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Sinful Cinema: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

The film’s most egregious flaws are freely (and somewhat hilariously) pointed out by Joe Berlinger in his DVD commentary track.

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Sinful Cinema: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

Studio meddling and directorial straw-grasping really hammered the coffin nails into Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the viciously derided, multi-media sequel to one of the biggest (and most profitable) film phenomenons in history. Whether necessary or not, someone was bound to make a follow-up to The Blair Witch Project; the tricky part was how to do it. From a distance, the most laughable decisions made by Artisan Entertainment, which hastily hurried the sequel’s production while high on the first film’s success, involve silly, superficial adherences to The Blair Witch Project’s faux-doc qualities. Soldiering forward without the blessings of first-installment directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (who reluctantly remained attached as executive producers), the studio hired a documentarian (Paradise Lost helmer Joe Berlinger), and endorsed the hiring of unknown actors like Erica Leerhsen, Tristen Skylar, and Stephen Barker Turner, who, in a worthless nod to Heather Donahue and company’s ostensible self-portrayals, have the barely-tweaked character names Erica Geerson, Tristen Ryler, and Stephen Ryan Parker. Since Book of Shadows, in plot and format, largely and clearly operates as a traditional narrative film, shot predominantly in 35mm and acknowledging its predecessor as a fiction, such choices feel more like frivolous insults than attempts to retain the original’s spirit. The sequel itself might have some intriguing thoughts about mixed perceptions of reality, but there was no sense trying to keep up the ruse that anything about the Blair Witch brand is factual.

Book of Shadows—which is named after a kind of of Wiccan bible, but, as Roger Ebert observed in his review, contains no actual book of shadows—begins with a brief mockumentary highlighting Blair Witch Project fever, with clips of media reactions from folks like Ebert himself, and interviews with actual residents of Burkittsville, Maryland, where Myrick and Sanchez shot their no-budget gem in 1998. It then pauses to introduce the misguided, mental-asylum backstory of cast leader Jeffrey Patterson (Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donnovan), before finally commencing the movie proper, which follows five rabid fans—video-savvy Jeff, peacfeul Wiccan Erica, researcher couple Tristen and Stephen, and goth psychic Kim Diamond (Kim Director)—as they venture into the dreaded Black Hills Forest, where the original trio screamed their guts out, and where tours are now regular conducted by folks like Jeff. Camping out at the cabin ruins where all that famous, shaky-cam footage was “found,” the quintet drink, smoke, and crack jokes around a fire (“How many Heather Donahues does it take to screw in a light bulb? JUUUSSSST OOOONNNEE!!!!!”), before blacking out and waking up to find their site and stuff trashed, along with some curious footage of their own.

The film’s most egregious flaws are freely (and somewhat hilariously) pointed out by Berlinger in his DVD commentary track. The director (who co-wrote the script with Dick Beebe) explains that the tacky shots of campside gore that frequently interrupt the action, as well as the police interrogations that break up the film’s chronology, were entirely forced upon him by the studio, in an effort to “raise the stakes” and create a more commercial type of horror film. In his original cut, he says, the malfeasance that’s ultimately tied together was reserved exclusively for the finale, and the B-grade shots of corn-syrup gooeyness weren’t included at all (in regard to the disagreement, he quips, “But what do I know? I’m just the director”). To Berlinger’s credit, the cut he describes sounds like an extremely superior work, amounting to minimalistic shocks and abrupt, disturbing ends similar to those in The Blair Witch Project. Berlinger was, in fact, an inspired choice to helm this movie, not because he’s simply a documentarian, but because his signature documentary is about youths tied up in grisly circumstances, and about media’s influence on consumer perceptions. The two themes Book of Shadows aims to explore are group hysteria (which Stephen says leads to “collective delusion”), and the different receptions of different types of media, specifically film versus video. “Video never lies Kim,” Jeff says early on. “Film does, though.” This statement becomes the knife’s edge on which the rest of the movie teeters, and the audience is ultimately offered two different visions of the same story, each one through a different lens. The 35mm visuals, naturally, play out as if they’re showing events as they happened, but then there’s the contrasting inclusion of various surveillance footage and Jeff’s own videos, which were initially meant to document potential “paranormal activity” (snicker), and are then scoured for answers about what went down when the crew blacked out.

Even in this age when the idea of film as a definable medium is itself ambiguous, Berlinger and Beebe’s conceit is cool and provocative, and a 2000 film that examines the hysteria of another film via the further hysteria that develops among those obsessed with that film must be some kind of meta milestone. And there are some deft, genuine shocks to relish here. The scene in which Jeff discovers his own tapes is a brief, but wonderfully sustained bit of layered dread, with Kim tearfully distraught that she somehow knew where to find them, Erica boisterously befuddled as to why a rival tour group— who, initially, are blamed for all that’s happened—would trash everything but the footage, and pregnant Tristen suddenly suffering a miscarriage, which is revealed by blood that she smears on her face with a hand that had been resting on her crotch. In its own haphazard way, the ending, too, is something of a doozy, upending assumptions and showing gusto in its murky, psychological nastiness.

But the remarkable, culturally astute thriller that might have existed here is buried deep, like a stack of dirty DV tapes, suppressed by Artisan’s money-grubbing and Berlinger’s own unrestrained grandiloquence. The director’s thesis is strong, but, be it original cut or pasteurized product, his execution, in general, is not. Beyond the interspersed, studio-enforced bits, Book of Shadows’s 35mm content is packed with useless symbolism and a veritable pile-on of unexplainable happenings, all to drill in the established notion that shit ain’t right in those woods. Objects like vehicles are mysteriously destroyed then magically reformed, visual Easter eggs are randomly scattered throughout (like the word “No” inexplicably smeared on a grimy window pane), and multiple hallucinations, like Kim feasting on an owl or Stephen and Erica engaging in S&M, are rampant, implying a poor taste level similar to that which Berlinger condemns in his commentary. To boot, the director goes mad with his incongruous glut of strained horror homage, merging Rosemary’s Baby satanic rituals and Cuckoo’s Nest med-staff maniacs with the Exorcist-plucked idea of playing something backwards in order to gather answers. Suggesting that Berlinger wanted to cram all his influences into his (potentially) single shot at a narrative feature, it’s all so much more than this movie can warrant or support. It proves that even before Artisan got its bloody hands on things, there wasn’t much of a spell to be cast here.

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Review: Villains Serves Up Gratingly Quirky Case-and-Mouse Hijinks

Maika Monroe’s engaging performance serves only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.

1.5

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Villains
Photo: Alter

It’s emblematic of the problems with Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s blackly comic thriller Villains that by far the most compelling thing in the film is its end credits sequence. Set to Courtney Barnett’s grungy punk anthem “Pedestrian at Best,” the animated end titles are an explosion of whacked-out Day-Glo excess, suggesting a film of raucousness and acidity rather than the gratingly quirky cat-and-mouse game to which they’re attached.

Villains pits an ostensibly lovable pair of offbeat outlaws, Jules (Maika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgård), against an oddball husband-and-wife duo, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), whose impeccable manners and stuck-in-the-‘70s aesthetic belies their complete sociopathy. The film opens on Jules and Mickey haphazardly, but successfully, robbing a convenience store before promptly running out of gas not long after making their getaway. What seems like the setup for a jokey riff on the Bonnie and Clyde story takes a darker turn when the drug-addled duo breaks into a nearby house hoping to steal a car or at least siphon some gas only to find a young girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained up in the basement. Just as Jules and Mickey are deciding what to do with the kid, George and Gloria arrive home, setting off a game of brinkmanship between the two couples.

While Berk and Olsen manage a few clever twists, there’s no sense of stakes throughout, and in no small part because the four main characters feel less like real people caught up in a dangerous situation than repositories of phony eccentricities. George and Gloria’s house, furnished in the style of the late 1970s, with burnt-orange couches and an antique cathode-ray TV, is too impeccably art-directed to feel like anything other than a film set. His smooth-talking salesman patter is overwritten, robbing the character of any truly sinister edge. And while her bizarre behavior—she seduces Mickey with a burlesque routine and treats a baby doll as if it were her infant son—is supposedly motivated by her mental instability, it comes off more like the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to get a rise out of the audience.

Jules and Mickey are a bit more down to earth but scarcely more believable, mostly because Villains feels the need to keep underlining the zaniness of their criminality as, for example, they struggle to figure out how to rob a cash register and snort cocaine for energy the way Popeye eats spinach. It doesn’t help that the performances tend toward the mannered and over-the-top. Donovan and Sedgwick adopt the exaggerated Southern drawl of a televangelist couple, while Skarsgård is shouty and demonstrative. Only Monroe really strikes the right balance between the absurd and the sincere, finding a sense of vulnerability within Jules’s naïve dreaminess. But her sensitive, engaging performance stands out too sharply, ultimately serving only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.

Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Baumgartner, Noah Robbins Director: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Screenwriter: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Distributor: Alter Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Laundromat Flimsily Addresses the Panama Papers Scandal

Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the scandal, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro.

1.5

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The Laundromat
Photo: Netflix

Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the true-life Panama Papers scandal with The Laundromat, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro. Smug one-percenters Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman, speaking in an uproariously broad German accent) are the often on-screen narrators of the film. They’re the heads of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co., which provided offshore financial services to shady clientele (Wall Street types, arms merchants and dictators, Margaret Thatcher’s son, etc.) until a leak by an anonymous source, still known only as “John Doe,” brought the company down in 2016 and led to global repercussions.

From the showy first scene (Soderbergh once again serves as director of photography under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews), the dapperly dressed Fonseca and Mossack act like the wronged heroes of an ages-old saga. They pompously begin their story at the start of humanity, the two of them, like gods in tailored suits, gifting a group of cavemen the means to make fire. In the same shot, the duo descends into a gaudy nightclub where they attempt to explain, Big Short-style, the enduring power of money and the ways in which shell companies shield the super-rich from taxes. It’s a to-camera lecture that’s drier than the Sahara Desert. Though the woozy ennui that quickly sets in seems somewhat intentional, as if Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, adapting Jake Bernstein’s 2017 book Secrecy World, are making the point that schemes like this are by their nature insipid and impossible to explain. The less sense it all makes, the better protection for those massive liquid assets.

There is, of course, an ample human cost to all the wheeling and dealing. Some of the money Mossack Fonseca oversaw was connected to a low-cost insurance company that sold a fraudulent policy to Shoreline Cruises, the tourist outfit behind the 2005 Ethan Allen boat accident on Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, that claimed 21 lives. Soderbergh very effectively recreates that tragedy here, focusing in particular on retiree Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), whose husband, Joe (James Cromwell), drowns after the vessel capsizes. Ellen launches her own investigation when the insurance payout from Joe’s death proves a pittance and the “golden years” existence she hoped for slips away. (Sharon Stone pops up as an officious realtor who snatches the Las Vegas apartment of Ellen’s dreams right out from under her.) Ellen, however, is more of a recurring protagonist since The Laundromat takes a Traffic approach narratively, jumping around the globe for a series of visually color-coded vignettes that focus on different, and seemingly disparate, characters.

There’s a noirish encounter between the Ethan Allen’s bewildered Captain Perry (Robert Patrick) and the agitated go-between, Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), who bought the illicit insurance policy that’s landed Shoreline Cruises in hot water. Elsewhere, a ludicrously wealthy man (Nonso Anozie), preparing for a party in his sun-soaked mansion, navigates the fall-out from an affair by attempting to buy the silence of both his daughter (Jessica Allain) and his wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird) with a portfolio that’s ostensibly, but not actually, worth millions. But the best in a largely banal show is a gut-busting visit to a dusty south-of-the-border bar where Will Forte and Chris Parnell, playing characters credited as “Doomed Gringo #1” and “Doomed Gringo #2,” discuss Neil Diamond and run afoul of a cartel boss.

As in Soderbergh’s Traffic, all of these bits and pieces are connected, in this case to Mossack Fonseca’s underhanded business practices. And also like Traffic, The Laundromat flirts with and occasionally tips over into racist stereotyping, as in a chilly Far East vignette in which Matthias Schoenaerts plays a debonair man of mystery named Maywood who’s poisoned by a woman, Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), who has high-up connections to the Chinese government and very much acts the part of the nefarious Dragon Lady seductress.

Streep herself is involved in another kind of ethnically based narrative wrinkle, though it’s something of a spoiler to say exactly how. (Best to just note that Ellen Martin isn’t the only role that the actress plays in the film.) The particulars of this choice are staggeringly ill-advised. Though they do act as foundation for The Laundromat’s impressive coup-de-cinema finale in which Streep sheds several chameleonic skins and offers a fourth-wall-shattering call to arms—a bold climax in no way worthy of the flimsy film that precedes it.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Melissa Rauch, Jeff Michalski, Jane Morris, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Cristela Alonzo, Larry Clarke, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Nonso Anozie, Larry Wilmore, Jessica Allain, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Matthias Schoenarts, Rosalind Chao, Kunjue Li, Ming Lo, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone Director: Steven Soderbergh Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: To the Ends of the Earth Masterfully Reckons with the Nature of Fear

With his latest, Kiyoshi Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.

4

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To the Ends of the Earth
Photo: New York Film Festival

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films are, by and large, intensely fixated on representing the experience of fear, and the range of human preoccupations that generate it: burgeoning technological development, encroaching environmental disaster, ecological instability, the lingering presence of the dead, and, of course, our capacities and limitations as individuals. More recently, the Japanese auteur has illustrated just how foundational, and persuasive, that fear is to the human psyche through a more stripped-down aesthetic. And this approach led him to a logical terminus: 2016’s Creepy, a seemingly straightforward procedural that, in its absence of any real explanation for the violent behaviors that its characters are prone to, put forth the chilling suggestion that no less than our free will itself is innately negated by the insurmountable influence of our own fear.

Kurosawa’s latest represents an even more radical departure for the filmmaker, as he abandons his typically taut narrative framework for a film squarely focuses on character—a strategy that results in the his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrive in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and become increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior.

Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) is a diligent and unwavering TV host, and the sole woman traveling with the camera crew. When the cameras are on her, she performs energetically and enthusiastically, without hesitation—wolfing down a bowl of undercooked rice with aplomb and toughing out multiple turns on a ludicrously raucous amusement park ride, all so that her cohorts can “get the shot.” Off camera, though, a very different Yoko appears: a docile young woman whose exchanges with her director, Yoshioko (Shota Sometani), and cameraman, Iwao (Ryo Kase), are marked by an obvious impression that, as a woman, she reacts subordinately to the men who give her instructions, even when doing so puts her wellbeing at risk. Yoko’s gender likewise colors her interactions with the Uzbeks she encounters: One man bristles at taking her out in his boat, and another shows great concern for her safety when she’s on the park ride, but only in a way that infantilizes her, as he initially assumes that Yoko is “under age,” then refers to her as a “child” even after it’s explained to him that she’s an adult.

The film seems at first to position itself as a study on how gender roles inform the different ways that Yoko is treated by the countryman with whom she’s traveling, and by the local Uzbeks. But Kurosawa has only just begun to develop his underlying thesis by this point. As Yoko strikes out on her own, exploring the landscape of an entirely foreign Uzbekistan, she’s guided by both her curiosity and her considerable cautiousness, two poles of her personality that determine behavior in a variety of spaces, from the more sparsely populated residential areas, to the densely crowded marketplaces, to the sprawling plains beyond the city.

Since Yoko herself doesn’t speak the language, Kurosawa chooses not to subtitle the Uzbek dialogue spoken throughout To the Ends of the Earth, and this decision, combined with the use of a filmic grammar that often feels ported over from the director’s horror films (dramatic lighting, wide frames that emphasize an individual’s feelings of alienation, and eerie silences), serves to envelop us in the psychological space of a young woman whose emotional engagement with a foreign culture, as well as her careerist ambitions and her ability to be open with those around her, are subject to ingrained fears and anxieties.

Kurosawa elevates his film above exploitation of these feelings with a pair of sequences that gesture toward profound understanding. In the first, Yoko hears the distant sound of a woman singing, enters into an imposing building from which the voice emanates, and wanders through a series of rooms, with Kurosawa’s camera tracking behind her. Each room has its own unique design and distinctive color scheme, and as Kurosawa begins to match-cut between them, Yoko seems as if she’s being surreally transported through some unconscious space. Finally, the rooms lead to a lavish concert hall, the lights dim, and Kurosawa cuts from a close-up of Yoko’s face in shadow to a wide shot of a stage, where Yoko suddenly, and disarmingly, launches into a Japanese rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour.”

Soon after, Yoko awakes in her hotel room, unsure if what she experienced was dream or reality, and we’re left unsure as to what the liberated charge of her performance is really meant to represent. But later, a translator for Yoko and her crew, Temur (Adiz Rajabov), explains the history behind the Navoi Theater, the building that Yoko may or may not have already visited. Temur explains that the theater was built by Japanese POWs in World War II, who carefully followed the instructions of their captors in crafting six waiting rooms, each designed according to a different Uzbek regional style. Timur marvels at the story of men who “had been enemy combatants,” but who worked hard and created something transcendent. The scene concludes, with a close-up of Yoko, as she processes what she’s heard.

Just as the Navoi Theater was a catalyst for Japanese prisoners to transcend the horrors of war, the story of its construction impresses upon Yoko the possibility of liberating herself from her own deepest fears about the world. The rest of the film, then, imbues its most harrowing moments—including a chase sequence and a sudden threat to Yoko’s boyfriend back in Tokyo—with a new emotional and philosophical gravitas. This shift also serves to recontextualize Kurosawa’s horror aesthetics as a means of progressing to the film’s final moment of catharsis. “Even if the sky falls and the Earth goes to pieces/I won’t be afraid,” sings Yoko with absolute conviction—a declaration that, it cannot be discounted, also serves to punctuate a career spent crafting apocalyptic narratives depicting the ruin of humanity. With To the Ends of the Earth, Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.

Cast: Atsuko Maeda, Shôta Sometani, Ryo Kase, Adiz Rajabov, Tokio Emoto Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Harriet Turns Tubman Into a Saint at the Expense of Her Humanity

Portraying Tubman above all else as a vessel for a higher power ironically only makes her appear less tangible.

1.5

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Harriet
Photo: Focus Features

Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet is a laudable attempt at documenting all that’s been untold by history books about Harriet Tubman’s life and achievements. The prevailing image of the American abolitionist and political activist is of a proud, hard, almost unknowable woman in her dotage—an image that Lemmons and co-screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard seek to amend, if not shake from our minds, by tracing Tubman’s steeliness back to its source as a symptom of the ferocity that drove her as a young freedom fighter.

First, however, we will know her as Minty (Cynthia Erivo), the name given to her on the plantation, in Dorchester County, Maryland, where she’s enslaved. Right away, it’s evident that a burning desire for freedom animates the woman, as well as her family, a mix of freemen and slaves who have a knowledge of their rights and cling to the promise of freedom made to them by their masters’ grandfather and that their current owners will not honor.

As Harriet, Erivo radiates an intensity that shines even in the early scenes that depict the young woman’s supplication to her masters. Harriet has a hard stare that communicates her resolve even when she averts her eyes from white people, and as soon as it becomes clear that her masters will never honor their grandfather’s will, she decides to run away with her freeman husband, John (Zackary Momoh). When John is caught by Harriet’s masters, the woman flees alone, making a 100-mile journey from Maryland to Philadelphia on foot.

As much as the film stresses Harriet’s ironclad conviction, it also attributes a great deal of her fortunes as a liberator to dreams and hallucinations resulting from a brain injury she incurred as a 12-year-old, when she was accidentally hit on the head by an iron weight that was thrown at another slave by a white overseer. Routinely, Lemmons cuts away from Harriet to a dreamscape where visions of the past and future are entwined and deliver warnings to Harriet with the certainty of prophecy. It’s one thing to engage with Harriet’s sincere belief in the power of her visions, but Lemmons’s ardent devotion to her desaturated dream motif brings a supernatural quality to Harriet’s life that undercuts the many scenes that make the case that Harriet was driven above all else by deep reservoirs of inner strength and ingenuity.

Tubman made 19 trips back to the South. The first saw her raiding her former plantation in order to rescue members of her family and other slaves working the land. Many such raids followed, and by the start of the Civil War, during which she became a spy and nurse for the Union, Tubman had escorted some 300 slaves to the North by making use of the Underground Railroad. This is a staggering achievement, all the more so because she never lost a single slave on her expeditions, but Lemmons doesn’t give us a sense of the scope of that feat. By focusing so much on how Harriet was led by her visions, the filmmaker gives short shrift to all the planning that it took for the woman to organize and execute multiple rescue missions, all the while eluding ever-growing hordes of slave patrols devoted to her capture.

Harriet’s religious-political prophesies naturally recall Joan of Arc, and the film even makes this comparison when Harriet’s former mistress, Eliza (Jennifer Nettles), screams that the runaway slave should be burned at the stake. But the dullness of Lemmons’s depictions of Harriet’s second-sight powers, all frantically edited, blue-toned glimpses of slaves in flight and whites in pursuit, feel purely functional and provide no insight into Harriet’s mindset. Despite Erivo’s stoic performance, Harriet does too little to infuse its revisionist portrait of Tubman with the force it clearly wants to show in the woman. Portraying the abolitionist and activist above all else as a vessel for a higher power ironically only makes her appear less tangible. Turning her into an American saint comes at the expense of her humanity.

Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh Director: Kasi Lemmons Screenwriter: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Where’s My Roy Cohn? Stares Steadfastly Into the Face of Evil

This sharp, to-the-point portrait of the crook, fixer, and right-wing pitbull resists the urge to darkly glamorize him.

3

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Where’s My Roy Cohn?
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

For those wanting to stare into the face of misery personified, look no further than Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about “legal executioner” Roy Cohn. From the opening scenes of Cohn whispering in Joseph McCarthy’s ear in 1954 to clips of him denying his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis not long before his death in 1986, the man’s hollow eyes show nothing but rancor. His mouth is pursed tight, waiting to launch the next poisoned barb. He looks like a man devoured by hate, a third-string movie villain transported to real life.

According to Where’s My Roy Cohn?, his villainy was complicated in its execution but not its source. For roughly three decades, Cohn operated as a kind of nexus connecting organized crime, influence peddlers, political chicanery, and American conservatism. Through it all, he tried to cut as large a profile as possible. Raised in the Bronx by a doting mother and a father who was a powerful judge, Cohn appears to have been a mean little cuss all along. His cousin, Dave Marcus, is one of many family members to appear in the documentary, calling Cohn “the definition of a self-hating Jew.” Apart from a virulent (and possibly legitimately felt) anti-communism, there’s no clue here as to what powered Cohn besides rage and ambition.

Except for a few short flashbacks, the documentary sticks to a mostly chronological telling of Cohn’s biography. It’s a brisk and lively telling, flickering through an incident-packed life in a way that suggests the existence of whole movies’ worth of stories that Tyrnauer didn’t have time to get to. Rather than sticking with straight biography, though, the filmmaker uses Cohn’s combination of ribald corruption and destructively reactionary politics not just as spectacle, but as a foreshadowing of the current political age. An indisputably brilliant legal mind, Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20 and was soon working as a fervently dedicated prosecutor on the controversial espionage case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. One of the interviewees recalls asking Cohn later if he had any regrets about their execution in the electric chair. He replied that, if possible, he would have thrown the switch himself.

Cohn took his malice to the F.B.I., where he learned how to cripple an enemy with malicious press leaks. Recommended by J. Edgar Hoover to McCarthy, Cohn became a fixture at the Wisconsin senator’s hearings, whispering new lines of attack into the paranoid and undisciplined senator’s ear. While much of this has been reported elsewhere, Tyrnauer highlights one curious wrinkle. Cohn’s homosexuality was already an open secret. But he made the mistake of pulling strings for David Schine, a handsome aide to McCarthy who many believed was Cohn’s boyfriend, after Schine was drafted. This caused a scandal when the news came to light, leading to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Clips show a tight-lipped Cohn facing homophobic innuendo from senators about his “friendship” with Schine as some in the crowd snort and giggle. Tyrnauer doesn’t use the moment for sympathy, but rather to acknowledge that, vile or not, Cohn had no choice but to stay in the closet.

After the debacle of those hearings, which also destroyed his boss, Cohn moved into private practice. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, he became something of an obnoxious Gatsby figure, linking high society and the underworld. He blew money on fancy cars, lurked at Studio 54, and reveled in the most garish brand of success possible. Eager to be seen with famous people, he threw the kind of parties where one could meet politicos on the make, gangsters on the town, Cardinal Spellman, Andy Warhol, Barbara Walters, Halston, Donald Trump, and any number of Nordic-looking young men Cohn was most certainly not sleeping with.

Tyrnauer never tries to cast Cohn as an antihero. The picture that forms is less of a person than a black hole. A brilliant and utterly unethical lawyer who usually won his cases but stole from his clients nonetheless, Cohn used the same scorched-earth tactics whether defending a member of the Gotti family accused of murder or Trump against charges of housing discrimination: Never surrender, never apologize, attack relentlessly, leak to the press, lie as loudly and frequently as possible, and when in doubt, wrap yourself in the flag. Fortunately, the film doesn’t care to spend much time showing how those strategies were adopted by Trump, who comes off here as a flabby reflection of Cohn, without the brains.

In an excerpt from a 1970s interview that Cohn gave to journalist Ken Auletta that Tyrnauer strings out through the film, Cohn tries to recast his petulance as nonconformity. This act of Cohn’s is much the same one used by his acolyte, fellow practitioner of political dark arts Roger Stone, who pops up briefly to wax nostalgic about old Roy. More often than not, though, Cohn’s attitude played as venom for its own sake. Discussing all the times Cohn was targeted for crimes (stock fraud, insurance fraud that included possible murder), Auletta laughs that Cohn “enjoyed” the indictments, “because it gave him a platform to attack.”

The documentary’s unequivocal vision of Cohn as a dead-eyed being of pure malice could come off like hyperbole. But really it isn’t too far from the self-hating hypocrite depicted on stage by Tony Kushner in Angels in America. Sometimes, fiction gets it right first.

Director: Matt Tyrnauer Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Waves Sweeps You Up in a Formidable Current of Formalist Tricks

This is a rare case of a film that’s stronger when it colors inside the lines than radically traces outside of them.

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Waves
Photo: A24

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s Waves begins in motion, with shots kinetically circling and tracking its young characters. Along with the film’s editing—which is timed throughout to endless music cues, be they pop songs or the muffled industrial moans and staggered beats of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score—Shults is quick to establish Tyler’s (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) bona fides as a dedicated student and wrestler. The filmmaker also highlights the luxury in which the teen lives, from his huge home to the brand new cars that his parents and their children drive. Tyler immediately comes across as a kid who has it all, including the love of an adoring girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Dernie).

Efficient as it is as an introduction to Tyler, the montage that opens the film also simplifies the young man—namely, to all the good things in his life. Defining a character by what he has makes it all too easy to create the sort of drama that exists to strip all of those things away, which Waves proceeds to do in such quick and overwhelming fashion that Tyler starts to resemble a modern-day Job. A horrible muscle tear in Tyler’s shoulder threatens his wrestling career—and, implicitly, his college scholarship opportunities—while a text from Alexis that she hasn’t gotten her period sets into motion a series of events that shifts the mood of the film away from the joyful, if antic, toward something almost horror-like in its chaos.

The vivid color timing of Drew Daniels’s cinematography, which bathes every single shot in the film’s first half in some unreal shade of red, purple, yellow, or blue, first imparts a cool chic, only to then conjure an aura of oppressiveness as Tyler loses control of his life. Waves’s connections of sight and sound are initially intriguing and, by design, suffocating, but they’re often conspicuously on point. For one, Shults is prone to communicating the totality of Tyler’s misery through a series of music cues that are obnoxiously timed to moments of violence, such as the beat of Kanye West’s “I Am a God” hitting when an enraged and confused Tyler shoves his overbearing but loving father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), to the ground.

Shults at times nurtures an understanding of Tyler’s downward-spiraling life outside of the unfortunate events that dog him across the film. Ronald, who exudes the hardness of a man who had to fight for what was his, tells Tyler that they have to work twice as hard as whites to succeed. Fertile ground is created here to recast the millennial, upper-middle-class Tyler’s trajectory as a spin on Bigger Thomas’s own in Native Son. In Richard Wright’s novel, a crucible of poverty and systemic racism propels a young black man living in Chicago’s South Side to atrocity, and in Waves, Shults sees how the pressure of maintaining the precariousness of black wealth, in a society that looks for any excuse to strip it away, is a recipe for disaster.

But the film at no other point remotely explores the idea that Tyler, or anyone else in his family besides Ronald, ever exhibits any anxiety over being black in America. By and large, the forces that push at Tyler are the stuff of run-of-the-mill teen drama, from the stress of not being able to play sports to fear of becoming a parent at a young age. The latter concern is the primary motivating factor of the film’s first half, and it’s unnerving to see how much of the story is driven by Tyler’s controlling rage over Alexis’s pro-life views, even as the woman herself is portrayed as stubbornly closed to any discussion on any serious topic.

The sheer aggressiveness of Waves’s first half gradually becomes an assault on the senses that communicates nothing deeper than the despairing nature of Tyler’s setbacks. But just as the film reaches a fever pitch of violent, stylishly rendered catharsis, it shifts perspective from Tyler to his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who’s coping with the aftermath of his behavior. And this pivot is signaled by an abrupt and significant aesthetic change, as the artifice, propulsiveness, and rage that mark the film’s first half abruptly give way to a more naturalistic color palette, with the aspect ratio that had gradually narrowed as the walls closed in around Tyler opening back out into widescreen, as if Waves were starting to catch its breath.

The muted telling of Emily’s story seems to belong to an almost entirely different film. Isolated from her classmates and coping with Tyler’s actions, Emily finds some direction out of her own sadness with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a classmate nursing his own family trauma who sheepishly asks on her a date and begins a relationship with her. Throughout this section of the film, Shults mirrors some of his introductory shots of Tyler and Alexis with ones of Emily and Luke that illustrate the differences between the young couples. An early shot that spun around the interior of Tyler’s truck showed him and Alexis in a state bliss but also acting out a series of extended poses, as if they were taking Instagram selfies even when not on their phones. Their flashy, demonstrative behavior contrasts sharply with a later shot that repeats the spinning motion inside a car, but this time documents the quiet solemnity that smothers Emily and Luke as they try to take comfort in each other’s presence.

One can argue that Shults’s throttling back of his formal ambitions in Waves’s second half, and the way Emily seems as if she’s walked off the set of a coming-of-age indie, is a miss. But his pushing of the film’s aesthetic needle past its previously gimmicky contours allows us to sit with his characters in ways that feel more than just reverential. The shift in tonality strengthens the story’s narrative core, giving the characters enough space to communicate their internal worlds instead of just react to an endless barrage of horrifying external stimuli. It also fills Waves with a touch of humanity, allowing it to quite literally transcend the exploitative, unilluminating phantasmagoria that comprises its first half. This is a rare case of a film that’s stronger when it colors inside the lines than radically traces outside of them.

Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie Director: Trey Edward Shults Screenwriter: Trey Edward Shults Distributor: A24 Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Martin Eden Is a Moody Portrait of a Writer’s Need for Individualism

Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement.

2.5

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Martin Eden
Photo: Kino Lorber

Charles Baudelaire, the great French poet and intellectual, wrote in his journals, “There is no form of rational and assured government save an aristocracy. A monarchy or a republic, based upon democracy, are equally absurd and feeble. The immense nausea of advertisements. There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create. The rest of mankind may be taxed and drudged, they are born for the stable, that is to say, to practise what they call professions.”

Baudelaire became more aristocratic as he accumulated success, his views increasingly reactionary. We like to think of writers and artists as great humanists, as empathetic and caring creatures who see the world in a somehow smarter, clearer way. This is, of course, an unfair expectation, and Baudelaire, for all his indelible work, was just as human as the next person, and eventually succumbed to a common affliction: individualism.

Baudelaire is the subject of a conversation in Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, an adaptation of Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel that relocates the action to Naples, in a nebulous time period. (The details—clothes, technology, manners of speech—change from scene to scene, making it impossible to ascertain when the film takes place.) A socialite named Ruth (Giustiniano Alpi), whose skin has the gentle luminescence of fresh snow, asks the handsome, uneducated sailor Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) if he’s ever read the poet, which, of course, he hasn’t. Baudelaire represents the allure of bourgeois life, which beckons to the working-class Neapolitan. He becomes smitten with the girl—and her lavish lifestyle—and decides to become a writer, like Baudelaire, and to write in Italian, even though he isn’t fluent in the language.

Martin, fueled by proletarian ire and the fervor of love, longs to earn the respect of the upper-class literary world so that he can marry the educated Ruth. From London’s novel:

“Here was intellectual life, he thought, and here was beauty, warm and wonderful as he had never dreamed it could be. He forgot himself and stared at her with hungry eyes. Here was something to live for, to win to, to fight for—ay, and die for. The books were true. There were such women in the world. She was one of them. She lent wings to his imagination, and great, luminous canvases spread themselves before him whereon loomed vague, gigantic figures of love and romance, and of heroic deeds for woman’s sake—for a pale woman, a flower of gold…”

Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marinelli and Marcello don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character’s transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that’s about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It’s an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-‘60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film’s themes.

Martin spends most of the film trying to transcend his meager origins. He sits at his typewriter, pecking away at the keyboard, composing love poems, aspiring for greatness. He reads, he writes, he sails, he broods. His prolonged toil and Sisyphean desperation wear him down, and he develops a disdain for the rich. And yet, as he becomes more educated, he also feels ostracized from his working-class friends. The ancient Greeks were able to create beautiful works of art and engender new philosophies because their slaves did the physical labor, Martin learns, and, in turn, he begins to liken socialism to a slavish system.

Martin’s individualism, which is dichotomous to London’s own unwaveringly leftist views (London intended Martin to be his foil, the novel a damning depiction of capitalism, and of the system that allowed him to become a well-off celebrity writer). London was 33 when he wrote Martin Eden, having already found tremendous success with The Call of the Wild and White Fang. He wrote the novel during a two-year trip through the South Pacific, on a ketch he designed himself, while afflicted with bowel disease. These despondent conditions inspired the cynicism that pervades Martin Eden. For London, the story of a writer who becomes self-obsessed and learns to despise everyone around him was a personal story, one culled from his own life and his own anxieties. Marcello’s film never seems as concerned with its character or his internal tumult. “Who are you, Martin Eden?” the sailor says while gazing at himself in the mirror. Like Martin Eden himself, it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.

Cast: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Denise Sardisco, Vincenzo Nemolato, Carmen Pommella, Carlo Cecchi Director: Pietro Marcello Screenwriter: Maurizio Braucci, Pietro Marcello Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 129 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers Is a Fun Parable of Great Recession Survival

The film is remarkable for capturing a brewing conflict between women while also celebrating their connection.

3

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Hustlers
Photo: STX Films

Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers immediately announces that it’s going to be as flashy as its fur-draped, jewel-bedecked protagonists, with an extended single take set to Janet Jackson’s “Control.” “This is a story about control,” Jackson tells us, as we follow Dorothy (Constance Wu), known professionally as Destiny, from a hectic strip-club dressing room out onto the stage, where, along with a line of other women, she’s presented to potential lap-dance recipients. The assertiveness of the film’s opening long take contrasts with Dorothy’s relative timidity at this point; as we’ll come to see, she hasn’t fully adapted to survival at Moves, the high-end but still very skeezy strip club where she works. Soon, both character and camera are stopped dead, transfixed by the act that follows the parade of lap-dancers: Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), veteran Moves stripper and the film’s true center.

Ramona performs a rousing pole dance to the unexpected—but, as it turns out, entirely fitting—“Criminal,” contorting her body around the steel beam in rhythm to a bass-heavy version of Fiona Apple’s elusively sexy bad-girl lament. It’s a scene destined to be the film’s most memorable, given how overdetermined the enjoyment of pole dancing is today as both erotic spectacle and athletic performance, and given the way the scene calls attention to the physical prowess of its superstar actor. One can’t help but watch it with a kind of dual consciousness: On the one hand, there’s Ramona, Dorothy’s idol and de facto sovereign of Moves, and on the other, there’s Lopez, a 50-year-old pop icon and sex symbol, whose agile defiance of preconceptions about age, beauty, and fitness is crafted to elicit vicarious thrills.

It makes sense, then, that we don’t see another spectacular pole-dance performance from Lopez again in the film, as from this point, despite its playful approach to narrative form, Hustlers would prefer that we see her only as her character—with the exception, perhaps, of a shot of her reclining in a fur coat and one-piece that unmistakably brings the “Jenny on the Block” video to mind. The seasoned exploiter of horny men takes Dorothy under her wing, teaching her how to pole dance (the viewer is left to ponder how Dorothy got a job at a Manhattan strip club without knowing even the basics of pole dancing), and educating the Queens native about strategies for earning maximum tips from Wall Street slimeballs.

It’s 2007 and the time is ripe for dancers who service the privileged bros trading unregulated derivatives, and with Ramona’s help, Dorothy finds herself able not only to pay back the debts of her beloved grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), but also appropriate some of the wealth-signifiers of the decadent 1% she serves, like a monstrous 2008 Escalade. Scafaria accentuates this accumulation of wealth and agency in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis with no shortage of musical montages and slow-motion shots of Dorothy and Ramona striding through the club. The film dwells in the sensorial excess of high-end stripping, but also in the camaraderie that blooms between Dorothy, Ramona, and the other women at the club (a supporting cast that includes Trace Lysette, Mette Towley, Lizzo, and Cardi B as, essentially, herself).

Dorothy’s voiceover is justified by a frame narrative, in which she recounts the tale of these heady times to a journalist, Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). The film relies on this framing device for act breaks and foreshadowing, as when Dorothy makes the ominous, if somewhat incongruous, pronouncement that “Ramona wasn’t in it to make friends, she just did, but she was always in control.” The structure of the frame narrative leads Hustlers into some unnecessarily convoluted formulations, as the plot fast-forwards through the recession and later catches up with Ramona’s activities between 2008 and 2011 in flashback—a flashback embedded within a flashback that feels like extraneous stylistic flair. It’s one of many sequences in which Ramona usurps the authorial voice in the film, as if the force of her personality had pushed Dorothy out of the way. Scarfaia is clearly more interested in the strength and charisma of Lopez’s ambitious, alluring dancer than in her neophyte main character.

It’s after the financial crash that the titular hustle begins, with Ramona recruiting Dorothy, now the mother of a toddler, and two fellow dancers, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), to help her drug men, cart them back to the club, and coerce them into handing over their credit cards. The cons that follow are presented with a vibrant sense of humor, relishing the way the women take advantage of the men’s oblivious horniness, their defenses lowered by the women’s nakedly performed obsequiousness. Recurring punchlines around Annabelle’s compulsive nervous vomiting and Mercedes’s ambivalence about her prison-bound boyfriend (“3-5 years is a serious commitment,” she says at one point) serve to lighten the mood around their commission of rather serious crimes.

Hustlers takes the intense bonds formed between the women in these unlikely circumstances as its driving theme. The film is remarkable for capturing a brewing conflict between women while also celebrating their connection, avoiding the trap of styling an argument between strippers as a petty catfight. This is true even if the dialogue sometimes falls back on repetitive proclamations about the group of nascent felons being a “family” or “real sisters,” and if the editing relies too much on pop-music montages that also grow repetitive (surprisingly, though, the soundtrack features more Chopin than it does comeback-era Britney). The film proves to be a fun parable of Great Recession survival, its barely submerged subtext being the communal strength of women of color, the population most affected by the crash.

Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Julia Stiles, Trace Lysette, Cardi B, Lizzo, Wai Ching Ho Director: Lorene Scafaria Screenwriter: Lorene Scafaria Distributor: STX Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Motherless Brooklyn Captures the Look but Not the Spark of Noir

The film revives many noir touchstones, but never the throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre.

1.5

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Motherless Brooklyn
Photo: Warner Bros.

Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by writer-director Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films.

Norton retains the central gimmick of Lethem’s book: a gumshoe protagonist with Tourette’s syndrome. Lionel Essrog (Norton) works as a private investigator for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who accepts his mentee’s issues and very much appreciates his photographic memory. On the page, Lionel’s condition makes thematic sense, as his clear, observational, intuitive internal monologue, a staple of detective fiction, contrasts sharply with his uncontrollable outbursts, which shatter the image of the laconic private-eye hero who sees much but tells little. It’s problematic no matter how you slice it, but one can at least see the logic.

On screen, however, the story’s reductive, stereotypical depiction of Lionel’s various conditions becomes impossible to ignore. Norton sees his character as a live wire, compounded out of explosive twitches and explosive outbursts. In voiceover, the actor speaks with a low, gruff voice befitting an old-school movie detective, but when speaking aloud he has a high, almost childlike tone, one that uncomfortably casts Lionel as some sort of innocent naïf, despite consistently being the smartest and shrewdest man in the room.

When Frank is killed in a clandestine meeting with unknown clients, a heartbroken Lionel resolves to find his friend’s killer. Lionel, introduced in on-the-nose fashion as he tugs on a thread from a soon-to-be-unraveled sweater, digs so deep into the mystery that he begins to uncover a vast, Chinatown-esque conspiracy involving New York’s corrupt city planner, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). A tyrannical bureaucrat with a Randian complex, Moses has concocted an elaborate trail of red tape to force poor, predominantly black residents out of the city to turn affordable housing into ritzy, modern blocks for the wealthy.

It’s here that the film’s altered time setting is most fascinating: By tackling gentrification in the ‘50s, Norton makes the argument that it isn’t a byproduct of late capitalism, but rather a core component in the history of city planning, a project that spans decades of careful molding of demographics and social hierarchies. But the racial angle of Lethem’s novel, more bracing for being set in the present, is mostly just period-appropriate window dressing in the film, not any more upsetting than any of the other openly racist policies of the era. What the material gains in a long-term view of social engineering it loses in specificity.

There are moments where Motherless Brooklyn succeeds as a loving homage to noir. The scenes where Lionel acts more like a determined, unflappable gumshoe—nicking a reporter’s press badge to pose as a journalist, piecing together disparate clues with reflex-fast deducing skills—hit all the right genre beats. And his relationship with Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a housing fairness activist who responds to Lionel’s kind soul, spark with chemistry that’s less sexual than affectionate. But even those moments in the film that could pass for something out of an actual noir find Norton riffing on the genre’s tropes rather than expanding on them.

Visually, Motherless Brooklyn is bathed in dirty smears of yellow light that mimic chiaroscuro technique, but Norton’s cutting patterns are distinctly modern-seeming, rife with seemingly endless shot-reverse shots that throw off the rhythm of the pulp dialogue by so obsessively cutting to each individual speaker. Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of the film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre.

Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Michael K. Williams, Leslie Mann Director: Edward Norton Screenwriter: Edward Norton Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 144 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come Exudes the Respect of a Guest in the World

Laxe’s film refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm.

3

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Fire Will Come
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape.

This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. The movements and intentions of the film’s camera, philosophy, and rhythms bear a lyrical kinship to Trás-os-Montes, a portrait of the eponymous region in the north of Portugal, not far from Galicia.

But filmmakers Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis juxtapose serene contemplation with unabashedly theatrical interventions in their landscape. Laxe, on the other hand, is largely happy to extract drama from the disarmingly un-posed ordinariness of his actors’ faces and sharp sounds of their environment. Raindrops hitting dry soil, toppling trees, the fog that turns the entire frame into an abstract canvas—all conspire toward a refusal to tell a story through something other than the meticulous observation of the world at hand. It’s a world teeming with dogs panting, cows mooing, roosters crowing, twigs breaking, chainsaws gashing trees. And, of course, fire burning almost as ardently as the many things that remain unsaid by characters too disillusioned to bother engaging with one another beyond the absolutely necessary daily tasks: eating, collecting milk from a cow’s udders, or attending a funeral.

Except when music plays, from Antonio Vivaldi to Leonard Cohen, at which point Laxe gets too close to stylizing an ecosystem that’s already polished enough, and forcing a dialogue that reticence articulates with much more refinement. A car scene where a veterinarian, Elena (Elena Fernandez), plays Cohen’s “Suzanne” to Amador, for instance, works as a coded declaration of love interest. Amador tells the woman he doesn’t understand the song’s lyrics. She’s clearly trying to get close to him and says he doesn’t need to understand a song in order to like it. Here, Fire Will Come loses its commitment to opacity and nuance, as Laxe juxtaposes Cohen’s song to images of the landscape and close-ups of a cow, distancing himself from art cinema’s froideur in favor of a kind of music-video sentimentality.

The film is much more in synchrony with the haziness of its imagery when it preserves the awkwardness between characters, the impossibility for anything other than life’s basic staples to be exchanged. In a scene where Amador is drinking beer alone in a pub, Elena approaches him as if to invite him to go somewhere, or to avow her feelings in some acceptable fashion. By then, we know Fire Will Come’s inhabitants to be too emotionally unavailable for any desire to find a way of manifesting itself. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that all that comes out of the veterinarian’s mouth is: “What I wanted to ask you is how your cow is doing.”

It’s a wonderful, and wonderfully pathetic, moment, because Laxe doesn’t try to craft a metaphor around it or translate the true intentions behind the characters’ inability to see emotion as something other than foreign luxury. He simply lets the ecosystem function, observing without clarifying. That is, accepting the filmmaker’s position ultimately as that of respectful guest in the world he has created and which has developed a life of its own.

Cast: Benedicta Sánchez, Amador Arias, Ivan Yañez, Inazio Abrao, Rubén Gómez Coelho, Elena Fernandez Director: Oliver Laxe Screenwriter: Santiago Fillol, Oliver Laxe Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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