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Smitten with a Whip: Three Appreciations of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones Films

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Smitten with a Whip: Three Appreciations of Indiana Jones
Photo: Paramount Pictures
Editor’s Note: A contribution to Cerebral Mastication’s Indiana Jones Blog-a-thon.
A Well-Oiled Machine: Raiders of the Lost Ark

by Odienator

When re-releasing their beloved E.T. and Star Wars trilogy for a new generation of viewers, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas angered the films’ original fans by committing crimes of digital alteration. Spielberg turned government agents’ guns into walkie-talkies, removing the few justifiable hints of menace in E.T. Lucas’ sins guaranteed him a lower circle of Hell: he added special effects using technology then unavailable to him, which upset purists like me; he changed character motivations; worst of all, he recast an actor in the ghostly final shot of Return of the Jedi (substituting Hayden Christensen, young Anakin Skywalker in the prequels, for Sebastian Shaw, who played the older, unmasked Anakin in the film proper) for the sole purpose of trying to convince us that the second trilogy deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the first. Granted, these are Spielberg and Lucas’ films, and they can butcher them at will, but in making the original versions hard to obtain on home video, it felt as if they were rewriting history. Imagine the rabid anti-smokers digitally redoing Paul Henreid’s famous Now, Voyager cigarette lighting scene with Twizzlers.

Lucas and Spielberg collaborated on Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie I resisted buying on any media until a widescreen version was available. The duo released the entire original trilogy in a DVD box set, along with a bonus DVD detailing all aspects of the filmmaking process. News of the release horrified me at first, as I expected some form of alteration to befall the series, which I could deal with only if it involved erasing the second installment, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Thankfully, the only thing these guys put their damn dirty paws all over was the title of the movie that started it all. Raiders of the Lost Ark, at least on the box and the DVD menus, became the unwieldy Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

People always ask me, “What’s your favorite movie?” or “Who’s your favorite actor/director?” My opinions have changed slightly over the years, but there is one question I doubt will ever be subjected to the kind of dirty pool changes I’ve just bitched about: If someone asks me what was the best time I had at the movies, the answer is, and will always be, the day I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. I read somewhere that every generation gets the James Bond it deserves. For me, that Bond was Roger Moore. Or so I thought. After watching Raiders again for the first time in several years, I noticed how much it plays into the conventions of the Bond genre. There’s an opening adventure to establish the hero’s feats of derring-do (though this occurs post-credits sequence), an M-like figure (Denholm Elliott) to assign adventures to the hero, a sidekick (John Rhys-Davies) who occasionally provides local information, spectacular action set pieces with suspenseful last minute escapes, and a feisty woman to add eye candy for the adolescent boys. Raiders has all of these, recasting and returning the Bond formula to its earlier, more chaste incarnation in the serials George Lucas loved as a kid.

Raiders has an odd pedigree and an even odder legend of its creation. The story is credited to Lucas and Philip Kaufman, two outer space-loving guys, and written by Big Chill-helmer Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan had just worked with Lucas prior, reshaping Leigh Brackett’s script for The Empire Strikes Back. The idea for the script came, according to both Spielberg and Lucas, from stories Lucas would tell about a hero named after his dog. After Close Encounters and Empire, Raiders came into being with Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones. Thanks to CBS, however, Selleck was unable to fulfill his obligation to the feature, leaving Harrison Ford the opportunity to create another trilogy-based character who will live forever. Selleck looks more like a serial character than Ford, but this would have been a different movie if Magnum P.I. hadn’t been contractually bound; Indy would have been more suave and less dangerous.

Speaking of danger, Mr. Jones can’t seem to stay out of it. Raiders opens with one of the greatest sequences ever committed to film, a mini-masterpiece of storytelling and editing that establishes the character’s motivations, enemies, skills, flaws and temperament better than pages of exposition. Indiana Jones is on some kind of mission in the jungle, looking for an artifact that its prior owners have suitably booby-trapped. Jones shows his vast knowledge of archeology early, preventing his subordinate (a pre Doc-Ock Alfred Molina) from stepping on the same fatal booby trap that will later repay his underling’s treachery. Indy retrieves the idol he is seeking, but sets off the ancient burglar alarm in the process. What happens next is thrilling: Indy outruns poison arrows, his guide’s treachery, and a boulder the size of Jupiter. Just when you think our hero’s home free, he is then robbed by his arch-enemy, a Nazi named Belloq (Paul Freeman). Belloq is armed with far more natives than Indy is, and Jones doesn’t speak their language. This leads to even more running, a quick escape, and the movie’s revelation that Jones has ophidiophobia.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has little time to stop and tell you All About Indy. The film’s dialogue sequences seem to be impatiently waiting for the action to begin; the storyteller is speeding up the tale to get you to the good parts. This isn’t a criticism, as Kasdan’s script moves through the important details and Spielberg’s camera provides reminders by mirroring scenes or repeating pieces of earlier dialogue. Raiders reveals a lot about its characters by showing rather than telling. When we meet Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s former love interest and the daughter of his mentor, she is drinking people under the table at the bar she owns. This seems like a throwaway character trait at first, like the skill a Bond girl is given to hide that she’s really just fodder for the hero’s loins. Indy’s character even seems to overshadow her (literally at one point—Spielberg reintroduces Marion to Indy by projecting his shadow on the wall behind her). Yet in a later scene, that throwaway detail becomes a major plot point, and Marion becomes more complicated than any Bond girl ever could be.

In their first scene together, Marion and Indy provide us with enough detail to invest in their relationship. They talk quickly, for as soon as Indy shows up looking for an artifact Marion’s father used to own, so do the Nazis. The chase is on, with Marion as Indy’s self-proclaimed “goddamned partner” in search of the Ark of the Covenant, a large MacGuffin that turns out not to be a MacGuffin after all. During the course of the film, Marion saves Indy and, to balance out the show for those teenage boys who get fidgety when a woman is effective, Indy saves Marion. Of the three women Jones encounters in the first three films, Marion is the most interesting and the least aggravating. The filmmakers were wise to bring her back for the fourth film, if only to save me from Cate Blanchett’s Natasha Fatale.

The original trilogy’s penchant for strange sidekicks for Indy also starts here with a Benedict Arnold of a monkey. The monkey latches onto Marion and Indy, then provides details of their whereabouts to their enemies. Kasdan and company find a clever use of the monkey; we hiss at him at first, but his accidental redemption saves Indy from a literal date with death. Later sidekicks will include the annoying Short Round in the second movie and the film’s acknowledgement of its Bondian lineage, The Last Crusade’s Indy Sr., Sean Connery.

I read an interview with Spielberg where he mentioned that he probably wouldn’t have used the Nazi plotlines if he’d made the original trilogy later in his career. (Thank God he didn’t digitally replace them with gigantic talking walkie-talkies on the DVDs.) This partially explains why the newest installment of the film, the forthcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is set in the postwar era. The Nazis support the premise that Raiders is a throwback to a time when they were the villains to be mocked and hated in films and cartoons; Belloq’s bespectacled lead henchman, Toht (Ronald Lacey), is truly menacing in every scene in which he appears. At the same time, though, the film’s bad guys are permitted a little complexity. Belloq is allowed some form of identifiable and relatable human failing—it seems he really is taken with Marion and that clouds his judgment. He has a scene of dialogue where he gives Indy the standard-issue “we’re two sides of the same coin” speech, but by film’s end, I realized that he was right. If the Nazis hadn’t opened the Ark of the Covenant when they got it, wouldn’t Jones (or his benefactor) have done so himself, inheriting the splitting headache that Belloq eventually earns?

Enough details and ramblings. Why Raiders remains my favorite time at the movies is simply this: It is damn exciting, technically crafted by Lucas, Kasdan, Spielberg, editor Michael Kahn (who won an Oscar for this) and composer John Williams into a well-oiled machine with well-timed shocks, how-did-he-do-that escapes and gory mayhem. Lucas may have re-edited so that Han Solo doesn’t shoot first, but Spielberg still allows Jones to commit the overly ruthless execution of the Nazi driving the Mercedes Benz whose ornament Indy thrillingly hangs onto in (for me) the iconic shot of the film.

As the ornament bends and Ford’s facial expression becomes more panicked, you can feel the movie pulling you to the edge of your seat. Kahn’s editing, Williams’ music, the stunt work and Spielberg’s direction conspire to grab you by the windpipe. This is great moviemaking, and Ford holds the entire contraption together. After playing Han Solo, his casting served as a form of shorthand, telling audiences to expect an adventurous type with a sense of humor who doesn’t play by the rules; yet this same expectation allows Ford to play with the more subtle details of his character. When a student in Indy’s archeology class sends him a message with her eyelids, Ford seems genuinely taken aback—his “OH NO SHE DIDN’T!!” expression is great—and Ford’s looks of frustration whenever Indy has been bested have a boyish “Aw, shucks” charm that shines through the cracks of the character’s seemingly impregnable façade.

The much maligned (and deservingly so) Temple of Doom gets a lot of flak for being violent, but Raiders is equally violent. The tone is different, however, and that carries a double edged sword. Doom is far darker, and the violence takes on a more appropriate, accurate sense of its disturbing nature, but in doing so it pulls the series into a place it didn’t seem designed to go. Why thrill us with mayhem only to slap our hands for enjoying it later?

Childish Things: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

by Matt Zoller Seitz

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has the series’s simplest plot, most annoying love interest, most casually racist and imperialist attitudes and most grotesque imagery (Doom and its summer-of-’84 blockbuster cousin, the Spielberg-produced Gremlins, sparked the creation of a new MPAA rating, PG-13). At the same time, though, it’s the most viscerally intense entry in the series and the most wide-ranging in its moods, spotlighting the imaginations of Spielberg and his co-producer, George Lucas, at their most freewheeling. It’s a blast from the id—like Close Encounters, 1941, E.T. and A.I, a rare instance of the director appearing to construct images and situations for his own private reasons, rather than keeping his eyes and ears attuned for signs of viewer discontent.

Spielberg was shocked by the negative response to the movie (robust box-office notwithstanding) and subsequently characterized it as a miscalculation, even a mistake; it’s surely no coincidence that he followed Doom with back-to-back adaptations of critically acclaimed historical novels (The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun) and returned to the Indiana Jones saga with The Last Crusade. The latter has charm and heart, but compared to Doom, it’s mild stuff—a salve for Indy fans that still felt burned. Doom does whatever it pleases, even if it means chucking commercial cinema’s knee-jerk insistence on “plausibility”—a requirement Spielberg and Lucas observed whenever possible in the innately preposterous Raiders—out the nearest window.

The film declares its “What the hell, let’s try it” swagger in its first two shots: (1) a dissolve from the Paramount logo to a brass mountain-emblazoned gong on a Shanghai nightclub stage being struck by a burly ringer, and (2) a whip-pan from the ringer to the nightclub’s main stage, which dollies into the stage’s central prop, a dragon statue with a mouth that disgorges our heroine, the nightclub singer Willie Best (Kate Capshaw, the soon-to-be second Mrs. Spielberg). As Douglas Slocombe’s camera keeps rolling (this is a surprisingly long shot), Willie sings Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in Mandarin, addressing the lyrics to the viewer, not the nightclub patrons, and capping the third “Anything goes” with a knowing smile into the lens. Then she turns her back to the camera and leads us through the portal, revealing a backstage area big enough to accommodate a Busby Berkeley-style all-gal chorus line.

What are we looking at? Is this an unseen spectator’s fantasy? Willie’s grandiose daydream? An alternate reality? It’s no real-world nightclub routine, that’s for sure. What stage director in his right mind would choreograph a dance routine in a style that’s not theatrical but cinematic (the dancers obviously arranged for an unseen movie camera’s benefit), and stage it in a room that the club’s patrons can’t even see? Anything goes, indeed.

Spielberg and his partner Lucas always worked very close to their subconscious minds; with Temple of Doom they outdid themselves, for better or worse. Raiders promises extreme brutality, then either averts its gaze (envisioning a German strongman’s decapitation-by-propeller by showing blood hitting a fuselage) or serves up a sight gag instead (Nazi torture master Toht hauling out what one assumes are nunchaku, then folding them into a coat hanger). The supernatural blowout finale plays less as pornographic gore than supernatural spectacle: God’s punishment as sound-and-light show. Doom starts out in more or less the same helium-high action mode as Raiders, but stirs in wacky slapstick and surrealism, then piles on nightmare logic: by its midpoint, a seeming escapist action picture has become a horror film.

Set in 1935, a year before the events of Raiders, Doom kicks off in a Shanghai nightclub (Club Obi-Wan, alas) with a business-deal-turned-brawl between Indy and some gangster patrons; then it moves lickety-split through a tire-squealing car chase and a should-be-escape via cargo aircraft that becomes yet another nail-biting setpiece when the pilots (the gangster’s minions) wait until their passengers—Indy, Willie and Indy’s boy sidekick, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan)—fall asleep, then dump the fuel and bail out over India, forcing our heroes to sky-dive on a raft that becomes a makeshift bobsled that carries them down a snowy mountainside and lands them in the Ganges, which spirits them over a waterfall and deposits them near a village plagued by a Thuggee cult that stole their mystical Sankara stone and their children.

Doom’s first 15 minutes are even more exhausting than the sentence you just finished reading; many viewers find its jumbled energy as grating as Capshaw’s bimbo-in-peril shrieks. A major complaint—admittedly one among many—is that because Doom occurs in a Looney Tunes dimension in which humans can leap from a crashing plane on a raft, slalom down a mountain and dive off a waterfall without sustaining a scratch, one can’t get too invested in what happens; if anything goes, nothing matters.

I see the point of such gripes, but for me, Doom’s sheer audacity remains a tonic. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, Raiders was the first film that made me realize that movies were directed: that they didn’t just appear mysteriously on theater screens fully-formed. Doom was just as significant to me as Raiders and in some ways more important, because it was the first contemporary escapist picture I’d seen that struck me as unquestionably the work of an artist—a snapshot of the contents of the director’s head. That realization—prompted by Doom’s Buster Keaton-style action choreography, with runaway mine cars literalizing the notion of movie-as-roller-coaster and lines of henchman toppling like dominoes—entranced me as deeply as the more measured kineticism of Raiders. Spielberg, Lucas and their screenwriters, Williard Huyck and Gloria Katz, spark sense memories of the unfettered free-association that humans rarely enjoy past childhood. Seeing the film reminded me of what it felt like to be eight or nine, shoehorning seemingly incompatible objects and characters (say, a Shogun warrior, Star Wars figures and Tonka trucks) into the same willy-nilly plot.

Yet Doom is remarkable not just because it evokes the id-play of childhood, but because it destroys that same innocence on behalf of a story that’s as much a fable of maturation as The Last Crusade. Raiders puts a smile on your face, and the prequel wipes it off: to quote Trey Wilson in Raising Arizona, that’s its whole goddamn raisin d’etra.

Doom’s fairy tale-dark vision is presaged by the village scene in which a wizened shaman recounts how representatives of an ancient, reawakened evil, the Thuggees, stole their children along with a sacred Sankara stone. Then it moves through a juvenile “Can-you-top-this?” phase: a gross-out palace dinner where decadent pashas dine on snakes, beetles, eyeball soup, and chilled monkey brains; a sex farce interlude between Indy and Willie that climaxes with Indy’s near-strangulation by a Thuggee assassin and Indy and Short Round’s narrow escape from a bug-infested spike chamber. Then the film descends (narratively and geographically) into more sinister terrain, an underground lair in which Thuggee boss Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) rips still-beating hearts from the chests of sacrifice victims and then dunks them (still alive, somehow!) into boiling lava while child slaves toil in diamond mines overseen by whip-toting goons.

Doom signals each stage of its descent into horror with an unambiguous cue—starting with the opening sequence, which finds Willie entering the nightclub through a dragon’s mouth (the mouth of Hell), then leading us back through it to reveal an unseen secret universe. (The Busby Berkeley set is to Club Obi-Wan as the Thuggee lair is to Pankot Palace.) When the travellers’ raft arrives at the devastated village, the film announces its shift into mystical/menacing mode by slow-dollying into a tight close-up of the shaman: his grim face signals his people’s misery and his determination to end it by treating a grave-robber as a liberator. (When Indy suggests that chance brought them here, the Shaman laughs, insisting it was prayer.) At the start of the temple section, Indy descends from a protected perch to the main platform of the Thuggees’ sacrificial altar to swipe the Sankara stones, then pauses to stare at human skins stretched out like shawls (a Holocaust image); the rack-focus from Indy’s face to the skins and back is accompanied by off-camera wails of agony.

The film’s next section is the nastiest, depicting Indy and Short Round’s torture by the Thuggees; Indy’s conversion to evil by being force-fed a potion contained in a skull-shaped pitcher (its mouth spigot delivering a figurative kiss of death); Short Round’s brief stint as a diamond-digger terrorized by vicious slave-masters; Willie’s near-deep-frying in the Thuggee lava pit (it’s not necessary for Mola Ram to tear her heart out; the sight of Indy enslaved by the dark side suffices), and Short Round morally and physically re-awakening Indy by searing his side with a torch while crying, “I love you!” (Short Round’s action is the antidote to Mola Ram’s poison—a moment foreshadowed in the opening sequence, which finds Indy accidentally ingesting poison and then scampering after a vial containing the antidote.)

It’s easy to dismiss Doom as a parade of bizarre, sometimes wantonly cruel setpieces, set in a xenophobic fantasy version of Asia that’s as untethered from cultural reality as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories. (One could argue that Indy and Willie are unflattering national stereotypes, too—caricatures of American self-interest—but because they’re the film’s romantic leads and are ultimately more sinned-against than sinning, the defense won’t wash.) Yet there’s method in the film’s madness: more than anything else, Doom is a sordid-fantastical origin story about trivial people deepened by trauma. Its intent unfurls during the first village sequence, beginning with the shaman’s spooky riverbank close-up and accelerating with the arrival of the escaped slave boy who collapses at Indy’s feet.

The adventurer’s reaction is unlike any we’ve seen in this film or in Raiders: shock, helplessness and seemingly instinctive, involuntary tenderness. Then Indy examines a scrap of cloth the boy carried—emblazoned with a painted image confirming that the stone taken from the village was one of the fabled Sankara stones, and therefore quite valuable—and his face is animated by a nearly demonic greed as he says, “Sankara.” (Ford’s expression here is—intentionally I think—similar to Indy’s expressions in the sequence where’s he’s ingested the potion.)

The subsequent scene on the hilltop (marked by the appearance of one of Spielberg’s signature shooting stars) is more complex than it initially seems. Short Round tells Indy that the boy was a slave who escaped from Pankot Palace. “What are we going to do, Dr. Jones?” he asks, meaning, “What are you going to do about these children?” Indy, who was clearly discombobulated by the slave child, tells Short Round they’re going to Pankot to recover the lost Sankara stones. “What is Sankara?” Short Round asks. “Fortune and glory, kid… Fortune and glory,” Indy replies. But note his tone of voice: it’s flat, almost monotone, arguably the least expressive line reading in either of the first two Indy films. One could write it off as a bum take that somehow found its way into the final cut. But if one places it within the movie’s clearly intended context—an origin story about a freebooting rascal remaking himself as a righteous hero—it seems not just intentional, but inevitable, perhaps even the key that unlocks Indy’s iconic persona.

When Spielberg described the movie as Indiana Jones Goes to Hell, he wasn’t kidding. The dragon’s mouth, the banquet hall decorations, Mola Ram’s skull paint and sash, the evil-Indy poison, the magma pools and the interior of the barricaded mine-car shaft are all the same hellish red. The movie is a crucible in which the hero is melted down and remade. It introduces Indy as a tuxedoed, single black-marketeer, a man so mean he tries to force payment for a job by threatening to stab a woman with a fork. The film’s emotional zenith finds Indy dying a figurative (moral) death after ingesting the potion and succumbing to a sinister sleep that literalizes the moral sleep in which he had previously existed; he is reawakened by love (corny, but that’s how it plays) and emerges a new Indy, a man less interested in personal gain (“fortune and glory”) than restoration (telling Indy and Willie, “let’s get out of here… all of us”). This evolution, too, is foreshadowed in the film’s opening nightclub brawl: while Indy fumbles after the antidote to the poison he drank, Willie simultaneously grasps at the diamond that the gangster boss gave Indy as payment for his grave-robbing—a diamond that means nothing to a man on the brink of death.

Doom ends with Indy liberating children from slavery, reanimating a nearly-dead countryside and entering (for the time being) a facsimile of a nuclear family. Returning the Sankara stone to the shaman, Indy says quietly, “I understand its power.” The trip to hell and back burns off Indy’s selfishness and foregrounds the decency and sense of moral responsibility he once sublimated. A single man-child goes to Pankot Palace and returns as a family man reuniting lost children with their parents. In its madcap-picaresque way, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom echoes 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Flash back to that starlit hilltop: given what Indy is about to experience, the changes that are about to be beaten and burned out of him, his rote pronunciation of “fortune and glory” makes sense. He’s about to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. “Fortune and glory” is the lie that the old Indy has to tell himself, in order to give himself permission to start the adventure that will birth the new Indy: a man willing to risk his life for principle. Nestled in the midst of Spielberg’s most disreputable action movie is one of the most psychologically true moments he’s ever filmed—a moment in which a man’s life changes and he doesn’t even know it.

All Is One: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

by Keith Uhlich

The title promises an epic kind of finality, so it’s only fitting that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opens at the proverbial start of its globetrotting protagonist’s career. Clad in Boy Scout uniform, emerging from the shadows—both geographically literal and Fordian symbolic—of Utah’s craggy Moab arches, Henry Jones Jr. (River Phoenix) is all raw energy and American pluck, his ideals, as so often in Spielberg, potently reduced to an oft-repeated phrase (“It belongs in a museum.”).

He’s a knight-in-training, a quintessentially Western conqueror—enough of a freethinker that he gets by moment-to-moment, but still subservient (and often unknowingly) to a power structure greater than himself. His true instincts (all throughout his life) are base, improvisatory, brutal: the scoutwear here is as much a guise as the suit and spectacles he’ll adopt as an adult academic. As he makes off with the jewel-encrusted Cross of Coronado, he sheds (or shreds) the trappings. The hat goes flying, the clothes become tattered, caked with dirt and blood—experience sticks, makes its mark, sculpting the boy into the man.

A circus train is the conduit between Jones Jr.’s past, present, and future—it’s the three (soon to be four) film series’s madeleine in the tea, a remembrance (and a search) unburdened by time. Here, car by car, is the Jones legacy in miniature: a crate of snakes burrowing their way into, and unlocking, a fear-tinged subconscious; a rhino’s tusk, wittily placed so as to suggest a stunted, yet perpetually unbridled sexual urge; a lion (king of the jungle vs. usurper of the throne) to be tamed by bloodletting whip; and a magic box, a caboose-residing deus ex machina, that leads (per P.T. Barnum) to a great and expansive unknown. “Damn,” says Jones’ antagonist Fedora (Richard Young), as his quarry, prize in tow, runs off into the deserted distance. Then, same shot, a smile: beaming, ever-widening—the sacred melded with the profane.

Home, then, to father, so disinterested in his son’s adventures that he resorts to a dunce cap exercise (“count to ten… in Greek”). With no common ground on which to meet, they separate, Jones Sr. muttering to himself a selfishly guarded epiphany-cum-invocation (“may he who illuminated this, illuminate me”). The “rightful owner” of the cross comes calling, the town sheriff in his employ (no place, here, for idealized figures of authority). Jones Jr. relinquishes the prize, but gains something, perhaps, far more valuable. “You lost today, kid,” says Fedora (suddenly a surrogate), “but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.” He crowns him with the iconic chapeau, shadowing the fresh-faced youngster and bringing out, in a years-spanning jump cut (simple, resonant, sublime), the world-weary adult (Harrison Ford). No longer “Junior,” henceforth Indiana Jones.

It’s tempting to call this sequence Spielberg’s finest achievement, though the hyperbole, let’s admit, would be entirely personal, hardly supportable by fact. But: “Archaeology is the search for fact,” says Professor Indiana Jones in one of Last Crusade’s early scenes, “not truth”—a statement, an ideology, easily proven within the walls of academe, less so in the complicated hash of the world at large. The facts, then (at least to me), are these:

In terms of purity (of theme, rhythm, meaning, metaphor, and movement), Spielberg never tops his opener, though I don’t think he’s out to. Coming as the third panel in a masterful triptych which includes The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, Last Crusade is quite apparently a fade-out, a slow diminuendo—trace the bell curve from Color Purple’s orgasmic explosion of community, through Empire’s sustained cri de coeur for childhood lost, to Last Crusade’s end-credits ride into (a Spielberg favorite) a perspective-obliterating sunset. “The search for the cup of Christ is the search for the divine in all of us,” says Indy’s confidante Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), just before they embark on a quest, initiated by Indy’s missing father (Sean Connery), for the Holy Grail. That suggests a journey both outward and inward (what we see, what is hidden, and, resulting, what comes to the fore) that Spielberg and his collaborators—among them, George Lucas and Menno Meyjes on story, Jeffrey Boam on script, John Williams, as ever, on score, Douglas Slocombe, final film, on photography—consistently parallel and explode onscreen.

This push-and-pull between the secular and the spiritual is perhaps best embodied by the Venice locale where Indy, Marcus, and Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) begin their crusade—a library housed in a former church. Using clues gathered from both his father’s grail diary and a stained glass window depicting the Christian trinity, Indy uncovers the edifice’s heretofore unspoken “truth.” “X marks the spot,” he smirks, pointing at a hidden-in-plain-sight Roman numeral, and sheepishly contradicting, though not canceling out, a formerly confident classroom pronouncement. Per Roland Barthes: “… the subject gains access to bliss by the cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is a sanctioned Babel.” In a sense, then, this crusade is about the co-existence, and the acceptance, of the multiple natures within and without.

Thus, when Dr. Schneider is revealed as a two-faced antagonist (during Indy’s rescue of his father from an Austrian castle), it comes as something of a meta-shock considering the Marions and Willies of yore. The love in this Indiana Jones film is familial rather than sexual, though Spielberg complicates, or better, perverts it by having Schneider be the sensuous, Mata Hari-like link between father and son. It’s poisonous, yes, but it cuts both ways: when Indy (disguised as Gestapo) seeks her out during a Berlin book-burning rally, they have a brief semantic argument (all sound and fury) before coming to the plangent philosophical point: “All I have to do is squeeze,” says Indy, his hand violently at his former lover’s throat. “All I have to do is scream,” she whispers. Neither of them does—the acknowledgment is enough.

This collision of ideals (cloaked in and revealed by threats) leads to an indelible punchline, as Indy comes face-to-face with Der Führer himself (Michael Sheard). Two creatures of myth (one fictional, one horribly real) stare each other down, silently, mysteriously, iconically (fatherland locking eyes with a cautiously defiant snake in the grass). The grail diary exchanges hands, but Hitler can’t see the forest for the trees—he’s an image man, plain and simple, and must maintain an immediate illusion of power. Unknowingly, he inscribes the very thing that would give him all he purports to desire; he makes his mark on the quest, but, by that action, is brought down to earth and put in harsh perspective. The only thing that might have deepened the gag would be to have Riefenstahl on hand, filming the exchange and setting the epitaph in emulsified stone (reportedly, the wonderful, horrible Leni was indeed present in an early rough cut).

“What do you want to talk about?” asks an indignant Jones Sr. of his son, both of them sharing a quiet moment on board a zeppelin. There are innumerable lost years here, but Indy “can’t think of anything” to bridge the gap. Our turmoils, Spielberg seems to say, are mostly our own creations. And besides… in this world, action (whether by plane, car, boat, gun, or tank) always intrudes on the chatter. So it is more the pregnant pause, the sidelong, tossed-off glance that reveals the profound truths, as when Jones Sr. (ever the bookish fish-out-of-water) lets loose a flock of seagulls to bring down a Nazi fighter plane. He proudly quotes Charlemagne (“Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky”) as he walks past his son with the knowingly smug look of an educating elder, but Indy looks after him with a genuine surprise and a determined love, the gulf of time collapsed, even if only by a fraction.

Abysses abound in Last Crusade (it’s in one of these very crevasses that Indy comes to his ultimate, life-altering realization). But first: “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe,” says suit-and-tie baddie Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), just before he sends Indy off (a bullet to his father’s gut as blackmail) on the journey’s final leg, which encompasses a trio (a trinity) of challenges—essentially to be humble before, walk in the name of, and leap for the glory of God. Not to say that Indy becomes a blind believer: he’s as secular as they come, but it’s this quality of to-hell-with-it openness that helps him to recognize the mortal realities of the tasks before him, without dismissing their simultaneous otherworldliness. (In Spielberg’s oeuvre, the mundane and the metaphysical feed off of and into each other as surely as do the dual forces of commerce and art.) Indy’s earthbound wisdom and perseverance (in concert with his trust, when called for, in thaumaturgy) grants him entrance to a small antechamber inhabited only by a centuries-old knight of the Crusades and numerous, shimmering chalices (photographed so as to seem both tantalizing and pornographic).

As Hitler was oblivious to the power of the grail diary (seeing only kindling or a blank space on which to scribble his devil’s mark), so Donovan, a more placidly powerful antagonist, is blinded by the Grail’s own purported beauty. He lets Dr. Schneider pick out the supposed cup of Christ (true to the character, a smirk flickers across her face, as if she might intentionally be choosing in error) and then drinks from it without question. His hubris, his unfailing certainty, does him in. Per the old knight’s warning, the false grail takes Donovan’s life from him, drying him to brittle bone, a Nazi button insignia emerging from his ashes as the only enduring remnant/legacy. Indy grasps the implication (the fact, if you will): that myth and spirit are too often couched in glittering terms. Symbols and signs must be brought down to earth, but, befitting the archaeologist’s credo, the mystery must remain intact. So it is: the Grail is actually the humble cup of a carpenter, and its promised gift of eternal life is given with little pomp and circumstance, merely a kindly nod and assent from one in the know (“You have chosen wisely,” says the knight).

Son and father (the latter healed by the Grail’s mystical powers) now connect over the artifact, a fleeting moment, for how can the end of a quest (of even, so it seemed at the time, a film trilogy) compare to the journey itself? What it begets is one last challenge. For Indy’s immortality, even if canceled out by Dr. Schneider’s selfish removal of the Grail from its sacrosanct resting place, is assured on the level of cinema. The character will live on, even if he, now hanging over that aforementioned abyss, reaches for the Grail and dies the death of an object-besotten conqueror. These too, it would seem (the Grail and Indy both), belong in a museum. Father breaks the spell, addressing his son on terms both reel and real:

“Indiana… Indiana… let it go.”

The choice to live on, even beyond the borders of the current quest, is the better one. So the family reunites, connected in bliss, in transcendence, in—per Jones Sr.’s own words (his bookends)—“illumination.” But old habits die hard: Indy’s moniker, no longer needed for redemptive purposes, is brought down to the level of dogs (as long as life courses through us, we tread both great heights and great depths). The prickly status quo returns, but the just-passed, irrevocably etched experience remains—even if only, for the immediate moment, below the skin, hidden from view.

Now only twilight and sunset. Illumination fades; the self annihilates in silhouette. And all (father, son, and spirit) is one.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: Blessed Child Only Half-Lifts the Veil on a Family’s Ties to a Cult

The film vague on the intersections between Cara Jones’s family, Sun Myung Moon, and the Unification Church at large.

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Blessed Child
Photo: Obscured Pictures

Founded and led by Korean evangelist and businessman Sun Myung Moon, the Unification Church enjoyed a surge in popularity in the United States in the 1970s. Disciples of the controversial church, known as Moonies, believed Moon’s assertion that he was a messiah sent to continue Jesus’s work of brokering our connection to God, and was as such unquestionable. Moon presided over mass arranged weddings, called “blessings,” that would lead to children born without original sin. Drugs and sex outside of marriage were verboten, homosexuality was a sin, and various other rules were in place to ensure the “purity” of disciples. What seems to distinguish Moon’s religion from puritanical branches of Christianity is an insistence on internationality, which might have appealed to Americans disenfranchised in the wake of the Vietnam War. Cara Jones’s parents were such Americans.

Blessed Child is an insider’s look at the Unification Church, homing in on Jones’s own family. Farley Jones, her father, was an atheist who became a devout Moonie and rose within the ranks of the church, enjoying intimate counsel with Moon himself. In 1995, Cara was married to a young Korean man she’d just met along with thousands of other couples in a stadium in Seoul, after submitting her high school picture to the church for an arranged coupling. Footage of this wedding is included in Blessed Child, and it speaks to the chilling anonymity of cult life, as a ritual associated with great personal love is transformed into a mass recruiting rally. Blessed Child is, in fact, composed of quite a bit of Jones home-video footage, and the film doesn’t lack for wrenchingly casual details about how a family indoctrinates its young into a contrived belief system, making it all seem so natural and inevitable. Perhaps most unnervingly, we see a young Cara deep in the grips of prayer, performing in a daily ritual at the family’s home, her face curled in determination to please her father.

The documentary is structured as a kind of coming-of-age story. Cara went to Princeton University not long after her wedding and rebelled against her religion, feeling especially alienated by a husband she regarded more as a brother figure. Embracing drugs and sex, Cara eventually fell out with her parents, who insisted she leave Princeton, which she refused. Now in her 40s, Cara wants to be free of the church’s tentacles without losing her parents and brothers, one of whom, Bow, is gay and served as the film’s director of photography. Cara grapples with a hypocrisy that scans as a given to many atheists: that religions that speak of love often seem to pivot far more viscerally on inspiring shame (as well as on the donations that such shame can motivate). Bow, who occasionally appears on screen, is out but clearly damaged by the church, wishing to the camera that he wasn’t gay.

Farley is the film’s most haunting subject though, a patriarch and religious figure who rules the roost with a sense of erudition and overwhelming niceness. Cara, not without bitterness, says that Farley killed with kindness. Late in Blessed Child, Cara asks Farley how he can accommodate a religion that judges his own son. To his credit, Farley isn’t defensive, and to less of his credit, he hems and haws, more or less evading the ramifications of his daughter’s question. Judging by his face, Farley appears to be a man, eaten up with sadness, who absolutely needs this religion and self-definition regardless of certain consequences. Farley says that he saw Moon, who died in 2012, as a father figure, as his own father walked out on his family when he was 10, and he saw the Unification Church as a way to embrace and focus familial love. It’s here that another irony rises to the surface: Farley and his wife, Betsy, frequently left their children in the hands of nannies while on missionary expeditions, so if we’re to believe his motivations, he momentarily lost his family out of fear of losing them.

Jones captures moving moments throughout Blessed Child, such as when Farley and Betsy tearfully apologize for the pressure they put on her and the confusion and misery they wrought. But the film nonetheless feels under-developed, as Jones is vague about the intersections between her family, Moon, and the church at large. Tantalizing questions hang in the air. How did Farley rise so quickly in the church? How do the other brothers, briefly glimpsed over a lunch, feel about Cara’s emancipation? How did Farley rationalize Moon’s tax evasions, infidelities, and other controversies? Farley’s daddy issues also feel like an inadequate explanation for how an intellectual atheist might be seduced by what appears to the layman to be an obvious scam. Jones may be too close to Farley to get to the bottom of him, and as such she doesn’t quite render the rationalizations of the cult members, though she offers a poignant testament to the baggage and insecurities hounding her own life.

Director: Cara Jones Screenwriter: Josh Alexander, Jean Kawahara, Cara Jones Distributor: Obscured Pictures Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Ghosts of War Is a Morally Ghastly Haunted-House Attraction

The film’s unreflective earnestness is haunting in all the wrong ways.

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Ghosts of War
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

As a horror film that deals in hauntings and temporal displacements, writer-director Eric Bress’s Ghosts of War almost feels aptly dislodged in time. It could easily have come out two decades ago, around the time of Bress’s own The Butterfly Effect—that post-Sixth Sense era when suspense films seemed almost obligated to reveal their structuring conceit in a last-minute twist. Ghosts of War harkens back to this era of “gotcha” thrillers, building toward a climax in which significant moments we’ve seen are played back to us in rapid montage so we can piece together the supposedly clever ways we’ve been misdirected.

The device of the explanatory twist appears here as an apparent means of papering over some rather glaring inconsistencies in the World War II-set horror story, anachronisms and abrupt tone shifts whose gradual accumulation results in more incoherence than mystery—like when we catch sight of gaunt refugees in striped concentration-camp garb in Eastern France in 1944, or when a scene ends with a character’s fingers being horribly mangled, and the next opens with the same character coolly discussing scrambled radio messages. The big reveal assembles some of these disjointed pieces into a conspiratorial whole that, conveniently, could account for almost any preceding logical lapse. But some oddities can only be explained as continuity errors, like when the characters suddenly have wounds they will receive in a later scene.

The story that’s doomed to be consumed by its own ending concerns five Army grunts assigned to set up camp in a chateau in the French countryside just outside of Strasbourg, relieving another fireteam whose members, when our heroes arrive, wear the sleep-deprived and nerve-wracked faces of men who’ve spent several nights in a haunted house. Left with a radio that’s quite plainly relaying scrambled eldritch whispers from the beyond, a room decorated with creepy porcelain dolls, and a journal kept by the Nazi commanders who used the chateau as a headquarters, the five soldiers might be able to read these signs and guess they’re in for a modern movie haunting, if only they’d been born a few decades later.

One of the soldiers, Eugene (Skylar Astin), whose spectacles and aversion to combat peg him as the group’s intellectual, speaks German, so he begins reading the Nazis’s detailed account of their torture and murder of the family who lived in the house. The spirits of the Hellwigs still haunt the mansion, which we learn through the soldiers’ spooky encounters, which often resemble gags at Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction: the silhouette behind a curtain that disappears when the cloth flutters; footprints that form in the sand before our eyes; and the family photo from which the human subjects disappear, leaving behind empty furniture.

Starting on the basis of these hokey effects, Bress’s screenplay takes up and then immediately drops several distinct threads of development. The old hobbyhorse of Hitler’s interest in the occult is dusted off, ridden around for 10 minutes, then forgotten. Suspicion between the soldiers wanes as soon as it waxes: For about three minutes, Chris (Brenton Thwaits) suspects Eugene of knowing more than he lets on, and everyone briefly suspects Tappert (Kyle Gallner) of harboring some violent intentions or other. There’s little sense that all this is going anywhere, and, of course, the twist ending will render much of it meaningless. At one point, the team tries to leave the mansion, and finds that they’re caught in some kind of spatio-temporal loop. They never feel more relatable than they do in this moment.

Noteworthy in Ghosts of War is that the Nazis aren’t the vicious paranormal force threatening the lives of our boys in uniform, but rather their victims. It’s a distinctive choice that initially suggests the film may intend to use the conventions of the ghost story to talk about something like the lasting spiritual impact of mass conflict and murder. But in a move that ends up being as morally ghastly as it is intellectually flabbergasting, the conclusion entails drawing a direct parallel between persecuted Jews hiding from Nazi slaughter and armed American soldiers hiding from enemy discovery. Perhaps the sloppy jingoism of a Nazi horror movie shouldn’t rankle so much, but Ghosts of War delivers its simultaneous celebration and exploitation of America’s “good wars” with an unreflective earnestness that’s haunting in all the wrong ways.

Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Theo Rossi, Kyle Gallner, Skylar Astin, Alan Ritchson, Billy Zane, Shaun Toub Director: Eric Bress Screenwriter: Eric Bress Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Interview: Bill and Turner Ross on the Constructions of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

The Rosses discuss how performance, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia figure into their work.

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Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
Photo: Utopia

The work of filmmaker brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross has always lived on the more experimental margins of the documentary form, and their latest effort radically pushes definitional notions of nonfiction to a near-breaking point. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets raised eyebrows when Sundance programmers slotted it into the festival’s Documentary Competition section, given that the film, about a Las Vegas dive bar’s last night of operation, was actually shot using a cast of hired actors-cum-barflys in New Orleans. What the filmmakers capture over the course of a whirlwind 18 hours—a day after Donald Trump won the presidency—might lack actuality, but they compensate with unvarnished authenticity.

The Ross brothers, who are based in New Orleans, have long been experts at capturing how people perform their identity within a given space and what that reflects about their humanity. Sometimes the performance is literal, as in their “dance film” Contemporary Color, a celebration of color guard staged by David Byrne at an event at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. But more often, their canvas is bigger, such as New Orleans’s French Quarter in Tchoupitoulas, their Sidney, Ohio hometown in 45365, or the Texas-Mexico border in Western; these documentaries are also populated with people going about their lives in less staged circumstances. With Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the filmmakers narrow their focus to an admittedly synthetic setting to achieve an identical effect. Once the cameras start rolling and the booze starts flowing, the emotional honesty of the moments they capture outmuscles any concerns over genre labels or definitions.

On a Zoom call prior to the film’s Virtual Cinema release this Friday, I spoke with the Ross brothers about the intellectual and emotional journey leading up to ideating and executing an unconventional project like Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The conversation also covered how the brothers think about performance, choreography, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia when making their films.

Your body of work is largely about what we can learn about people from the spaces they occupy and explore. Did your ability to explore these thematics get easier or harder with such a confined location in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets?

Turner Ross: We’re interested in people in the space they inhabit, people in the spaces they create, how the spaces that they occupy both relate to them and are manifested by them. So, I think every film has a bit to do with that. With this one, I wouldn’t say [it was] easier or harder. I would say we always set up a challenge for ourselves. And this was as challenging a dynamic as we could conceive given the films that have preceded it. You know, we’re always trying to learn from what comes before. And the last film that we did was a “four walls” movie, but it was the Barclays Center in New York, tens of thousands of people, several hundred participants and a crew of dozens. We wanted to take that idea of constraints and a limited palette and say, “Can we reduce that down to actually four walls, just the two of us, to a group of people assembled? Can we give a sense of being there to a place that we’ve manifested? Can we elicit an authentic experience from an intention to a scenario?” But those are imposed limitations and obstacles, and that’s what makes it interesting for us.

Bill Ross IV: In some ways, it was nicer to be confined to that space because that limitation was what it was. In other ways, it was incredibly difficult.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

A scene from Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. © Utopia

You mentioned Contemporary Color as another “four walls” movie. Did that experience of learning how to capture motion within a confined space help in making this one?

TR: Very much so. Contemporary Color is actually a dance film, so it involves choreography. Humans and their choreography through space is always interesting, and so we tried to create a space in which all of the corners of the room had potential. We filled it with people who would have an interesting dance with each other. The difference was we didn’t know the choreography ahead of time. We just kind of had to create the scenario, create opportunities and then follow where they led. And so that made it much more of an interesting dance partner than just observing the thing itself.

You started conceptualizing this film with your Vegas visits in 2009 but didn’t shoot the film until 2016. How did your understanding of the people, the bars, the city, the country change over time? How would the film be different if you’d shot it right away?

BR: I mean, each film is an extension of where we are as humans when we shoot it, so it would certainly have been more immature.

TR: It’s an extension of us as people, as individuals, as humans in the world. It’s an extension of ourselves as artists, the times that we’re in, what we’re thinking about, what we’re responding to. So, certainly, 10 years ago, the world we were responding to is very different than the one that we find ourselves in now. In that sense, the world being available to us as the resource that we mine, certainly that would have been different. But, at the same time, what we were looking for at that time was much more of a gritty, verité, follow-where-it-goes street film in which we were just really wanting to see what was happening in that world. Not so much as a paradigm in which the movie takes place, a metaphor for experience, a framing device—which is what it ends up being in this film—but the actuality of what it was in 2009 during the Great Recession when people were living on the outskirts of Vegas, not seeking pleasure but a place to get by in the world. That spoke to us really as an image, as an experience and as a rich resource for painting a portrait of the contemporary American experience, which, again, extrapolated into these times would be very different. And, for us, it became the backdrop for this film so that we could create a microcosmic story that hopefully spoke to something bigger in that context.

BR: We know if we had made it 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been a bar film. I think it would have been much more like Martin Bell’s Streetwise or Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog.

TR: I’d love to see that film!

BR: Oh, that movie would be sweet. But we’ll get to that one. It just wasn’t the right time then. It’s good that we got to think about it for this long. A lot of things were reported in that bucket over the last decade, or I guess it would have been seven years.

You’ve described bars as almost liminal spaces where people go to be someone other than themselves. Is that realization part of what led you to view the people in this film as actors performing characters?

TR: We’re always performing as people, and that comes into the genre-framing conversation. Our awareness of a camera has become a real factor in the world, but that’s not what we’re after. What we were curious about is what are these spaces that we choose to inhabit, that we seek in which to commiserate, that we seek in which to make stories, to tell stories, to put on airs, to be ourselves, to let go of things. Through all of time, people have found these types of spaces. And at the time that we made the film, we felt it was the most conducive space in which to observe and be curious about the conversations people are having with each other when they aren’t talking about something in particular. And, so, if we can all share a drink and have a conversation, what does it sound like? That’s in parallel to our interest in these spaces in general, and as a visual and cultural space, but also as a useful space. Who are we? Why don’t we talk to each other like this? What stories do we tell what stories we tell ourselves? And what are we saying to each other in this moment in time?

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Michael Martin as seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. © Utopia

Do you see your other films as having performances in their own way?

BR: Always, yeah. In a lot of ways, I don’t see this film being much different than the others. They’re all constructions. There’s a camera in the room and we’re all performing. We’re all presenting what we wish to be seen as. I think that’s been cranked up here, but by how much I don’t really know.

TR: Our films are an amalgam of an experience. How can we distill it down to its essence, to make it sensical when it’s shared? I think that’s part of being a person in the world, what are you going to share with others in order to give them an idea of who you wish them to see? And that’s performance. So, in that sense, our films are also performative. In this sense, we’re just more acutely looking at that.

How were you all navigating the need to be specific to get the precise sense of place but also generalizable enough that anyone could see their own truth or experience reflected in the film?

BR: A lot of it is casting. We’re casting a wide variety of folks for a lot of different reasons, but one of them being that folks will see themselves in someone there. Or pieces of themselves throughout. And that seems to have been the case so far, which has been great. But the beginning of the question was Vegas…

TR: We wanted to tell a specific story that was also universal. That’s what Bill was talking about with casting. We wanted to make sure that there was representation in there so that there were different voices heard, which were authentic [and] would not [convey] an inauthentic experience, some sort of staged experiment, but something that spoke to an authenticity that we had perceived and experienced on our own. So, yes, we did a lot when it come to the framing of that world. We spent a lot of time in Vegas, certainly scouting and considering that and wanting to be authentic to that locale. But we also wanted to create a boundary in between so that when people watch the film, it isn’t so acute that they feel removed. We want people to have this experiential opportunity. We spoke today with a woman in Moscow, different people all over the world, different age groups, different backgrounds, and [even though it] may not be [their] space, they know something like it. Those may not be your people, but you might know folks like ‘em. And we wanted that to be the overriding idea, and not so much that this is a singular, specific story. We hoped that we would get to something that was more universal, even though it is a singular milieu.

We sometimes see the camera in the bar mirrors. Was it just too logistically complex trying to hide its presence? Did you just embrace your visibility?

BR: This is our fifth feature, and at this point, I think I’m just done trying to cut around us. We are there. If we weren’t there, there wouldn’t be a film. More and more, we have embraced the fact that we’re just in the room. It’s very intentional, but we’re not focusing on ourselves. Because it’s a mirrored room, we are popping up. We are leaving ourselves in there to say that this was a collective experience. This is all something that we experienced together. And we’re shooting not at these folks, but with [them]. We are together.

A moment that really struck me in the film is the really heartfelt conversation at the end of the bar between Bruce and Pam, both older and of different racial backgrounds. We see them at first in close-up, then you zoom out to see from other people’s vantage point from the other end of the bar in long shot. Throughout much of the film, we’re in a moment so thoroughly, and then it evaporates. Why linger here a bit and change perspectives?

BR: There’s two parts to that. One is, editorially, we needed to condense the scene timewise. But, also, because of that perspective, the scene becomes richer because the folks that you bounce around to are having trivial conversations when they are having a big life moment down here. And that’s the way a bar works. Now, you’re totally oblivious that somebody is having a life-changing, cathartic moment down here, and you and your buddies are talking about Olive Garden three seats down. I thought it was very telling what those spaces can be.

TR: And we wanted that inclusivity of the myriad experience and how the same situation, even within a small tight-knit framework, is experienced differently. And, as a viewer, that was Bill speaking to the cinematic intention. We realized that it was much more accessible as a film if we used the language of cinema to move around the space and to allow the viewers to say, “I have my own stream of consciousness in this space and can move around to the different conversations at will. I’m privy to all of the things in a way that even the people within the bar [aren’t].” The omniscience is in favor of the viewer.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Bruce Hadnot as seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. © Utopia

BR: There was one cut of this where we would just stick with Pam and Bruce for, like, eight minutes uninterrupted and not bounce around the room. We love that cut, but nobody else did! So we had austere intentions, and then realized we need to revert to the language of the movies.

Beyond just the difficulties of getting someone to watch or program something that’s four-and-a-half-hours long, which is the length of your original favored cut, why whittle the film down to an hour-and-a-half? What’s lost and what’s gained?

BR: An audience is gained! [laughs]

TR: We always say that we make movies for ourselves first. We make movies for each other, and we try to solve that thing. Well, that four-and-a-half-hour movie was the movie that we made for ourselves and for each other. It turns out that what we loved about it was not translated to people outside of our own peculiar bubble. What we needed to do was distill that down to something that allowed people in and wasn’t so cold and obstructive as to pull people out. It’s not about observation, it’s about inclusion for the people within it and the viewers, and we had to eventually really lean towards the viewer. Because if we’re not successful in the end, if we can’t share this, there’s not an act of empathy. We can’t create an artifact and then share it with an audience to have them have their experience. And so that is why it’s 90 minutes.

Was it an intentional decision to shoot the day after the 2016 election or just a happy accident?

BR: I don’t know if it was “happy,” but it just sort of turned out that way.

TR: Generally, we’re reflecting the state of the world at the time, what we were feeling and thinking. We were feeling sort of divided as a country and in terms of perspectives, and we were feeling pretty lost and like we should be able to do better than our vote on Election Day allowed. As artists, it was time for us to go to work. We set out to get the film in motion before we knew the results of the election. It wasn’t about us making a film about our politics, but it was about the body politic. What is the state of people and what are they saying to each other? Let’s not make an election film, but let’s make a film about who we are during this time.

Trump is this kind of looming, mostly unspoken presence undergirding a lot of what’s happening on screen, just as he has been in pretty much any bar for the last five years. How did you go about navigating the elephant in the room?

BR: It was just like a bar, with folks just getting into it, and that didn’t feel quite right. So we’d move elsewhere. But that balance was struck in the edit. We didn’t shy away from shooting all of it. It was present.

TR: But it also was a motivating factor in terms of why we chose to execute the film the way that we did: to create a container, a safe space to bring in a broad swath of people to choreograph the inclusion of those types. In scouting actual bars, there were some bars that, because of the way that Bill and I look, we would walk in, we’d turn the cameras on and they’d start chanting: “Trump, Trump, Trump!” Just assuming a certain point of view, and that’s not the film that we wanted to make.

BR: To be clear, he is not talking about the Roaring 20s! [laughs]

TR: We scouted 100 bars, and we interviewed hundreds of people to be involved in this film. And there were certain spaces that certainly did have a limited viewpoint, and people found their own corner to back into. That’s just not what we wanted to explore. We didn’t want to have a space that spoke to a singular experience. We wanted myriad viewpoints and the opportunity to feel like you belonged in a space. That’s both why we chose to shoot at that time and why we created our space the way that we did.

I’m sure you’re getting this a lot, but obviously the film has evolved to take on additional meaning when being released in a pandemic where almost no one can congregate in a bar, or at least enjoy one like the Roaring 20s patrons are. Do you think it might change the meaning or reception of the film given that the audience is likely in a state of heightened nostalgia for the environment of a bar?

BR: That’s funny because nobody’s asked us that yet! I thought people would. You have to think it’s going to. I mean, it’s got to!

TR: We’re as curious as you are. On the one hand, the themes in the film are still relevant and resonant. And, on the other hand, they change their articulation because of where we’ve ended up at this moment.

BR: Not just about your feelings on bars, but so much of what’s brought up in the film has been heightened because everything is heightened right now.

TR: And not only what they’re talking about, what the people are actually saying to each other. The context of the film, this idea of the end of things and uncertain futures, wrestling with identity and where we’re all headed, these sort of existential themes that are intertwined in the conceit of the film and in the way that people are having discourse with each other. I’m super curious. What a bizarre fucking time to put out a film at all! Especially this one, where we’re on edge about everything, we can’t share space in this way. Who are we? I think that’ll be reflected in the kind of feedback we get.

It strikes me that you didn’t make this as an explicitly “nostalgic” film. Would you be okay if people received it that way?

BR: My biggest fear would be if they were just like, “Okay.” Any sort of reaction, if they want to argue with it, great! People are free to do what they want to do, I just hope it’s not just like, “Okay, honey. Well, we watched that.” As if it’s just one more piece of content.

TR: In the moment that we made it, our concern was not to date the film, to say, “Let’s let it be of the world that it is, but let’s also not fix it in that for all of time, hopefully.” At the same time, it’s already in the rearview, so you can’t help but have some sort of nostalgia for it. Or, I don’t know, maybe there’s a hope for moving on. I think, inevitably, we make these things together to go through a catharsis together and with the people that we make them with. Then, it’s left up to the audience, and I’m fascinated by what an audience does with it once it’s theirs. I’ll be super curious to have those conversations.

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Review: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment

It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.

3.5

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Photo: Utopia

In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.

Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.

The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.

Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.

Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.

Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.

While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.

Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.

Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family

The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

2.5

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Relic
Photo: IFC Midnight

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.

Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.

Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.

The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.

But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

2

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

2

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

3

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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