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Sátántangó (Hungary, 1994, Béla Tarr)

A couple of New Yorkers (yeah, Jewish guys) have been hearing about a particular restaurant for years, the best place for lunch in town, bar none.

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Sátántangó (Hungary, 1994, Béla Tarr)

Ben Begins:

A couple of New Yorkers (yeah, Jewish guys) have been hearing about a particular restaurant for years, the best place for lunch in town, bar none. So, finally, after many failed attempts to make it happen, they make it happen. Well, you can imagine their excitement as they meet at the door, their expectation as the waiter takes their order and their total silence as they devote themselves to nothing but their meal. After the last crumb is gone and the check is paid, Morty says to Shlomo: “I can’t believe it. After all this time, listening to everyone go on and on about this place—the food is terrible!” “I know, I know,” says Shlomo, “and such small portions.”

With this film, the problem in that joke is inverted. The food is good but the portions are too large… way too large… ohmigod these portions are just too goddamn much! Let’s get this out of the way from the outset. More is not always better. If sometimes less is more, then sometimes more is less. Yadda yadda and all the rest of those clichés on behalf of minimalist restraint, judicious moderation, call it what you will. Sátántangó is too much. It’s just too much. Acknowledging this is a precondition for appreciating what is impressive about the film.

It’s not that I think the excessive length of Sátántangó is pretentious. I understand that the length of the film as a whole is to a large extent the result of the duration of each scene. And in turn, I understand that the duration of each scene is to a large extent the result of Tarr being a card-carrying member of the Tarkovsky party. Tarr understands what the old Germans listed as one of the main laws of dialectics, the transformation of quantity into quality; what the old Anglos called a change in degree to the point of being a change in kind. I respect this and for certain passages of the film I was completely captivated by it. Nevertheless, this very principle can turn yet again, can come around and undermine itself.

Tarr achieves an almost terrifying power but sometimes squanders it by hanging on too long. The prosaic and mundane image becomes poetic and philosophic…and then becomes boring and irritating. Sometimes, not in every scene, but sometimes. Often enough though. So the film in its entirety is, well, it’s just too much. Sorry to be so corny and conventional but it has to be said that there is not enough cut in this director’s cut. Even though Tarr obviously made his film in accordance with what is essentially an anti-editing cinematic paradigm, Sátántangó suffers from a serious lack of editing.

Dan Responds:

Tarr’s adoration of the long take is definitely all about slipping us out of film time and into real time. But before we make much of this and only this, consider that there might be something else at work here. I think you are off the mark for seeing Sátántangó as an anti-editing film. The scenes are not internally edited but they are edited together, with many of the story-lines overlapping in film time. Tarr’s use of this technique deserves our attention, particularly when you consider how audiences of this same year had their socks knocked off by Tarantino’s loopy narrative in Pulp Fiction.

Whereas other more conventional directors (and editors) cut back and forth between different scenes occurring at the same time, Tarr abjures such editorial choices. Instead he creates these exceptionally long, uncut scenes; consequently, he has to occasionally loop backward in time and revisit a moment or a scene from a different POV. This serves dual purposes. Tarr is able to create these—yes, painfully slow—cyclical rhythms, yet he is also able to show us these moments from slightly different perspectives within the narrative as a whole. This gives a complete picture of the villager’s reality that takes on cubist dimensions.

Back to Ben:

Perhaps. But the recursive tactic from an alternative angle in Sátántangó is used only sporadically. It’s not so much random as it is seldom. As far as I can see, it’s not consistent and organized enough to be cubist. I think what you are pointing to in spatial terms is a reflection of Tarr’s almost atemporal narrative approach. Sátántangó is mostly chronological, but it hardly matters because Tarr doesn’t really care that much about telling the story in a linear way. The plot just sorta sits there like a dead duck. The big exception is the thread featuring the little girl, but her (horrible!) events are not genuinely catalytic for the main tale. Over the course of the whole film, the editorial movement from one scene to the next does not convey any temporal orientation.

If I was going to speak of this in spatial terms, rather than three-dimensional cubism I would say that Sátántangó is fundamentally two-dimensional, square, a crushed box. It’s not just the sense of being trapped within a shot that makes for the nearly torturous feeling of duration. It is also the transitions from one shot to the next, because these cuts provide essentially no narrative continuity. Seems to me Sátántangó is all about stasis. And not just aesthetically, thematically too. Satan. Tango. To dance with the devil is to eternally walk along the edges of that crushed box.

Dan Again:

To say that a motion picture is all about stasis sounds like a back-handed compliment at best. Admittedly, there’s something to be said for merely surviving this film, simply watching the whole damn thing. But there’s something more to be said for allowing yourself to enter into the languorous rhythms of its box step and immersing yourself in Tarr’s dismal but oddly amusing world. Am I misguided to think that this is a pretty funny film? It’s got that same deadpan wit that fellow travelers like Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki have, only Tarr is darker and funnier; which is to say, he’s better, more deserving of comparison to Beckett.

You don’t think Sátántangó was edited by Picasso but I’m sure you’ll agree with me that inside every scene we are basically waiting for Godot. Lasting anywhere up to ten minutes without a cut, a given scene becomes sort of an endurance test. Even when there is something going on, hardly anything changes. The film time echoes real time to draw the audience beyond voyeurism into participation, only to have us participate in a lot of monotony. I think this gives the film a perverse charm. I also think a lot of the humor comes from Tarr’s decision to sit on certain shots long after they have served their purpose and cut away from other shots just as they’re about to get really interesting.

Then Ben:

Sátántangó

Maybe I’m a stick in the mud or maybe Sátántangó made you a tad tipsy, if you know what I mean; and hey, after seven-and-a-half hours—I wouldn’t hold it against you! Even so, I can’t say Tarr has “deadpan wit” or even a droll disposition. At least not with respect to form. On the content side, however, even though I can’t say I found much of anything to laugh about in Sátántangó, I did grasp that it was quite often ironic. I concede that there is a hardcore of black comedy to the film that indeed makes it reasonable to bring up Beckett.

The heavy-hitter I would like to bring to the plate though is Kafka. The characters in Sátántangó are in some fundamental way without psychological depth—they are almost non-personalities. We are pathetically into the worst existential facelessness, truncated communication and ennui. Hence, your valid Beckett comparison. But the specific flavor of full-blown hopelessness strikes me as more in keeping with Kafka than Beckett insofar as a political apparatus lurks in the background.

This association might seem weak at first glance given that the context of Sátántangó is mostly rural, remote and reeking of bad atavism rather than urban, technological and drenched in modern bureaucratic alienation. Upon closer inspection, however, the state is at the center of the picture. The fact that the government machinery in Sátántangó appears to be barely working, that the civil service is neither civil nor in service, this is Kafka coming on the scene after the revolution has failed. Kafka’s sensibility comes before any attempt at revolution; of course, the official machinery of mass society is working well, all too well, crushing the life out of the petit-bourgeois individual. In Sátántangó, alternately, it is the crushed cooperative community, the failed collective farm that is under the microscope of disillusionment. The village is fractured, competitive and regressive to the point of barbarism. This is but a local-scale reflection of the moribund communist regime in toto.

Back to Dan:

Cool Kafka call. You make a distinction between a pre-communist and a post-communist artistic estrangement from society. Since you branded Tarr a card-carrying member of the Tarkovsky party before, I have to point out that Tarkovsky’s artistic estrangement from his society was not after the fact of the Soviet Union but at the time. Sátántangó is more similar than perhaps you know. Tarr had wanted to make the film as early as 1985—the publication year of the book which the film is based on—but the censorship in Hungary was still too strong. (If reading the original book is anything like watching Tarr’s film, I’m thinking it’s not exactly a speedy page-turner.) But you didn’t compare Tarr to Tarkovsky to paint them with the same anti-communist brush. You were making an aesthetic and not an ideological comparison and I am following suit in my objection to it. Looking at their cinematography, I think it makes more sense to differentiate the two directors.

For Tarkovsky, this world is fascinating (sometimes horrifyingly so) requiring a close study. Hence, his camera gets right up in this world’s grill, seeking immersion in the glorious sensuality of the natural world. His reverence for past ways of life does not prevent him from embracing the present physical environment. He holds a shot for a long time in order to show some hidden beauty that welcomes us. Plus, Tarkovsky has great affection for the carefully chosen close-up, as in the human face he finds not only all the torments of existence, but also the longing for that transcendent moment.
Tarr is too jaded to buy into that. His world is bland, unappealing, something to be escaped or ignored. The terrain is a wasteland. He holds a shot for a much longer time than Tarkovsky in order to confirm inhospitable ugliness. Plus, he steers clear of the close-up, preferring the distant shot, literally cutting the characters down to size. They become small dots in a vast, indifferent landscape.

Sure, there is the surface similarity of reproducing real time via long, uncut shots and a keen eye for the sort of cinematic visuals that can be absolutely arresting. However, when you study the content and context of these striking visuals, you find a distinct separation in intention. I will offer just one illustration, the walls in the manor house in Sátántangó vs. the walls in the protagonist’s home in Stalker. The walls in the manor house are decrepit, weather-stripped structures giving the impression that the damage has already been done here. The walls in the stalker’s house positively throb with ongoing decay. Tarkovsky’s walls are a testament to the rottenness of life, but life continues nonetheless. The organic struggle is obvious. Tarr’s walls simply remind us that time, in its inertia, has passed and done its business. There’s nothing organic at work. Or if there is, the changes involved are of no consequence.

Add to this that for Tarkovsky there is a metaphysic underlying natural processes, whereas with Tarr we are firmly in the material world without any sort of vital principle. So his inertia is pretty much hopeless. Tarkovsky’s characters may be moving inexorably towards The End, but even in dying—perhaps especially in dying—they never stop reaching for that transcendent moment. Tarr’s characters walk in what appear to be straight lines that are actually circles going nowhere.

Ben Again:

Darn good technical insights. Because they are more than technical. You are right to side-step an ideological comparison with respect to anti-communist politics per se. But at the same time you are contrasting Tarkovsky and Tarr in a more general ideological way. For all his reactionary tendencies—medieval nostalgia, sexual repression, twisted religiosity—Tarkovsky is a beating-heart humanist, Dostoyevsky under the Soviet system. Sátántangó, on the other hand, might be just so much idiosyncratic aesthetics gone over to a fetish and ideological despair gone over to cynicism. Like you said, Tarr is jaded. And I hear you saying that his dead matter is dead for sure. Like I said, it’s all stasis.

But now I want to wear the hat you were wearing before. I am trying to explain to myself what it is about the film that made me stick with it. I want to give some positive spin to the grueling gradualism of it all. There is some sort of ultra-so-therefore-distorted realism to it that achieves its own special power.

Tarr keeps us in a scene for ten or more minutes and from the same point of view, too, in order to absolutely submerge us in the concrete. This crude phenomenological priority is not Tarkovsky’s. From a fully Tarkovskian position this is actually rather prosaic film-making which has not entered into The Image as a certain kind of poetic abstraction. Be this as it may, Tarr’s brute concreteness is just bizarre and inexplicable enough that it’s otherwise prosaic and realist aesthetic takes on a mantra/pedal-tone/white-noise/dirge/head-trip of its own.

Perhaps this is what you had in mind when you spoke of the film’s “perverse charm.” Mind you, you also suggested that Tarr has a sense of humor—something Tarkovsky is entirely without, admittedly—so maybe the best way to highlight what is better than an endurance test is to return to whatever it is in Sátántangó you found amusing.

Dan Returns:

Sátántangó

Not exactly sure what you’re aiming at by calling Sátántangó phenomenological, so I can’t say either way if it is behind the perverse charm I had in mind. Nevertheless, I am hearing you paraphrase my point that Tarr has completely cast out the human spirit. He’s completely, desperately, despondently of this earth. So, life is a painful farce. I continue to find Tarr’s contrasts with Tarkovsky far more instructive than his parallels and the sense of humor issue applies. The deadly serious Tarkovsky clearly had his funny bone surgically removed sometime back in the Middle Ages. He is incapable of an ironic pose, whereas Tarr appears to be able and willing to indulge in one much of the time.

Witness the funeral scene. Vladimir/Irimiás uses this most grim and tragic moment to deliver a speech. At first glance, he has all the fire and brimstone sincerity of an old school preacher attempting to unite a community out of this tragedy. It really turns out that the sermon exists primarily (solely even) to further his con game by massaging the villager’s sense of guilt and remorse.

Along these lines, the first interrogation scene with the official is also darkly comic in my view. He tries so hard to impress upon them the need for leading a responsible life, but they’ll have none of that, thank you very much. It’s like water off the proverbial duck’s back. And yet later, despite having dismissed the cop’s overtures, they turn around and “do their duty.” They rat out every person in the village in a lyrically dismissive discourse. The cops then have to turn artfully spun informant gossip into the kind of bland bureaucrat-ese that will pass muster in the department, yet another bleakly funny scene.

Back to Ben:

I find your interpretation convincing intellectually but not persuasive emotionally because I simply did not experience Sátántangó that way. So let me take an alternative tack on behalf of the film. I can at least highlight one scene that blew me away. I direct your attention to the moving shot of the two guys walking down the alley with all that flotsam and jetsam wind-whipping in their path. I can’t remember experiencing a stretch of cinema so visceral for me; I just got into it, felt as if I was a tumbling tumbleweed myself being carried away. At a very primal level, I just gave over to the experience; surrendered like an inanimate object free from any subjective reflection, I felt like I could have watched that scene for hours, stayed in it indefinitely.

I want to register this response for the record because my purpose is to validate in this instance the method in Tarr’s madness. I really want to pay him the highest compliment I can when it comes to this scene. I was not ready for it to end when it did. It seemed short to me. I just wanted it to go on—even with its uncomfortably menacing motion and environmentally threatening tone—forever. And Tarr is well aware of the singular impact of the scene in the film as a whole because he brings it back later as a coda in revised form.

This tumbling tumbleweed scene stands out in the film a number of ways. It is an urban street not a rural road. Perhaps related to this but definitely what makes the scene so dynamic, they are moving fast, unlike the painfully slow crawl to the horizon line in the other scenes. Add the detritus blowing every which way but loose, it’s a strong pulse of action that suggests some ground is actually being covered by genuinely motile people. The coda of this scene is appropriately not as impressive, with the addition of the teenage assistant to the duo and rain to the wind, with a bit less of the blustery garbage. Does this garbage mean anything? Don’t ask me. I will only venture to say that I am disinclined to see symbolism anywhere in the film, which I have already categorized in terms of brute concreteness.

Dan Replies:

I’m with you on that scene. The pair braving the storm as the refuse refuses to leave them alone. With so many scenes of people walking walking walking, it is interesting that this scene stands out. Unlike you, I am prepared to see the garbage as symbolic, however. This is, after all, how they view the villagers they are about to scam. And, like all good con artists, Vlad/Iri knows it’s best to let the dupe dupe himself. Shit, the whole village is giddy and terrified of this pair’s return. They know they’re gonna be robbed blind, but the thing is—in some demented way they’re looking forward to it. They play into it like all that litter catching at the ankles. Sátántangó starts to make some sense when seen in this sardonic light. With the possible exception of the cat/kid suicide scene, the film piles cruel irony on top of cruel irony.

Ben Again:

Oh man—the cat/kid suicide scene! That was hard to take. It’s disturbing for all the obvious reasons—makes Donald Sutherland in 1900 look like Buddy Hackett in The Love Bug—but in the context of the entire film, it’s insidiously disturbing by being the scene that is possibly the easiest to understand. How horrible. Yet all of it—the love, the domination, the torture, the execution, the suicide—it all makes perfect sense. The fact that it’s a little kid, a girl no less, this just makes her social environment that much more intelligible as a crumbling civilization.

Not that we can take too much comfort from this situational explanation of the child’s psychology. No sooner than we do, Tarr has Vlad/Iri give that funeral speech you mentioned, which offers the exact same excuse, thereby setting our explanatory security blanket on fire with an ironic match. And we can’t even take refuge in the fact that the girl’s death is a plot device. I mean, sure, it is, but at the same time, nothing much comes of it; like I said before, it’s not essential to the main chain of events. Everybody hits the road and heads out to the deserted mansion after she dies, but it’s not like there’s a direct connection between her demise and this exodus. Forget about it. The cat chapter is brutal. Brutal. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to survive it. A few times I thought I might have to stop watching the film. Concreteness too brute.

Dan Replies:

I’m with you on this as well. The cat and kid sequence is almost an intolerable experience. Try as you might to blot out the more horrifying images, they accumulate traumatically to become an inescapable pastiche of horror. Tarr at his most unflinching. You think you know despair? Terror? You are going to suffer through this, motherfuckers, just like that cat, and that girl.

Then to have the child’s death used as a mere springboard for Irimiás’ con; man, that was downright vile. Up until the point that his preacher’s speech turned the corner and headed down that road, there was always a chance that he and his sidekick were going to be some sorta irreverent anti-heroes, putting the boots to the system. How disheartening was that? The moment when spiritual comfort through community appears as a possibility, it is subverted by the “preacher” Irimiás into a personal grab for cash.

Back to Ben:

Sátántangó

I am relieved to hear you shine a light on the ambiguous status of Irimiás until this defining moment. To be honest, I am still grappling with this. In the first place, the basics of character motivation that are usually front and center in drama as an explanatory source are null and void in Sátántangó. We can identify the objective circumstances conditioning the characters, but we really haven’t got a clue as to their subjective thought processes. Maybe we have a handle on their behavior (maybe), but what are they thinking? Tarr does not show or tell us the answer to this question.

In the second place, even what we know of the objective circumstances conditioning the characters’ behavior is less given to us in the film and more brought to the film by us; i.e., we infer from the history of actually existed communism. Hence, we gather that the village is close to a ghost town because the entire system is in crisis. The government is not so much administering authority as merely presiding over the ruins as the society self-destructs. The village would have once been the infrastructural center of a socialized agricultural unit that has either ceased to exist or is presently undergoing disintegration. So the disoriented motions through which the characters go are the movements of individuals who are truly lost in the emergent privatization. They try to steal from themselves and get ripped off in the process. It’s chaos according to Eliot, (another heavy-hitter in our dug-out), the sort with a whimper and not a bang; (“the terrain is a wasteland,” you said—indeed).

All of this is plainly evident. How it plays out with respect to the relations between the characters is not so clear. Which brings me back to the ambiguous status of Irimiás for most of the film. Sometimes he appears to be the nemesis of the village and sometimes the savior. The flip-side of this coin is that sometimes he appears to be an enemy of the state and sometimes a government agent. When he turns out to be little more than the ring leader of a lame gang of petty thieves who have absconded with the remnants of the village treasury, and this only becomes clear when he double-crosses the others; well, what’s it all about Alfie? The seven-and-a-half-hours has got to count for something more, no?

Over to Dan:

Not necessarily. You seem to be hoping for hope from the hopeless. I appreciate your need to uncover some deeper meaning to the plot. But there is a lot of business that doesn’t seem to have much bearing on it anyway. I am thinking especially of the doctor sequences. That smug, corpulent prick bored the shit outta me. I know that he’s intended to be an in-village mirror of the law enforcement types. He’s constantly subjecting the village to surveillance; taking notes, keeping records, passing judgment. But it got old very quickly, and I really couldn’t wait for him to get off the bloody screen. His subsequent encounter with the economically depressed whores recapitulates his unsympathetic depiction as a would-be sheriff. No wonder the thieving gang leaves him to his own devices when they split town for the dilapidated mansion. His character just doesn’t provide any information beyond this that is useful for interpreting the rest of the film.

Ben Bounces Back:

I thank you for providing an interpretation of the doctor because I failed to come up with one. Your reading of him as a negatively representative of the state is convincing. Still, if we are going to hold to this take, it remains for us to figure out the significance of him nearly drinking himself to death and banging drugs to recuperate from this. In addition, and far more challenging to interpret, what does it mean for the doctor to make that trip to the ruined church, find that maniac banging the gong there and then return home to question his own sanity with respect to the bells he hears. At this point, the ultra-so-therefore-distorted realism of Sátántangó almost goes over to surrealism.

More from Dan:

I can’t tell you what to make of that crazy bell business and I’m happy to take your surrealist bait. That gigantic breasted Mrs. Schmidt who seems to be getting it off with every one in town, is she a tip of the hat to Fellini perhaps? The gigantic breasted woman in Amarcord, specifically? And that soup that the guys eat while talking about a gun deal; did that remind you of the baby in Eraserhead too? Really disturbing imagery, that. Oh, and those officials who reinterpret Irimiás’ poetic prose, a little Orwellian, but more precisely a critique of the way bureaucracies take the piss out of art, which should be allowed to range freely into impressions of the unconscious, perhaps? This film is just too strange to sit politely in some file labeled “realism.” Yes, what are we to make of that crazy bell business?

Ben Yet Again:

I feel incompetent to put my finger on how Sátántangó can be so persistently dull and fantastically unusual at the same time. Is the sensation of creeping surrealism just the impact of it’s marathon dimensions? No. Just like I argued in my review of Manufactured Landscapes, the scale may be the epitome but it is not the essence of the aesthetic at hand. The excessive size and excruciatingly slow pace of Sátántangó are more the manifestation and less the source of whatever the hell is at work. I believe if this were not true, the film honestly would be nothing but an unwatchable document about the drying of paint.

Relentlessness is at the heart of what Tarr is doing cinematically. Like I said before, he doesn’t always know when to call “cut.” Sometimes it just frickin’ does go on too long. Never mind the doctor sequences, the drunken dancing in the bar with the obviously not ambient accordion soundtrack—sorry Béla, this quickly crossed over into aggravating tedium. Although before it did, the one guy babbling away endlessly about “plodding and plodding” was almost a manifesto declaration from Tarr, proof positive that his futile scenario is indeed inhabited by the likes of Vladimir and Estragon. So his relentlessness is under control; almost an oxymoronic phrase, I know, but Sátántangó calls for riddles. Besides, you’ve made me wonder if the whole thing isn’t a big joke.

Speaking of which, we’ve only half jokingly said that it is a test of endurance. It truly does constitute some kind of ordeal to tolerate. Yet, it is powerfully engaging. Whether or not the viewer feels that Sátántangó in whole or in parts is something to suffer through (one meaning of “endurance”), I am confident that Tarr is methodologically intending to capture on film a lasting impression (another meaning of “endurance”) that necessarily requires the first meaning of the word.

His obvious pessimism about the Hungarian polity during its supposedly emancipatory development away from authoritarianism comes off as a disbelief in progress as such. This content is mirrored in the very form of the film, which does not progress either. Sátántangó does not proceed within the conventionally prescribed time limit, but instead drags on and on. It unrelentingly presents itself as Exhibit A for its thesis. On display is the unrelenting grinding down of whatever we had hoped would last and unrelenting escape from the mill of whatever we had hoped would pass away.

Dan Finishes:

Well Ben, this discussion has lasted almost as long as the film, which seems only fitting. I think I will leave it to Susan Sontag to bring the whole matter to a close. László Krasznahorkai, the author of the novel upon which this movie is based, has been providing Béla Tarr with stories for his films since 1988’s Damnation. And after reading the man’s first novel, Sátántangó, Sontag drew parallels to Gogol and Melville, while also remarking that Tarr’s cinematic adaptation was “[d]evastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.”

I feel pretty confident speaking for you on this matter when I say that neither of us would want to make such a commitment, but I hope that our discussion helps to unlock some of the reasons that would allow other folks to see how Tarr’s film could provoke such an ardent response. Sontag also described Krasznahorkai as “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse.” A more apt description of Tarr’s film would be difficult to come by, so why even bother trying?

Dan Jardine is the publisher of Cinemania.

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

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Film

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.

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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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Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion

The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.

For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.

As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.

Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.

Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.

The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.

Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.

Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria

Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.

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The Cave
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Kjetil C. Astrup’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?

Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is, despite its present state of disrepair, speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.

By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.

Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.

Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.

Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, though, work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the film is preceded by a still and distant opening shot of the Ghouta skyline, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool perspective conflicting sharply with the later close-ups of suffering bombing victims.

As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.

Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Addams Family Is an Ooky Show of Confused Messaging

Throughout, the film tirelessly hammers home the point of being true to yourself.

1.5

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The Addams Family
Photo: United Artists Releasing

The Addams family has always proudly embraced its otherness with a mix of confidence and indifference to the opinions of judgy neighbors. And Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan’s animated The Addams Family is no different in that regard, setting up its fish-out-of-water scenario as soon as Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) take off to New Jersey and settle into the Goth mansion where they’ll raise their two children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). All, of course, with the help of their loopy Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and loyal servant, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), whose rocking out on the mansion’s giant pipe organ constitutes the majority of the film’s score.

With the family’s strict adherence to ceremonies steeped in their vaguely Eastern European roots, particularly the saber dance that Pugsley prepares for throughout the film, the metaphor for the immigrant experience writes itself. But The Addams Family’s targets are ultimately not the seemingly resentful bigots who fear the Addamses’ presence in their neighborhood, but an outmoded notion of suburban conformity that harks back to the 1950s. MAGA-esque indignation, which occasionally creeps in through a comment spewed from within an angry mob, is dwarfed by a distaste for, of all things, tract housing and HGTV-esque renovations.

In fact, the film’s villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), doesn’t fear the Addamses for their cultural differences, but rather for the devaluing affect their eyesore of a house, perched on a hill, will have on the community of homes she’s building nearby and planning to market on her hugely popular television show. While Margaux’s town is called Assimilation, the lockstep conformity demanded here isn’t one that requires the Addamses to reject any deeply held beliefs or cultural norms, merely to apply a quick slap of paint to their home and endure a wardrobe change or two. This leaves The Addams Family feeling pretty toothless, even for a family film, as it’s unwilling to even pinpoint the true roots of the townspeople’s fears. Its eventual forgiveness of their thinly veiled jingoism, passing the enraged residents off as otherwise friendly, well-meaning people who simply fell victim to the manipulations of the greedy Margaux, only further dilutes any potentially relevant commentary.

In a subplot involving Wednesday’s venturing into Assimilation Middle School and befriending Margaux’s daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher), The Addams Family offers an intriguing twist on the idea of the Addamses as a perfect family. When Wednesday shows signs of accepting Parker’s fashion advice, she finds in her family, particularly Morticia, the very same intolerance they’re confronted with around town. But this nugget of wisdom is soon lost in the wind when Wednesday returns home to protect her family in their hour of need. Until the finale, the film tirelessly hammers home the importance of being true to yourself, yet its ultimate resolution, one of relatively uneasy compromise, confuses even that simple point. You be you, but eventually everyone wants to fit in one way or another, so maybe change just a bit?

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Elsie Fisher, Tituss Burgess Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan Screenwriter: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Mister America Is an Essential Addition to the On Cinema Universe

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called OCU weighs heavily on Eric Notarnicola’s film.

3

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Mister America
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Equal parts absurdist satire and ambitious serialized melodrama, Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola’s online comedy series On Cinema and its extended universe—including Decker and The Trial miniseries—together comprise one of the brilliant multimedia projects of the decade. Originated in 2011 as a rambling podcast featuring the inane and unenlightening movie chatter of fictional amateur reviewers also named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, the show has since blossomed into an elaborate Siskel and Ebert-style pastiche that has increasingly focused on the ongoing drama playing out between the hosts at the expense of any critical insight, all while intersecting with and commenting on the real world in ever-elaborate ways. As a self-contained enterprise completely produced and financed by the fictional simulacrum of Heidecker, the various twists and turns of the show’s content over the course of its now 11 seasons come as a direct extension of the showrunner’s ego and overreach, with Turkington, the self-described “expert,” more often than not a misery-ridden victim of his tyrannical partner’s outrageous whims.

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called On Cinema universe (or OCU)—far too head-spinning a metafiction to summarize in a few sentences—weighs heavily on Mister America, the first theatrical release to emerge from the Adult Swim-sponsored fictional world. But Heidecker and company have taken steps to extend the subject matter beyond its niche audience. In a shrewd maneuver that marks a first within the OCU, Mister America is framed as the work of an outside creator: Josh Lorton, a documentary filmmaker (played by series director Notarnicola) drawn to the peculiar case of Tim’s run for district attorney of San Bernardino county—a bit carried out for several months this year on Heidecker’s real Twitter account. In presenting itself as an unbiased, third-party view, Mister America allows itself the luxury of recapping critical pieces of the fictional timeline without coming across as monotonous filler for the devoted fans, since Lorton’s position as a neutral observer simply curious about a local eccentric brings a new angle on familiar absurdities.

Playing journalist, Lorton fills in the context behind Tim’s district attorney campaign with clips from recent seasons, ersatz local news clippings, and social media posts. As part of season nine, Tim ran the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, an EDM bacchanalia funded by scam money and fueled by suspicious vape oil that left 20 teenagers dead and put Tim on trial, facing a life sentence. This string of events led to the OCU’s most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the aesthetically exacting five-hour mock-broadcast, courtesy of the fictional Apple Valley News, of this weeklong trial (the judge of which, Curtis Webster’s Edward Szymczyk, appears in Mister America to provide shell-shocked commentary). One mystery member of the jury was responsible for the trial’s inconclusive verdict, and Mister America picks up with Tim having hired this person, a reactionary single woman named Toni (Terri Parks), as his campaign assistant on the basis of her dubious former ad experience.

The shady and ill-advised people Tim aligns himself with on the show—including Axiom and Manuel, the members of Tim’s nü-metal band Dekkar, and Dr. San, the spiritual guru responsible for the Electric Sun’s lethal vape oil—provide ludicrous counterpoint to the ongoing toxicity of Tim and Gregg’s relationship. Likewise, the Tim-Toni dynamic proves to be Mister America’s richest vein, as Toni’s guileless support, which verges on idol worship, if not romantic interest, periodically softens Tim’s autocratic harshness, and the scenes between the two in Tim’s Best Western “office” offer a compelling push-pull between dictatorial behavior and collaborative stupidity. In the film’s funniest scene, a boozed-up Tim tries to dictate an impromptu social media press release about his D.A. opponent, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), while Toni struggles to open a Word document, with Tim’s sudden rhetorical adrenaline gradually yielding to a resignation over his partner’s incompetence.

The wishy-washy campaign run by Tim and Toni suggests the kind of misguided political adventure many impassioned Trump supporters might theoretically embark upon in the wake of their leader’s success: an emphasis on eradicating crime, getting things back to the way they used to be, and leveraging personal vendettas for political gain. In this case, the outsized target is “Rosetti the Rat,” Tim’s moniker for the prosecutor who went after him in court, for whom he harbors such hatred that it leads to the campaign slogan, “We Have a Rat Problem.”

An uproarious montage follows Tim, fancied up in a bargain-basement beige suit and wraparound shades, as he plants signs with this slogan throughout his community, and the film’s trajectory hinges on an imagined showdown with Rosetti that’s almost guaranteed to never happen. Rather than going toe-to-toe with Rosetti on the campaign trail, Tim must instead contend with Gregg, whose participation in Lorton’s documentary throws Tim into one of his tantrums, as his On Cinema co-host knows the truth and wants nothing more than to spoil the bogus campaign—at least when not showering Lorton with unwanted movie trivia.

Just as it’s intriguing to watch Tim present himself for Lorton’s camera, outside the usual venues over which he exerts control, Gregg, too, winds up a more complex character by virtue of being observed in the film’s real-life setting. Already established within the OCU as a deeply troubled figure who medicates his loneliness via a fetishistic collector mentality, the neurotic ambassador of the rinky-dink Victorville Film Archive comes across even more sad and socially inept in Lorton’s presence. Several times, spurned by the camera crew, Gregg wanders off into the strip-mall anonymity of San Bernardino with no destination in mind. These shots, simultaneously haunting and amusing, color Gregg’s involvement in Tim’s personal affairs as the compulsions of a man with no other prospects in life beyond his cardboard boxes of useless VHS tapes—an impression created in On Cinema but given palpable heft in Mister America.

All of this may seem preposterously overcomplicated to the uninitiated, but the film is actually rather safe and inclusive in its comedic approach, leaning toward upbeat cutting and broad punchlines at the occasional expense of the drier, thornier documentation of psychological warfare on display in The Trial and On Cinema. The film’s streamlined form is justified by the journalistic framing device, of course, but Heidecker and Turkington’s combined improvisational genius is best served in the more open formats of the shows, when they have the free reign to be long-winded and dig into their characters’ respective pathologies.

That’s not to say that Mister America entirely lacks such antics—the climactic town hall meeting, which rapidly escalates toward hysteria, plays out in a convincing approximation of real time—but that it retrofits the pricklier excesses of Heidecker and Turkington’s comedy into a more recognizable mockumentary shape. In any case, what’s so fascinating about the world of On Cinema is the way each creative outgrowth expands and deepens the lore, and Mister America’s universe-specific innovations, including the introduction of Lorton’s outside observer, renders the film indispensable in context.

Cast: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Don Pecchia, Curtis Webster Director: Eric Notarnicola Screenwriter: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Eric Notarnicola Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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