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Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó

Tarr achieves an almost terrifying power but sometimes squanders it by hanging on too long.

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Sátántangó
Photo: Arbelos

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:

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:

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:

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: Come and See Is an Unforgettable Fever Dream of War’s Surreality

It suggests that a war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind.

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Come and See
Photo: Janus Films

War movies largely condition us to look at warfare from a top-down perspective. Rarely do they keep us totally locked out of the commander’s map room, the bunker where the top brass exposit backstory, outline goals, or lay out geography for the viewer. Both characters and audience tend to know what’s at stake at all times. Not so in Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, in which relentless bombings and frenetic camerawork shatter the Belarusian countryside into an incoherent, fabulistic geography, and the invading Germans appear to coalesce out of the fog on the horizon like menacing apparitions.

We experience the German invasion of Belarus through Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who joins the local partisan militia after discovering a rifle buried in the sand. The early scene in which he departs from his mother and sisters presents a disconcerting, even alienating complex of emotions: the histrionic panic of his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), who alternately embraces and rails against him; the hardened indifference of the soldiers who’ve come to retrieve him; and the jejune oblviousness of Floyria himself, who mugs at his younger siblings to mock his mother’s concerns. Eager to participate alongside the unit of considerably more weathered men, Flyora feels emasculated when he’s forced to remain behind in the partisans’ forest encampment with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a local girl implicitly attached to the militia unit because she’s sleeping with its commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevicius).

Glasha first takes on nymph-like qualities in Flyora’s adolescent imagination, appearing in hazy close-ups that emphasize her blue eyes and the verdant wooded backdrop. This deceptive idyllic disintegrates, however, when the Germans bomb and storm the empty camp, kicking up clouds of dirt and smoke that never seem to fully leave the screen for the rest of Come and See’s duration. The two teenagers flee, pushing through the muck of the now-fatal landscape, only to discover more horrors waiting for them back in Flyora’s village.

The horrors lurking in the mists of a muggy Eastern European spring may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind when he coined the phrase “the fog of war,” but Klimov’s masterpiece suggests a redefinition of the term, the evocative phrase signifying the incomprehensible terror of war rather than its tactical incalculables. Come and See’s frames are often choked with this fog—watching the film, one almost expects to see condensation on the screen’s surface—and Klimov fills the soundtrack with a kind of audio fog: the droning of bombers and surveillance planes, the whine of prolonged eardrum-ringing, an ambient and sparse score by Oleg Yanchenko. It’s a cinematic simulacrum of the overwhelming, discombobulating sensory experience of war that would have an influence on virtually every war movie made after it.

And yet, in a crucial sense, there’s hardly a more clear-sighted or realistic fiction film about World War II. Klimov refuses to sanitize or sentimentalize the conflict that in his native language is known as the Great Patriotic War. While fleeing back into the woods with Flyora, Glasha momentarily glimpses a heap of bodies, Flyora’s family and neighbors, piled on the edge of the village where tendrils of smoke still waft from their chimneys. Despite the fleeting nature of her glance, the image sticks with the viewer, its horror reverberating throughout the film because Klimov doesn’t give it redemptive or revelatory power. There’s no transcendent truth, no noble human dignity to be dug up from the mass graves of the Holocaust.

Florya and Glasha eventually separate, Flyora joining the surviving men to scour the countryside for food, only to find himself the survivor of a series of atrocities perpetrated by the Germans. A full third of the Nazis’ innocent victims were killed in mass executions on the Eastern Front—both by specially assigned SS troops and the regular Wehrmacht (though the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” lives on to this day). As the end titles of Come and See inform the audience, 628 Belarusian villages were extinguished in the Nazis’ genocidal quest for Lebensraum, so-called “living space” for the German Volk. As wide-eyed witness to a portion of this monstrous deed, Flyora’s face often fills the film’s narrow 4:3 frame—scorched, bloodied, and sooty, trembling with horror at the inhumanity he’s seen.

Like his forbears of Soviet montage, Klimov uses a cast stocked with nonprofessionals like Kravchenko, and he doesn’t shirk from having them address the camera directly with their gaze. In Klimov’s hands, as in Eisenstein’s, such shots feel like a call to action, a demand to recognize the humanity at stake in the struggle against fascism. Klimov counterbalances his film’s apocalyptic hopelessness with a righteous rage on behalf of the Holocaust’s real victims. The film, whose original title was Kill Hitler, takes as its heart-shattering climax a hallucinatory montage of documentary footage that imagines a world without the Nazi leader.

Come and See bears comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, which likewise narrates a young boy’s conscription into the irregular Russian resistance to German invasion. But whereas Tarkovsky embellishes his vision of a war-torn fairy-tale forest in the direction of moody expressionism, Klimov goes surreal. Attempting to make off with a stolen cow across an open field—in order to feed starving survivors hidden in the woods—Flyoria is blindsided by a German machine-gun attack. Pink tracers dart across the fog-saturated frame, a dreamlike image at once unreal and deadly. Taking cover behind his felled cow, Flyoria awakes in the empty field, now absolutely still, with the mangled animal corpse as his pillow.

As an art form, surrealism was fascinated by the capacity for violence and disorder lurking in the psyche. Without betraying the real—by, in fact, remaining more faithful to it than most fictional remembrances of WWI have been—Come and See suggests that the war’s horrors were the ultimate unassimilable experience of the shadowy depths of the human mind. For Klimov, the dreamscapes of war realized surrealism’s oneiric brutality.

Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Jüri Lumiste, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev Director: Elem Klimov Screenwriter: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov Distributor: Janus Films Running Time: 142 min Rating: NR Year: 1985

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Review: Corpus Christi Spins an Ambiguous Morality Tale About True Faith

It’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.

3

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Corpus Christi
Photo: Film Movement

Using as its jumping-off point the surprisingly common phenomenon of Polish men impersonating priests, Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi weaves an elaborate, thoughtful, and occasionally meandering morality tale about the nature of faith, grief, and community in the 21st century. Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old juvenile delinquent, is a recently converted believer, but he’s also an opportunist. After finding himself mistaken for a man of the cloth upon arriving in a small, remote town, Daniel decides to strap on the clergy collar from a costume and play the part for real. Better that than head to the sawmill for the backbreaking work his former priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), has lined up for him.

This setup has all the makings of a blackly comic farce, but Komasa and screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz play the scenario straight, using Daniel’s fish-out-of-water status as a catalyst for interrogating the shifting spiritual landscape of a Poland that’s grown increasingly disillusioned of both its religious and political institutions. For one, a general wariness (and weariness) of the cold, impersonal ritualism of the Catholic Church helps to explain why many of the townspeople take so quickly to Daniel’s irreverent approach to priesthood, particularly his emotional candidness and the genuine compassion he shows for his parish.

That is, of course, once the young man gets past his awkward stabs at learning how to offer confession—by Googling, no less—and reciting Father Tomasz’s prayers, discovering that it’s easier for him to preach when shooting from the hip. The convenient timing of the town’s official priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn) falling ill, thus allowing Daniel to slide comfortably into the man’s place, is a narrative gambit that certainly requires a small leap of faith. But it’s one that engenders a fascinatingly thorny conflict between a damaged imposter walking the very thin line between the sacred and the profane, a town still reeling from the trauma of a recent car wreck that left seven people dead, and a shady mayor (Leszek Lichota) yearning for a return to normalcy so that his corrupt dealings can run more smoothly.

The grieving process of the family and friends of the six teenagers lost in this tragedy is further complicated by rumors that the other driver had been drinking, leading to his widow (Barbara Kurzaj) being harassed and completely ostracized by the community. The falsity of this widely accepted bit of hearsay shrewdly mirrors Daniel’s own embracing of falsehood and inability to transcend the traumatic events and mistakes of his own recent past. Yet, interestingly enough, it’s the vehement young man’s dogged pursuit of the truth in this manner, all while play-acting the role of ordained leader, that causes a necessary disruption in the quietly tortured little town. His unwavering support of the widow, despite the blowback he gets from the mayor and several of the deceased teenagers’ parents, however, appears to have less to do with a pure thirst for justice or truth than with how her mistreatment at the hands of those around her mirrors his own feelings of being rejected by society.

It’s a topsy-turvy situation that brings into question the mindlessly placating role that the church and political figures play in returning to the status quo, even if that leaves peoples’ sins and darkest secrets forever buried. And while Daniel’s adversarial presence both shines a light on the town’s hypocrisy and their leaders’ corruption, his own duplicity isn’t overlooked, preventing Corpus Christi from settling for any sweeping moral generalizations, and lending an ambiguity to the ethics of everyone’s behavior in the film.

Whether or not the ends justify the means or fraudulence and faith can coexist in ways that are beneficial to all, possibly even on a spiritual level, are questions that Komasa leaves unanswered. Corpus Christi instead accepts the innate, inescapable ambiguities of faith and the troubling role deception can often play in both keeping the communal peace, and in achieving a true sense of closure and redemption in situations where perhaps neither are truly attainable. Although the film ends on a frightening note of retribution, it’s within the murky realm of self-doubt and spiritual anxiety that it’s at its most audacious and compelling.

Cast: Bartosz Bielenia, Aleksandra Konieczna, Eliza Rycembel, Tomasz Zietek, Barbara Karzaj, Leszek Lichota, Zdzislaw Wardejn, Lukasz Simlat Director: Jan Komasa Screenwriter: Mateusz Pacewicz Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stella Meghie’s The Photograph Isn’t Worth a Thousand Words

The film is at its best when it’s focused on the euphoria and tribulations of its central couple’s love affair.

2.5

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The Photograph
Photo: Universal Pictures

Near the middle of Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) seduces Mae (Issa Rae) after dropping the needle on a vinyl copy of Al Green’s I’m Still In Love with You. The 1972 soul classic is a mainstay in many a foreplay-centric album rotations thanks to the smooth atmospherics set by the Reverend Al’s dulcet tones, but it’s not the aptness of the music choice that makes this encounter so strikingly sensual. Rather, it’s the leisurely, deliberate pacing with which Meghie allows the scene to unfold. As the mellow “For the Good Times” smoothly transitions into the more chipper and frisky “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” Michael and Mae engage in playful banter and subtle physical flirtations. The sly move of having one song directly spill into the next offers a strong sense of this couple falling in love, and in real time. The subtle surging of their passion occurs along with the tonal change of the songs, lending Michael’s seduction of Mae an authentic and deeply felt intimacy.

The strength of this scene, and several others involving the new couple, is in large part due to the effortless chemistry between Rae and Stanfield. When the duo share the screen, there’s a palpable and alluring romantic charge to their interactions, and one that’s judiciously tempered by their characters’ Achilles heels, be it Mae’s reluctance to allow herself to become vulnerable or Michael’s commitment issues. As Mae and Michael struggle to balance their intensifying feelings toward one another with their professional ambitions and the lingering disappointments of former relationships, they each develop a rich, complex interiority that strengthens the film’s portrait of them as individuals and as a couple.

The problems that arise from the clash between Mae and Michael’s burgeoning love and their collective baggage are more than enough to carry this romantic drama. But Meghie encumbers the film with a lengthy, flashback-heavy subplot involving the brief but intense love affair that Mae’s estranged, recently deceased mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), had in Louisiana before moving away to New York. These flashbacks aren’t only intrusive, disrupting the forward momentum and emotional resonance of the film’s depiction of Mae and Michael’s relationship, but they provide only a thinly sketched-out, banal conflict between a woman who wants a career in the big city and a man content to stay put in the Deep South.

The overly deterministic manner with which Meghie weaves the two stories together adds an unnecessary gravity and turgidity to a film that’s at its best when it’s focused on Michael and Mae’s love story. The intercutting between the two time periods is clunky, and while both narratives eventually dovetail in a manner that makes thematic sense, Meghie extends far too much effort laying out Christina’s many mistakes and regrets for an end result that feels both overripe and overwritten. When The Photograph lingers on the euphoria and tribulations of Mae and Michael’s love affair, it’s rich in carefully observed details, but the gratuitous flourishes in its narrative structure gives it the unsavory pomposity of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Issa Rae, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chanté Adams, Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance, Lil Rel Howery, Y’lan Noel, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Stella Meghie Screenwriter: Stella Meghie Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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David Lowery’s The Green Knight, Starring Dev Patel, Gets Teaser Trailer

Today, A24 dropped the trailer for haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery’s latest.

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The Green Knight
Photo: A24

Jack of all trades and haunting mustache enthusiast David Lowery is currently in pre-production on the latest live-action adaptation of Peter Pan for Disney, which is bound to be full steam ahead now that The Green Knight is almost in the can. Today, A24 debuted the moody teaser trailer for the film, which stars Dev Patel as Sir Gawain on a quest to defeat the eponymous “tester of men.” Scored by Lowery’s longtime collaborator Daniel Hart, The Green Knight appears to have been shot and edited in the same minimalist mode of the filmmaker’s prior features, which include Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story. Though it’s not being billed as a horror film, it’s very easy to see from the one-and-a-half-minute clip how Lowery’s latest is of a piece with so many A24 horror films before it.

According to A24’s official description of the film:

An epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend, The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, who embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men. Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. From visionary filmmaker David Lowery comes a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.

The Green Knight is written, directed, and edited by Lowery and also stars Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, and Barry Keoghan.

See the trailer below:

A24 will release The Green Knight this summer.

The Green Knight

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Review: Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists Stagily Addresses the State of a Nation

Tukel’s film doesn’t live up to the promise of its fleet-footed opening.

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The Misogynists
Photo: Factory 25

Taking place on the night of the 2016 presidential election, Onur Tukel’s The Misogynists begins, fittingly, with the sound of a woman crying. Alice (Christine Campbell) explains to her concerned daughter that she’s sad because half of the country has made the wrong decision, prompting the child to respond that her mother has herself been wrong before: “You were wrong when you thought that black man stole your cellphone.” Defensively writing off this past instance of casual racism as nothing more than an honest mistake, Alice sends the girl back to bed, after offering a weary “probably not” in response to her asking if she could be elected president someday.

In just a few lines of dialogue, Tukel exposes the moral blind spots and hypocrisy of otherwise well-meaning liberals, not to mention the irresponsible vanity of outrage and despair in the face of a stinging electoral defeat. This short scene highlights the emotional vulnerabilities that often underpin, and undermine, political convictions, and it serves as a perfect encapsulation of almost all of the film’s thematic concerns.

Unfortunately, the rest of The Misogynists doesn’t live up to the promise of this fleet-footed opening. Set mostly within the confines of one hotel room and featuring sex workers, a Mexican delivery boy, wealthy businessmen, and other roughly sketched characters from the contemporary political imagination, Tukel seems to be aiming for a broad comedy of manners in the key of Whit Stillman and early Richard Linklater, but there isn’t enough attention to detail, sense of place, or joie de vivre to make his scenarios come to life.

The narrative revolves around Cameron (Dylan Baker), a friendly but obnoxious Trump supporter. Holed up in the hotel room where he’s been living since breaking up with his wife, he invites various visitors to share tequila shots and lines of coke in celebration of Trump’s victory, while he holds forth on such hot-button topics as racial hierarchies, gun control, and gender roles. Baker delivers a spirited performance as Cameron, but the character is little more than a one-dimensional stand-in for a particular reactionary attitude, especially compared to the more nuanced and conflicted figures he interacts with. As the script isn’t bold enough to dig into the deeper emotional appeal of Trump’s nationalistic fervor and old-school machismo, Cameron’s smug, pseudo-intellectual cynicism is mostly unconvincing.

Tukel realizes one of his few visual flourishes through the TV in Cameron’s hotel room, which switches itself on at random and plays footage in reverse, transfixing whoever happens to be watching. This works well as a metaphor for the re-emergence of political beliefs most people thought to be gone for good, as well as the regression that many of the characters are undergoing in the face of an uncertain future. It provides a hint of the more affecting film that The Misogynists could have been had it transcended the staginess of its setup.

Though the film’s dialogue rarely offers enough intellectual insights to justify a general feeling of artificiality, it does effectively evoke the media-poisoned discourse-fatigue that’s afflicted us all since before Trump even decided to run for public office. The film shows people across the political spectrum who appear to have argued themselves into a corner in an effort to make sense of their changing society, and their failure to live up to their own beliefs seems to be contributing further to their unhappiness.

Going even further than this, one of the escorts, Sasha (Ivana Miličević), hired by Cameron offers up what’s perhaps the film’s thesis statement during an argument with her Muslim cab driver, Cairo (Hemang Sharma). She insists on her right to criticize whoever she wants, claiming that “Americans wouldn’t have anything to talk about” without this right. This idea of conflict being preferable to silence ties into the ambiguous denouement of The Misogynists. Tukel ultimately seems to suggest that the freedom so many Americans insist upon as the most important value is, in fact, so lonely and terrifying that even the spectacle of the world falling apart is a reassuring distraction.

Cast: Dylan Baker, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ivana Milicevic, Lou Jay Taylor, Matt Walton, Christine Campbell, Nana Mensah, Rudy De La Cruz, Hemang Sharma, Cynthia Thomas, Darrill Rosen, Karl Jacob, Matt Hopkins Director: Onur Tukel Screenwriter: Onur Tukel Distributor: Factory 25, Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Downhill Is a Watered-Down Imitation of a True Provocation

Downhill never makes much of an impact as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next.

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Downhill
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure brims with precisely calibrated depictions of human misery—shots that capture, with a mordant, uncompromising eye, the fragility of contemporary masculinity and the bitter resentments underlying the veneer of domestic contentment. The observations it makes about male cowardice and the stultifying effects of marriage aren’t exactly new, but Östlund lends them an indelibly discomfiting vigor through his rigorous yet playful compositions. Given the clarity of that vision, it probably goes without saying that Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s Downhill, an Americanized remake of Östlund’s film, faced an uphill battle to not seem like an act of redundancy.

Downhill not only borrows the basic outlines of Force Majeure’s plot, but also attempts to mimic its icily cynical sense of humor. The result is a pale imitation of the real thing that never builds an identity of its own. Like its predecessor, Downhill tracks the fallout from a single catastrophically gutless moment, in which Pete (Will Ferrell), the patriarch of an upper-class American family on a ski holiday in the Alps, runs away from an oncoming avalanche, leaving his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and two sons, Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford), behind—though not before grabbing his phone.

This scene, which Östlund covers in a single indelible long take in Force Majeure, is broken up here into a conventional series of shots. It’s reasonably well-constructed, and it effectively sets up the chain of events that follow, but perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t carry the same weight. And the same is true of so much of Downhill as it moves from one mildly amusing cringe-comedy set piece to the next, never making much of an impact.

Comedy of discomfort usually depends on the willingness to linger on an awkward moment, to make it impossible for us to shake off that discomfort. But Faxon, Rash, and co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong lack the courage of their convictions. They craft some truly cringe-inducing scenarios, such as an explosive debate between Pete and Billie as they attempt to convince a couple of friends, Rosie and Zach (Zoe Chao and Zach Woods), whose version of events about the avalanche is correct. But they don’t give us enough time or space to soak in the uneasy atmosphere. During the debate, for example, Billie rouses Finn and Emerson and has them testify before Rosie and Zach that her memory is correct. But almost as soon as the sheer inappropriateness of the decision to bring her kids into the center of a brutal marital dispute hits us, the moment has passed, and the film has moved on to the next gag.

It’s hard not to feel like Faxon and Rash are pulling their punches, perhaps anxious that going a little too dark or getting a bit too uncomfortable might upset the delicate sensitivities of an American audience. Rather than really dig into the marital strife at the heart of the film’s premise, they’re mostly content to step back and let Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus do their thing. And the two actors bounce off each other with a pleasantly nervous energy, Ferrell’s clammy desperation so well contraposed to Louis-Dreyfus’s rubber-faced emoting.

Ferrell plays Pete as a man terrified of his own feelings, unable to reveal his deep insecurities to anyone, including himself. Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, wears every emotion, however fleeting, right on her face, which is in a state of constant flux. Throughout Downhill, Billie’s emotions range from unease to anger to self-doubt to pity, often in the span of seconds. More than anything else, it’s Louis-Dreyfus’s performance that sticks with you after the film is over.

If Force Majeure was essentially a film about male cowardice, Downhill is in many ways about the lies women must tell themselves to remain sane in a man’s world. It’s apt, then, that one of the pivotal images in Östlund’s film is that of the husband’s pathetically weeping face as he breaks down in a fit of self-loathing in front of his wife, and that the most lasting image in this remake is the look of shock, confusion, and rage on Billie’s face as Pete tells her the same. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few truly striking and meaningful images in the entire film.

Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods, Julian Grey, Kristofer Hivju, Ammon Jacob Ford, Giulio Berruti Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Screenwriter: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 86 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a Tribute to Journalists, Gets First Trailer

Anderson’s latest is described as a “love letter to journalists.”

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The French Dispatch
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Today, Searchlight Pictures debuted the trailer for The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s first feature since 2018’s Isle of Dogs and first live-action film since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. According to its official description, The French Dispatch “brings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city.” The city is Ennui-sur-Blasé and the magazine is run by Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an American journalist based in France. The trailer, just a hair over two minutes, quickly establishes the workaday (and detail-rich) world of a magazine, a travelogue struggling with just how much politics to bring to its pages during a time of strife.

A French Dispatch is written and directed by Anderson, whose described the film as a “love letter to journalists,” and stars Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson. See the trailer below:

Searchlight Pictures will release The French Dispatch on July 24.

The French Dispatch

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Review: Sonic the Hedgehog Doesn’t Rock, Even After a New Paintjob

Throughout, any and all subtext is buried under the weight of Jim Carrey’s mugging.

1.5

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Sonic the Hedgehog
Photo: Paramount Pictures

It’s only fitting that director Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog, the belated big-screen debut for the eponymous Sega mascot, feels like a blast from the 1990s. Eschewing the emphasis on world building that pervades so many contemporary blockbusters, the film remains intensely focused on the personal travails of its supersonic protagonist (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and opts for telling a single, complete story over setting up a potential franchise universe. Indeed, despite Sonic being an alien from a distant planet, we only briefly glimpse other realms besides Earth throughout the film, and we only get enough of the blue hedgehog’s backstory to know that he fled his homeworld (modeled on the original video game’s starter level) after being hunted by other residents afraid of his superpowers.

Using rings that can allow him to pass through dimensions, Sonic ends up on Earth, settling in the woods around Green Hills, Montana. He remains hidden for his own safety but suffers from intense loneliness. This much is obvious from the way he darts around the outskirts of town, watching people from afar or spying on them through windows and pretending to have conversations with them. But Sonic the Hedgehog repeatedly makes its hero reiterate his feelings in endless monologues and voiceover narration. If the best contemporary children’s films trust young viewers to follow at least some of the emotional beats of a story on their own, Sonic the Hedgehog is frustratingly old-school in its condescension, as the filmmakers constantly hold the audience’s hand in order to make sure that we understand why the hero looks so crestfallen as he, for example, plays group games all by himself.

Eventually, Sonic’s high-speed, energy-producing running causes a power surge, and after the Pentagon enlists a private drone contractor, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to investigate the cause, the hedgehog finds himself in the government’s crosshairs. As originally conceived in the video game, Robotnik had little depth or motivation beyond providing a megalomaniacal impedance to the hero, but there’s something gently unnerving about how little updating had to be done to Robotnik’s simplistic backstory to credibly present him as a mercenary in a modern military-industrial complex wielding destructive drone technology without oversight.

Of course, that subtext is rapidly buried under the weight of Carrey’s mugging. As the actor is wont to do, he lunges at each line like a starving animal, pulling rubber faces and jutting his limbs in angular motions as he says every other word with an exaggerated pronunciation. In depicting a mad scientist, Carrey over-exaggerates the madness at the expense of the rare moments in which Robotnik conveys a more compelling kind of super-genius sociopathy, a tech-libertarian’s disregard for anything outside his own advancement.

Through a series of mishaps, Sonic accidentally opens a portal to San Francisco with his rings and drops the remaining transportation devices through it, necessitating a retrieval mission to California. To do so, he enlists Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), a local Green Hills cop, to escort him. Having Sonic travel with Tom is an obvious pretense to give the former his first true friend, but the pairing comes at the expense of all narrative logic. Sonic can sprint from Montana all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back within seconds, yet he opts to tag along in a pickup truck doing 60mph for a mission where time is of the essence.

To Marsden’s credit, there’s a natural camaraderie between him and the computer-animated Sonic, which is impressive given that the critter was likely represented on set by a tennis ball on a stick. The jokes are almost all uniformly awful, following a formula of some zany thing happening and a character merely describing aloud what just happened in an incredulous voice. But Marsden impressively imbues Tom with a sense of pity as the man contemplates Sonic’s life on the run—one that finds the hedgehog living in the shadows and heading to new, sometimes miserable worlds to outrun forces that might exploit and harm him.

For a film that gained notoriety well before its release for how wildly Sonic’s original animation diverged from his well-established look, Sonic the Hedgehog does show a clear understanding of the source material and its essential nature. Sonic, fundamentally, is a goofy character with a specific power who just wants friends, and as exasperating as the film can be in its overbearingly clumsy humor, it at least never tries to make the character more complicated than he really is. But the lack of any greater depth to the core of the material limits the possibilities of making any of this meaningful to anyone.

Video games long ago began to reveal their cinematic aspirations, but the Sonic the Hedgehog series to this day continues to channel the old-school cool of platformers that prize gameplay—and testing the player’s hand-eye coordination—over matters of story. There’s plenty of potential for movies and games to inform one another, but perhaps the only aspect of video game culture that Sonic the Hedgehog brings to cinema is the trend of allowing preemptive fan outrage to necessitate overhauls from already overworked animators.

Cast: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Adam Pally, Lee Majdoub, Neal McDonough Director: Jeff Fowler Screenwriter: Pat Casey, Josh Miller Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Angela Schanelec on I Was at Home, But…, the Berlin School, & More

The filmmaker discusses her elliptical approach to filmmaking and how she compels our active spectatorship.

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Angela Schanelec
Photo: Joaquim Gem

One year ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Silver Bear for best director went to Angela Schanelec for I Was at Home, But…. The film stars Maren Eggert as Astrid, a Berlin woman recently bereaved of her husband and coping with the subsequent weeklong disappearance and reemergence of her son, Philip (Jakob Lassalle). Astrid’s life in the wake of these dual traumas unfolds episodically, as her emotional duress manifests itself as displaced obstinacy and heightened passion in social interactions.

Astrid’s emotional struggle is also intercut with dispersed scenes of Philip’s class neutrally reciting lines from Hamlet, of a romantic crisis in the life of one of his instructors (the omnipresent Franz Rogowski), and of a donkey and a dog living together in an abandoned schoolhouse. With this film, Schanelec crafts a portrait of grief that can be at once alienating and deeply moving, its fragmentary nature both reflecting the way Astrid and Philip’s worlds have been shattered and compelling our active spectatorship.

That latter aspect is typical of Schanelec’s body of work, as well as the film movement it has been grouped with. The so-called Berlin School—originally consisting of Schanelec and Thomas Arslan and Christian Petzold, her fellow graduates from the Deutsche Film-und Fernsehakademie Berlin—wasn’t the filmmakers’ intentional creation, but rather a label often applied to the slow-paced, formalist, and critically engaged art films they made. French critics and the German film magazine Revolver were the first to propagate the coming of a nouvelle vague allemande in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and, as Schanelec emphasizes in our interview, particularly in the early days of the “School,” the grouping helped the trio’s small collection of completed works find places in film festivals.

Now, 25 years into her filmmaking career, Schanelec has an oeuvre that stands on its own—as evidenced by the career retrospectives that have begun to crop up around the world. Last fall, the Vienna International Film Festival organized a comprehensive one. And from February 7 to 13, Film at the Lincoln Center in New York will be showing her films under the program “Dreamed Paths: The Films of Angela Schanelec,” which in addition to her shorts and features also includes a program of three films by other filmmakers selected by Schanelec.

Has this retrospective given you reason to revisit earlier work that you haven’t in a while, or to revisit your work as a whole? If so, what kinds of insights have stood out to you as you have considered your career up to this point?

I have to say that it’s quite exhausting to be confronted with the work of my whole life. There were other retrospectives, earlier retrospectives, and for me it’s quite hard. I mean, I’m very happy that there’s this interest in my work, there’ no question. But it’s also quite hard for me.

What’s so difficult about it?

Because, I mean, it’s not such a big body of work. I started in the ‘90s, and the first long film was in 1995, so it’s 25 years. But between my films is two or three years, so I spend a lot of time with them. And when they are finished, they are finished. And then I have the deep wish to continue with something new. And I think I know my films.

Do you see, then, each film as something new you’re exploring? Or do you leave a film with an idea you want to continue working on in the next film?

It’s not a new start. It’s not a new beginning at all. It’s rather a need that emerges from the work on a film, and I follow up on this need in the next film. And this is also not an intellectual or conceptual decision, and often it’s very primitive. So, when, for example, I’ve worked a lot with language, there’s a certain fatigue, or there emerges the need to work with images again. If you look at the way my films alternate, there’s always, I don’t know—in Plätze in Städten [Schanelec’s first feature] there’s hardly any talking, in Passing Summer lots of talking, then in Marseille, again, hardly any. So, certain needs develop, and they come from exhaustion.

In fact, I noticed that The Dreamed Path has no subtitles on Amazon Prime, and perhaps it doesn’t need them because as you said it’s one of your films that’s so visual.

This is only one point how one film comes from another. Ah, there are lots, but it happens, as I said, not rationally, but instead it emerges from certain needs.

To what degree do you feel an affinity with something called the Berlin School? And if you did, do you feel like it’s so-last-decade, do you feel it’s over now?

To start at the beginning, it was only Thomas Arsland, Christian Petzold, and I. And Thomas and I had become friends already at the Filmhochschule. And via this concept, “Berlin School,” it was much easier to make the films visible, because we hadn’t made so many films. But then under the concept “Berlin School,” one could show the whole set. Then the films were also shown abroad very often, and naturally that was good, and we were happy with that. But the concept didn’t result from collaborative work, but only from a look at the finished films. And we—Thomas and I—never, though we were friends, we never worked together even at the Filmhochschule. There was no cooperation, and correspondingly, the films developed completely differently over the course of these 15 years—or I don’t really know how long this concept has existed. If you look at the films only of the three of us, you’ll see they’re very different from one another. And mine are somewhere different entirely. In my eyes, anyway.

I agree.

And therefore the concept is not relevant for me. What’s also positive, though, is this next generation came up—Christoph Hochhäuser, Nicolas Wackerbarth—and the two of them are from Revolver, and are very practiced at communicating. And that was also positive, because for Thomas and I that was unaccustomed. We had much more worked each for ourselves.

Turning to I Was at Home, But …, there’s a lot of Hamlet in the film. You translated a volume of Shakespeare plays a couple of years ago, so it’s clear why Hamlet appears in it to a certain extent, but I’m wondering what has drawn you to Shakespeare recently, and whether your work translating him served as a kind of germ for the film.

What I can say is that I translated, between the year 2000 and five years ago, six or seven Shakespeare pieces, and Hamlet was quite long ago, but it was the one that impressed me to a very extreme point. It’s a very intense work to translate dialogues, because in a way I try to find out how I can say something. It’s not a text, it’s words which are spoken. And so there’s a confrontation, an intense confrontation that belongs to me, that remains present to me. When I began to write the script, I didn’t write it with Hamlet in mind. But when I considered, how will one see the students, and I thought, I want to see the students without the teacher. What could they do? They could perform. What could they perform? Hamlet. It came back to me. My confrontation as someone who’s staging something with actors—the confrontation with staging—is to be found in the Hamlet scene. That is, what does the spoken word mean in front of a camera, and in comparison to the stage, and all these questions, I could think through them. That’s actually it. In a moment in which language is so expressive, like in Shakespeare, that has consequences for the performance, for the expression of the play, because the children simply say the sentences, but they don’t really play it. But it’s important to understand that just saying it doesn’t mean emptiness, it just means to let the body work, I mean to let the body express itself without will, without position.

One thing that I was picking up on in how you use Shakespeare is that when you’re going through the kind of grief that Astrid and Philip are going through—especially if you’ve lost a parent—that’s an almost universal experience, and you feel like it’s something that has been played through so many times. You feel that grief intensely, but you also feel that you aren’t unique—it’s in Hamlet, everybody goes through this.

You’re completely right. I don’t feel unique at all [laughs]. It’s interesting that you say it. I never talk about it. It’s just sometimes I try to describe that. But what I’m interested in isn’t what is special about the individual person. I speak much more about what unites us, about [what is] basically human, than about the individual. So, yeah, to that extent, you’re right. That’s somehow interesting, somehow very important, because it’s important to me that the characters you see can be anyone.

You’ve spoken of the importance of space in your films—of the emplacement of the characters, so to speak. I Was at Home, But… clearly takes place in Berlin. But to what extent do you see it as a “Berlin film”? Could this story take place somewhere else?

Yeah, for sure it could take place somewhere else. But Germany isn’t so big [laughs]. Of course, this film was shot in Berlin because I live there. But there’s also a reason why I live in Berlin. There aren’t so many alternatives if you want to live in a big city. What’s special about Berlin is that many people live there who aren’t from the city, and that shapes it. And the streets are very broad in Berlin. One notices this in particular when one wants to shoot a “big city” shot showing a lot of people—that’s very hard to find in Berlin. One has to go to Friedrichstraße, or these days Alexanderplatz. But even there, it’s simply so wide. And because, before as now, the city is so varied, the tourists aren’t totally concentrated. There aren’t so many alternatives when one wants to aim at explaining the big city, and a city where there are foreigners. The young man, for example, in the long dialogue scene in the middle, he’s applying to be a professor. That’s already complicated. So obviously it’s a city in which foreigners work at colleges and apply for professorships. There aren’t many alternatives to this.

I think that audiences, when watching your films, realize how much work the standards of conventional narrative do for us. Yours have a kind of different infrastructure. They call on us to fill in more of the gaps, especially when it comes to relationships between the characters, which are established largely through implication. How conscious of structure are you when you’re writing or conceptualizing your films?

I think I’m very aware of classic storytelling. I’m very aware of it as everyone, as someone who sees films, also as someone who worked a long time in the theater. I’m very aware of it, but I use it in a different way, because my interest is on the moment. For me, every moment is essential as it für sich [“for itself”], as one says in German. So, every moment I see für sich. I don’t tell any moment in order that this moment makes me able to tell another moment. So, this is a very different way to narrate. And, yes, maybe this describes it already, that also this classical narration is a narration of storytelling and not how life moves on.

I Was at Home, But… conveys a clear sense of structure. It has these bookends, the scenes with the donkey and the dog. There’s a sense of self-parody there: We see the donkey looking out the window, ignoring the dog, and then, soon thereafter, we see Philip’s school director doing the same thing with him. I know you’re probably sick of being asked “what’s with the animals,” but is self-parody part of what’s going on here?

No, I mean, I didn’t reflect on that, what you’ve said. I had this character of this boy, and he came from nature, and I had this wish to show nature, but I didn’t want to show him, so I noticed that I wanted to show animals instead, because they live in nature, more natural than a child can. They aren’t missed, you understand what I mean? We were looking on location, scouting for a stable for the animals, and a stable normally doesn’t have windows, so we saw many stables where we shot it in Croatia. And then we saw an abandoned schoolhouse, abandoned for 20 years, had a window and a small stage. I saw it and I thought immediately I want to shoot the animals here, not in a stable but in this abandoned house. So, I had the opportunity to let the donkey look out of the window, and I felt that this is good. But I didn’t think, “Ah, okay, then it will be a great parody of the school director, who also will look out of the window.” He looks out of the window because he’s waiting for the mother because he’s in a situation where he cannot talk to that child. So, it’s easier to look out of the window. Also, the donkey cannot talk to the dog [laughs]. So, for me it doesn’t make sense to reflect on that. I just follow and trust my relation to what I want to see and tell.

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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked

Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.

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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
Photo: Neon

It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.


Crash

92. Crash (2005)

Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz

What Should Have Won: Munich


Cimarron

91. Cimarron (1931)

As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard

What Should Have Won: The Front Page


Out of Africa

90. Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barry’s syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. “I had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,” says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streep’s accent. This is one of the actress’s busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusion—an overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africa’s biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if one’s brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Color Purple


A Beautiful Mind

89. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon character’s world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesn’t lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematician’s life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesn’t quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophrenia’s grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If it’s impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mind’s first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, that’s because the film’s comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poet’s Society, or the most earnest believers in a cliché I always wished had made it into Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding One’s Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez

What Should Have Won: Gosford Park


Braveheart

88. Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibson’s panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the director’s career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick

What Should Have Won: Babe


The Broadway Melody

87. The Broadway Melody (1930)

Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melody’s win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singin’ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the film’s every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: In Old Arizona


Around the World in 80 Days

86. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Todd’s dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivens’s entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflas’s shameless mugging as Fogg’s lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaine’s Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the world’s entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, it’s three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparents’ attic. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: Friendly Persuasion


Shakespeare in Love

85. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully—or, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bard’s misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin

What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line


Gladiator

84. Gladiator (2000)

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene

What Should Have Won: Traffic


The Greatest Shot on Earth

83. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man


American Beauty

82. American Beauty (1999)

A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene

What Should Have Won: The Insider


Argo

81. Argo (2012)

There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley

What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty

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