bottomless despair, in the last act, turn out to be easily reversible. But perhaps young audiences these days don’t need Disney movies to tell them that “a plague, born from human discord,” as Sisu describes the Druun, can do lasting damage. On its own gorgeously depicted terms, this film sticks the landing as a celebration of hope, a manifestation of what unfettered trust in our shared humanity could look like.

Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, Ross Butler Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada Screenwriter: Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 107 min Rating: PG Year: 2021

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Review: Language Lessons Is Best Served by Its Charismatic Performances

Had the film trusted its self-imposed minimalism a little more, it might have been a lot more successful as a character study.

David Robb



Language Lessons
Photo: Duplass Brothers Productions

Like Kamilah Forbes’s Between the World and Me, Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, and Doug Liman’s Locked Down, Natalie Morales’s Language Lessons is clearly the product of our lockdown era, and it has a premise that’s particularly well-suited to its technical limitations. Mark Duplass (who co-wrote the screenplay with Morales) plays Adam, a new long-distance student of Costa Rica-based Spanish tutor Cariño (Morales). Enrolled on the course as a birthday gift by his wealthy husband, Will (Desean Terry), he quickly strikes up a bond with Cariño, which becomes even stronger in the wake of an unexpected tragedy.

The film’s action takes place almost exclusively via a series of webcam chats, often switching back and forth between laptop screens within a scene, and it’s a testament to the engaging performances that this setup mostly transcends its initial awkwardness. And while the actors’ separation limits how much chemistry they can create, it also occasionally lends their scenes a rawness that they might have lacked in a more conventional film, throwing moments of vulnerability into sharper focus as the characters look directly into the camera.

Language Lessons likewise takes advantage of its restricted perspectives to expand on its central conflict in intriguing ways. Aware of how his luxury home contrasts with Cariño’s more humble surroundings, Adam gradually confesses to feelings of guilt about his apparent privilege relative to her, and the fact that their video calls provide such limited information is an effective way of illustrating just how little they can understand about each other’s lives.

Like Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton, which Duplass also co-wrote and starred in, Language Lessons attests to his interest in the platonic romance as one of the more unsung relationship arrangements in cinema. Both films exude a low-key warmth, but the characters here are less idiosyncratic, which means that they may clear a basic likeability threshold but can only take the story so far. Though there are occasional hints that Cariño might be performing for the camera and not allowing Adam in on all the details of her life outside of their lessons, the film’s framing device prevents this idea from being explored in any meaningful way. In the absence of any private moments or real-world interactions, conversations can become overly expository, as they’re forced to do most of the heavy narrative lifting on their own.

After she accidentally turns on her webcam during a previously voice-only call and briefly reveals a bruised face and black eye to Adam, an embarrassed Cariño abruptly retreats into a more professional student-teacher relationship with him, newly keen to keep her personal life hidden. The pair are eventually forced to confront their differences, and a few arguments too-explicitly spell out the insecurities and stereotypical assumptions that are threatening their blossoming friendship. Early on, the class, ethnic, and gender tensions that lurk beneath the surface of this kind of inter-cultural exchange are teased out quite subtly, so it’s a shame when the story takes a more literal approach to its themes, and its slightly contrived final plot revelation is also perhaps one too far. Had the film trusted its self-imposed minimalism a little more, it might have been a lot more successful as a character study.

Cast: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass, Desean Terry Director: Natalie Morales Screenwriter: Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: My Salinger Year Is an Insipid Devil Wears Prada Knock-Off

The film fails to effectively seize on how its main character’s life and work experiences have affected her as a person and artist.




My Salinger Year
Photo: IFC Films

Based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of the same name, writer-director Philippe Falardeau’s 1990s-set My Salinger Year trudges a well-worn path as it follows twentysomething Joanna (Margaret Qualley) as she attempts to jumpstart her writing career, opportunities for which she hopes will arise out of her current job as a secretary for a New York literary agency. Her work is the one wrinkle that distinguishes this adaptation from so many other films about aspiring writers trying to make it in the big city, as Joanna’s boss, Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), represents The Catcher in the Rye’s reclusive author J.D. Salinger, thus allowing the young woman to fulfill a common fantasy of coming into close contact with a literary hero. But it also means that the film abounds in hip references to mold-breaking literary works and figures, a familiarity that quickly tumbles into banality.

Throughout, the plotlines tracing Joanna’s work at the agency and her personal life and struggles to become a writer are so half-heartedly braided together that it can feel as if you’re watching scenes from two different films. Though she’s on a first-name basis with one of the literary world’s most legendary enigmas, Joanna views her job as nothing but a career steppingstone—an ambivalence that appears to have rubbed off on Falardeau’s storytelling.

Because My Salinger Year fails to effectively seize on how her life and work experiences have affected her as a person and artist, Joanna is left feeling like a blank slate. Aside from the moment where she says that she’s published two poems, we learn almost nothing about her writing and process. As such, it’s more than a bit perverse that the novel that her self-absorbed boyfriend, Don (Douglas Booth), is working on commands so much of Falardeau’s attention—just one more relationship drama in a film that’s too often pulled in the wrong direction.

At least there a few spirited moments that enliven My Salinger Year, none more so than the acknowledgement of The Catcher in the Rye’s rabid fandom. At the literary agency, Joanna is tasked with answering Salinger’s fan letters with impersonal pre-written responses that date back decades, and as fans look into the camera while reading their letters, the film poignantly details how the mark of a great work is one that appeals to diverse readers while seeming as if it were written for an audience of one. Which makes it all the more jarring when Joanna, per company policy, shreds the fan letter as soon as she’s done composing her response to it.

But what’s initially eloquent about this angle takes a turn toward the hackneyed, when Joanna begins to imagine a specific fan (Théodore Pellerin) as an imaginary conscience of sorts and Falardeau utilizes the character to literally vocalize the subtext of multiple scenes. The emergence of this plot device in an already insipid narrative inadvertently recalls a sequence earlier in My Salinger Year when Joanna goes rogue and responds to a fan letter in her own words. As Joanna tells a high schooler to take inspiration from Holden Caulfield and think for herself, it’s hard not to feel that the film itself should have taken her advice.

Cast: Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver, Douglas Booth, Brían F. O'Byrne, Théodore Pellerin, Colm Feore, Seána Kerslake, Hamza Haq Director: Philippe Falardeau Screenwriter: Philippe Falardeau Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Lost Course Is a Steadfast Look at a Chinese Resistance Movement

What distinguishes the film from ordinary journalism, and what constitutes its intervention in reality, is a difference in timescale.




Lost Course
Photo: Icarus Films

As we know from slapstick comedy, a fly on the wall can turn any scene into a chaotic swirl of misaimed swats with a rolled-up newspaper, furniture reduced to smithereens, and schadenfreude-inducing pratfalls. Fly-on-the-wall documentaries run an analogous risk. Given how the act of observation necessarily alters that which is being observed, filmmakers must always choose how objective a stance to take in relation to their subjects—a choice with thorny ramifications should the subject happen to be political.

Some documentarians embrace this contradiction and record their own interventions as a part of the reality they document, as Joshua Oppenheimer does in The Act of Killing, inviting perpetrators of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66 to recreate their brutal “heroics” in front of the camera. At a cursory glance, first-time filmmaker Jill Li has opted for less hands-on approach with Lost Course, in which she documents a wave of protests in the Chinese fishing village of Wukan in Guangdong province that resulted in a failed democratic experiment.

In the film’s first part, “Protests,” Li’s camera plunges into the thick of the action as Wukan’s villagers, reacting to the sale of communal land by corrupt government officials, engage in mass demonstrations and collective petitioning, backed by a general strike. As the movement gains momentum, the film focuses in on a core of activists who are determined, seemingly with the best of intentions, to take on China’s one-party state apparatus. Eventually, the protests force the government to grant the villagers’ demands for a free election, and the movement’s leaders are swept into positions of modest power on the village committee.

Part two, “After Protests,” opens one year after the election. Bogged down in bureaucratic rigmarole, the new village committee has succeeded in restoring none of Wukan’s land. Meanwhile, higher tiers of government have co-opted their leadership, driving a wedge between them and their constituents. The years pass and disillusionment sets in as the villagers resign themselves to Wukan’s slow, inevitable decline.

With protests now infrequent, the space opens for Li—with a lyrical shot of red and white lanterns reflected in a rain puddle, or of a moth being immolated with zippo in a moment of despairing cruelty—to show the rhythms of everyday life as it returns to Wukan. These, though, remain exceptions to her rule of unobtrusive camerawork, which simply presents situations as they unfold, without the filmmaker ever stepping in to impose her own politics, or cast judgment on the villagers (which may account for how Li was permitted to film in the first place). Throughout, one senses that she’s cultivated their trust. Habituated to the camera’s presence, they seem to directly speak to the person behind it rather than an imagined audience, and even put themselves at risk by revealing sensitive details.

In the movement’s climactic moments, other film crews and journalists appear on the periphery, but when the dust settles, it’s Li’s camera that remains, delving into the everyday messiness that underlies the spectacle of demonstrations and elections. What distinguishes Li’s project from ordinary journalism, and what constitutes her intervention in reality, is a difference in timescale. In and of itself, the fact that Li spent six years (from 2011 to 2017) filming Wukan’s struggle, and perhaps more importantly, its aftermath, may seem inconsequential, but it’s this dedication to embedded filmmaking, combined with its three-hour running time, that gives Lost Course its power.

The film takes its time, not only to explore Wukan’s struggle as a process, in microcosm, of Chinese politics, but to develop a character study of those involved. Even as their passion and naïveté sour, and even as they abandon the fight, denounce one another, or cling blindly to past successes as their political movement stagnates, Li’s camera remains steadfastly sympathetic. Because her politics are only hinted at through that sympathy, she leaves the viewer to learn from and interpret the situation how they will. It’s become a commonplace that the personal is political, but Lost Course serves as a reminder that the political is also personal.

Director: Jill Li Distributor: Icarus Films Running Time: 180 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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