As I was heading off to my first day of elementary school, my father said, “If they ask you your religion, tell them you’re a member of the Church of the Holy Gun.”
It was a joke, of course. But not entirely.
I grew up in a gun shop in New Hampshire. Or, more accurately, I grew up in a house with a gun shop attached to it. I was never baptized, but I was given a life membership in the National Rifle Association when I was born. My first substantial birthday present was a .22 rifle my father built for me when I was three. Other kids always wanted to come over to my house to play Cowboys & Indians because we got to use real guns from my father’s box of broken pistols and revolvers. By the summer of 1985, I was nine years old and my father had just gotten a license to sell machine guns.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (which I’ve always just called Rambo II) was one of the first R-rated movies I ever got to watch. I don’t remember if my father took me to see it at our local movie theater or if I watched it when he rented the videotape later. I expect it was the latter, but it feels in my memory more like the former—going out to see a movie was a big event in my family, much like the sequence in The 400 Blows where Antoine and his parents go to see a movie and for the time they’re under the spell of the celluloid dreamworld, it takes no effort to smile.
Rambo II offered not just entertainment, but lessons. In our house, my father would turn on the evening news at 6.30 and we’d watch it through dinner while he talked at the politicians, telling them what they were doing wrong. Ronald Reagan, our dear leader, had once, on a campaign stop in my home town, patted me on the head, a story I was told repeatedly when I was young, as if somehow the touch of the one true and good politician could ensure that I would become a real man.
The cold war was still alive and well, and two facets of it in particular held not only my father’s interest, but the nation’s: the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the civil war in Nicaragua. In his 1985 State of the Union Address, President Reagan said, “We must stand by all our democratic allies. And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.” After denouncing the Sandinista government as an evil dictatorship, he said, “Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.”
Reagan brought us a new morning in a new America, an America that was not like the dark and pitiful one that had failed so terribly in Vietnam. Reagan was a savior to people who felt Vietnam remained an open wound, and Rambo was right there beside him. In the opening minutes of Rambo II, Sylvester Stallone asks Richard Crenna, “Sir, do we get to win this time?” and Crenna replies, “That’s up to you.”
The wars of the 1980s were not wars the U.S. supported only because of anti-Soviet fervor. There was that, and Hollywood occasionally reflected it—Red Dawn, from the summer of ’84, was a sacred text in our house, and my father continually impressed on me how realistic it was, especially the scene where the invading Russians go to confiscate the Form 4473s from gun dealers to learn who owns what weapons.
But there was also the need to feel good about the U.S. as a militaristic country. With our military spending making up nearly half of the entire world’s in 1985, we needed to feel righteous again.
The famous, award-winning war movies of the 1970s that focused on Vietnam were full of conflicted characters, men riddled with guilt and pain, people for whom Vietnam was a hallucination into hearts of darkness, a scar of dishonor, the pure product of sociopathic insanity where those who survived remained one Russian roulette game away from the oblivion they felt they deserved. These were serious films, dark films, films for night and nightmares.
Halfway through the ‘80s, President Reagan had ushered in a brighter day. No more shame, no more guilt. We were on the side of freedom, and freedom was worth fighting for.
The POW/MIA issue was a perfect engine to drive us toward a reconfiguration of how we understood the Vietnam war. Even gung-ho conservatives like my father (who had been just a little too old to be forced to serve in the war, and who had fled his service in the National Guard as soon as he could, because following orders was never something he had much talent for) didn’t have a whole lot of faith that the war had been fought for great reasons. It wasn’t like World War II, that unimpeachable struggle between the forces of light and darkness. It had been hard to find larger-than-life heroes to carry the narrative of Vietnam out of the jungles and into the living rooms of America.
In 1982, James “Bo” Gritz, the most decorated Green Beret who served in the war, secured funding from Ross Perot and led a group of mercenaries back to Cambodia in search of living prisoners of war. He didn’t find any, but he grabbed plenty of headlines, and, according to David Niewert, partly inspired George Peppard’s character of Colonel “Hannibal” Smith on The A-Team, one of only a few TV shows I watched faithfully as a child (the others were CHiPS, The Dukes of Hazzard and Fraggle Rock).
Bo Gritz went on to be a darling of racist far-right conspiracy mongers, but for a little while he was the geist of the zeit, and the John Rambo who appears in Rambo II is the love-child of Gritz and Superman. He not only goes back to Vietnam, but within moments of landing in the jungle, he finds living prisoners.
Rambo II is a movie filled almost entirely with enemies. Gritz’s conspiracy delusions are easy to see even in Stallone’s fantasy version of him—Rambo is a character who is thwarted at every step by people who can only be described by a thesaurus entry: lying, untruthful, dishonest, deceitful, false, dissembling, insincere, disingenuous, hypocritical, fraudulent, double-dealing, two-faced, two-timing, duplicitous, perfidious, perjured; antonym: truthful. Early in the film, Rambo says to Col. Trautman (Crenna), “You’re the only one I trust,” and both that trust and his distrust of everyone else is revealed to be utterly justified—it turns out he’s been sent back to Vietnam to a camp where the military thinks no POWs are. The politicians want him to show the world that the camp is empty so that the war can be, along with its warriors, finally forgotten. When Rambo is spotted running with one of the prisoners, the commander who sent him into the jungle orders the rescue mission to abort, and once again the grunts are abandoned by their country. It’s up to Rambo to fix it.
Two fantasies are at play here—a fantasy in which Gritz and the other POW/MIA activists were not only correct in their belief that lots of American soldiers had been left behind but also successful at finding them; and a fantasy in which Vietnam really was a winnable war if it was done right. Do we get to win this time? Yes, because this time we’ve got Rambo.
But Rambo is more than just the Avenger of Vietnam. He’s also Natty Bumppo and Tarzan, the man who lives best outside civilization, the man whose superpowers come from mixing the best of the “savage” world with the natural superiority of the white man. He can’t live in the United States any more than Tarzan can stay in Wisconsin; he’s too pure, too truly, archetypally American for the fallen world the US of A has become since those perfect days of 1776. His final act, after killing hordes of undifferentiated Vietnamese and scheming Russians (thus avenging the failures of the Vietnam War and furthering the cause of the Cold War at the same time), is to return to base and blow away a room full of computer terminals with an M60E3 heavy machine gun. These are the computers that the (lying, untruthful, dishonest, etc.) Murdock had told Rambo were the best technology available, and thus the best weapons, to which Rambo said, “I always believed the mind is the best weapon.” Murdock replied, “Times change,” and Rambo muttered, “For some people.” The Vietnam War was screwed up by the technocrats, it’s a living wound for Rambo, and so long as the wound remains open and the heroism of the soldiers—who survived on wits and brawn—remains unrecognized, their sacrifices unavenged, time cannot move forward without that very movement being a betrayal.
The computers are inhuman, the people who run them their servants, weak and hypnotized. These computers are bulky, beeping boxes, like set decorations discarded from a Flash Gordon serial, and they come equipped with human operators who never look away from them, who never see the actual world they are sitting in. They have theories, they have measurements, but it’s very clear they do not have the truth. Again and again, faces are reflected in screens and the light of screens dances over faces until finally, after Rambo has shot an M72 LAW through the windshield of his Huey helicopter into the Soviet helicopter that has come down to see if he’s survived the crash, we see Rambo’s face through the broken glass, and then a reverse shot of the burning Russians from his POV. It reveals and it foreshadows—nothing gets between Rambo and reality, though sometimes he has to play dead to lure the bad guys down into his vengeance.
Because he rejects computers does not mean Rambo rejects technology. His mind is pure, but his hands are aided by weapons he and the camera revere, the tools that are an extension of his own perfection. An early sequence intercuts shots of Murdock and the computers with shots of Rambo preparing himself for battle. Trautman calls him “a pure fighting machine with only a desire to win a war that someone else lost.” (The fighting machine—Rambo as cyborg.) Moments later, after Trautman has said, “What you choose to call hell, he calls home,” and after a few brief shots of a jet engine and the plane itself being fueled (the machine, warming up), we cut to Rambo’s sweaty, muscled shoulder. It’s an abstract image in the first frames, a curve of shiny skin surrounded by darkness. The camera flows over the skin as the arm moves rhythmically back and forth, the veins like hard wire, a slash of white light contrasting the flesh to the darkness—and then we see The Knife as it moves rhythmically across a whetstone.
During the longest conversation in the film (and the quietest, most relaxed moment), Rambo is on a boat with his partner in Vietnam, Co Bao, played by Julia Nickson speaking with a lightly British accent minus all articles and occasional verbs, like Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane impersonating Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan. Rambo asks her about the jade necklace she wears. “It bring me good luck,” she says. “What bring you good luck?” He holds up his knife, looks at it, and replies, with the closest thing to a smile we see in the whole film, “I guess this.”
The Knife is a powerful totem in Rambo II. Later, during an extended torture scene, it will not only be used against Rambo—heated in a fire until its tip is white hot, then drawn across his cheek—but it will briefly be held by the devilish Russian commander (played by Steven Berkoff) like an erect penis jutting sharply, threateningly from his pants. It is, indeed, Rambo’s manhood, his source of power, and while it is in enemy hands, he is at his weakest.
But that lets him becomes Jesus on the cross. We’ve seen Jesus once before here when Rambo first laid eyes on the camp and saw a POW strung up half-naked on a giant bamboo X. Soon, Rambo himself is tied to bamboo, his arms above him, sunk in leech-filled mud. When the Soviets arrive, Rambo is pulled up (he is risen!), naked except for a nearly-inconspicuous loincloth. Soon after, he gets his own passion play, strapped to an electrified rack, not quite as bloodied as Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s godly gore-fest, but just as holy. He is our redeemer.
Like Popeye, though, Rambo can’t become a full superhero until he gets his spinach, and Rambo’s spinach is lonely rage. He’s rescued from his crucifixion by Co Bao, who creates enough of a distraction for Rambo to get The Knife back and be empowered once again. And in the bright light of resurrection he and the perfect woman (she can handle a gun, but never questions his righteousness and authority) share a kiss. Perhaps they dreamed of getting out of Vietnam and going on vacation to Alaska and shooting wolves from helicopters, but whatever they dreamed, it can’t come true—Rambo is code-named Lone Wolf, after all, and his is the kiss of doom. Vulnerability and sensitivity are punished with immediate pain, as Co Bao is shot to smithereens and dies in Rambo’s arms, bathed in light that might have been borrowed from Thomas Kincaid. Her last words: “Rambo…you…can’t…forget…me!” It’s true, he can’t, he won’t, for he is not just The Avenger, but The Rememberer. Co Bao now shares the status of the Vietnam War for him: the lost cause, the pure hope destroyed, and That Which Must Never Be Forgotten.
Cut to Murdock the Mendacious threatening to arrest Trautman the Trusted for daring to suggest Rambo and the POWs be rescued. Murdock now thinks he’s winning, and his words to Trautman reiterate a revelation: “Like you said, Colonel, he went home.” Jump cut to THE TRANSFORMATION.
The Knife thrusts into its sheath. The hand that holds it is muddy, wet. Rain pours down on a medium shot of Rambo’s back, his rippled arms raised to tie a bandana onto his head. Though the movie up till this moment has followed his face, its suspicious and stoic gaze, now we see only Rambo’s back.
Co Bao had seemed closer to a Hollywood American Indian than a woman from Vietnam, and she suffered the fate of the Good Injun, killed by people who looked like her and not our hero. Rambo now takes on the role of the Savage Injun, animalistic, brutal, and no matter the setting, central to the great American myth, for it is a figure that is both attractive and repelling to Hollywood’s dream of a general audience, a character impressive for its power, but also threatening because of its bestial connection to nature. We know he is not truly a Savage Injun, for his blood is still the pure, good blood of the white man, and so we know he will shed the savage like Dr. Bruce Banner, when he calms, sheds the Hulk. But it is the power of the bestial connection that Rambo needs to accomplish his fate and inflict his fury.
There is no hesitation, no weakness. He moves silently through the jungle, a force of destruction first against the Soviet soldiers, then the Vietnamese. He is silent and invisible. He molds the Earth around him—the landscape itself is his weapon, and he is an extension of it. He reaches out of the darkness like a deadly vine to pull one victim down into a crevice. He vanishes into the mud, like Predator or Swamp Thing. His bullets reach out from everywhere, and they never miss their mark. But bullets aren’t enough—he has saved his exploding arrow tips, and now they fly through the air, bringing immense plumes of fire to all the heretics. Water and fire dance throughout these scenes, culminating in a sequence at a waterfall where a Vietnamese soldier shoots ineffectively at Rambo and then is vaporized by the Arrow of God. The build-up is slow and deliberate. We know what will happen, and we revel in the expectation with each image: the arrow strung, the bow drawn, the soldier’s panic-stricken face, Rambo’s calm and focused eyes. We know what will happen, and we know it is the right thing, the true thing. And then the arrow is released. Lacking an identity as anything except The Enemy, the Vietnamese soldier becomes, for one glorious moment, The Exploding Gook.
And then the commie copter descends. Rambo runs in slo-mo with the waterfall his only background until the fire-breath of a bomb obliterates the water and reaches toward him. We never suspect he will be slowed or stopped, because we know he is undefeatable now. Our pleasure is not the pleasure of suspense, but the pleasure of release, of expectations met, of unencumbered strength wiping out absolute evil.
This is a movie that began with the white, orgasmic explosion of rocks in the quarry of the work prison where Rambo had been locked up by an uncomprehending bureaucracy, and now it reaches its full climax as plumes of fire purify the land and its memory.
The effect remains alluring. The scenes, despite how much I revile their morality and politics, still bring shivers to my spine, gooseflesh to my own so un-Rambo arms. No matter the tortured screams of my inner pacifist, the archetype of the individual laying waste to forces of evil remains gripping.
The power fantasy is powerful for me, yes, but much more so for people like my father. It was not an archetype for him, but rather a yearning. For me, born the autumn following the capture of Saigon, the Vietnam War is history, the Cold War a vague memory, but for my father they were ever-present events that shaped his life and consciousness.
Rambo was our pope in the Church of the Holy Gun.
There is a sadness to the figure of the lone wolf, but it’s a sentimental sadness, for it relies on a belief that things cannot be otherwise if they are to be pure. It was, I’m sure, a comforting sadness for my father, who so often felt besieged and betrayed by a world that was, he was sure, designed to oppose him. The pain in a martyr complex is exquisite and euphoric, something to live for—They are against me, and I must bear my cross. For the paranoid, martyrdom is always a second away. Dreams of apocalypse are alluring—part of my father desperately wanted the Russkies to bring their Red Dawn, because it would free him from the quotidian, messy drudge of his life and give him a stage on which to enact the heroism he knew had been stolen from him, the glory he had been denied. Stolen by whom, denied by what, that was not important. It was Them, and there was always a Them. The Russians, the Vietnamese, the bureaucrats in Washington. All the same. Politicians were as evil as Commies, especially the Democrats, those weasly weaklings whose greatest desire, my father knew, was to steal the tools of his masculinity, his guns and knives.
Almost exactly a year after Rambo II was released, the U.S. Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which included the Hughes Amendment, severely restricting and taxing access to machine guns by civilians. I remember the day. I came home from school and my father was watching C-SPAN and radiating rage. The Murdocks of the world were winning. Their goal was the same as the Russians and the Vietcong and the Sandinistas: they wanted to destroy us.
Almost exactly two years after the Hughes Amendment passed, Rambo III hit the theaters. This time, Rambo was even more of a superhero and even more a phallic extension of Ronald Reagan’s freedom fighter wet dream. When the movie arrived at our local theatre, my father brought me to see it along with a bunch of my friends. The Iran-Contra scandal had broken, the Berlin Wall was still a year away from falling, and we needed to visit church again. Rambo III wasn’t a movie, it was a revival show.
In the next decade, I would become an apostate, but no one who has ever been a devout member of a church ever really gets to leave. When my father died suddenly in 2007, I was living in New Jersey, the state represented in the 1980s by the man who gave us the Hughes Amendment, William J. Hughes, a politician who first entered the House of Representatives in the year I was born, ten years before the summer of ’85, and who shared my birthday.
I am an only child and my parents were divorced when I was 20, which meant I inherited the gun shop. I returned to New Hampshire to figure it all out, to live in the house again, to sort through what my father had left behind. I went through an F.B.I. background check and inherited my father’s Federal Firearms License so I could sell off the inventory. The only things I couldn’t sell were the machine guns, because my father had, a few years back, given up the expensive Class III license and moved back to selling less regulated firearms. He kept some machine guns for himself, including the first he’d owned and the first I remember shooting: a Heckler & Koch MP5—the submachine gun that Rambo carries with him when he parachutes into Vietnam at the beginning of Rambo II.
I was, briefly, tempted to keep the MP5 for myself; I’ve shot very few other guns where the first word that comes to my mind is elegant. Even to a pinko faggot like me, it’s a beautiful object, an extraordinary piece of machinery.
While watching Rambo II again, I realized that during my childhood I shot most of the guns used in the film, and many of them were weapons my father had owned. The M60 I shot at a machine gun shoot where a bunch of folks got together in a sandpit and blasted away at old appliances and a couple of wrecked Datsuns. The guy who owned the M60 would let anybody shoot it who was willing to pay for ammo. As a present, my father bought me some rounds. The rifle sat, well supported, on the ground. Sighting it, the whole thing felt like it was longer than me, and it might well have been. I couldn’t imagine how anybody could be strong enough to shoot the gun while standing up—the recoil from shooting it on the ground was stunning, its power literally breathtaking. For a moment, I could almost envision myself as Rambo.
I was never going to become Rambo, though. I had tried to be interested in my father’s passions while I was young, but they never took hold. Worse, it was pretty clear from high school on that uncomplicated heterosexuality was not my schtick, though the lone wolf mythos penetrated deeper than any desire for longtime companionship could (Lone Wolf McQuade, starring Chuck Norris, was another favorite film of my early years).
I was always fated to leave the church, but, as lapsed Catholic friends tell me, the church never leaves you.
While writing this essay, I received word that the last of my father’s machine guns, a beautiful old Thompson, had sold. A few hours later, I learned that a Probate Court judge had, at my request, issued the order that my father’s estate is now closed.
My own little Church of the Holy Gun has shut its doors. The celluloid icons, though, still gleam red, white, and blue. I can live day by day, but I can never forget.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug War’s Carnage
It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma.2
Writer-director Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexico’s gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel García Márquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula Iguarán learns of her son José Arcadio’s death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his mother’s doorstep. “Holy mother of God,” she says.
Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her son’s body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. “We forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,” she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesn’t see the line of blood that runs from a dead man’s head and follows her all the way home until it’s already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrella’s mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that she’s being sent a message, which she won’t learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.
At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead man’s body, you get the sense that today isn’t the first time she’s seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isn’t to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and López sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girl’s visible numbness.
That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly coherent argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan Ramón López) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isn’t picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main characters’ lives, though at times it feels as if López’s only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.
As for the film’s supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toro’s cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isn’t even the sense that we’re watching the dead’s handiwork. After a while, death’s intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.
Early in the film, López fascinatingly suggests that Estrella’s perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the film’s fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isn’t too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa López Screenwriter: Issa López Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom
The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.1.5
The opening passages of Where’d You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquies—recorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadette’s smartphone—give space to reflect on how the woman’s eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.
It’s a shame, then, that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arc—that of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. It’s nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one can’t help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteur’s leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scène, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklater’s latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.
The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.
Symptomatic of Linklater’s always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadette’s quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of life’s persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,” it’s clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey aren’t characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiig’s portrayal of her character’s transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the film’s third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadette’s identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but it’s all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation that’s hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.
What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessons—and a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadette’s existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklater’s recent films, groaners like “Popularity is overrated” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do.” Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklater’s nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate life’s mysteries, here there’s very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchett’s collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, it’s a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening—and privileged—idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.2
With What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minervini’s material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker could’ve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant.
Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, who’s realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minervini’s cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judy’s bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjects’ concerns haven’t been entirely dramatized.
In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and people’s bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judy’s bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.
We’re supposed to feel as if we’ve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minervini’s subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasn’t able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he could’ve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her mother’s fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene might’ve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; he’s more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.
Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Good Boys’s Raunchy Take on Tweendom Is the Same Old Shtick
Gene Stupnitsky’s film is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action.2
Gene Stupnitsky’s Good Boys is Big Mouth for those who prefer ribald humor about tweenage sexuality in live action, though it lacks the Netflix show’s frankness and authenticity. While hearing sixth graders curse and exhibit their burgeoning sexual awareness constitutes the film’s entire gimmick, its coarse language and surprising displays of sexual material mask an inner timidity. In the post-“puberty monster” world ushered in by Big Mouth, a show that cares to acknowledge that girls also experience puberty, both the film’s jokes and easy coming-of-age morality tale seem tame, beautified for an audience it assumes will not want to confront the abjectness of tweens’ emotional and sexual imaginations.
That said, there are laughs to be had in Good Boys, many of them deriving from the main characters’ mistaken understanding of the adult world. Max (Jacob Tremblay), for example, believes that his college-age neighbor, Hannah (Molly Gordon), is a “nymphomaniac” because she has sex both on land and at sea. Thor (Brady Noon), who pretends to possess advanced knowledge and experience in all areas, misinterprets his parents’ sex toys as weapons. And Lucas (Keith L. Williams) comes to believe that Hannah and her friend, Lily (Midori Francis), are irredeemable drug addicts because they want to do the “sex drug” molly.
Max doesn’t know how to kiss girls, and his middle-school mind tells him that the best way to learn is by using his father’s (Will Forte) drone to spy on Hannah kissing her boyfriend, Benji (Josh Caras). That leads to Hannah and Lily taking the drone, and as recompense, Thor steals Hannah’s purse, which contains a vitamin bottle full of molly that the boys promptly lose. Part of the film’s at least outwardly risqué treatment of tween boyhood is that the boys’ possession of and efforts to procure a party drug drives much of the story. And that story is a chain of cause and effect that abides by the protagonists’ middle-school priorities: If Max doesn’t find more molly, he will lose his father’s drone, which means that he never gets to kiss a girl.
The cascading series of absurd situations that are driven by Max’s desire to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), includes the boys trashing a frat house, selling a sex doll to a weirdo (Stephen Merchant), and handing over the bottle full of molly to an oblivious cop (Sam Richardson). (This last bit is as tenuous as a dangling thread for conspicuously missing a punchline, almost as if the filmmakers never got around to shooting it.) In the end, the trio, the so-called “bean bag boys,” must learn that middle school will mean growing apart to some extent: Max is into girls and the sixth-grade social scene, Thor loves theater, and Lucas is a kindly nerd who enjoys card games. That these interests aren’t in the least mutually exclusive, particularly for Generation Z, proves beyond the film’s capacity to acknowledge.
Good Boys’s humor is by and large the same as that of any other male-centric R-rated comedy; if it differentiates itself from other iterations of the genre, it’s through a group of pre-teens making verbosely obscene comments and engaging in gross-out physical comedy. There’s a sense that Good Boys draws open a curtain and peeks into a rarely seen and dimly remembered space of tweendom. But it’s satisfied with just this peek—and as convincingly as the filmmakers can compel their child stars to enunciate obscene exclamations, the film never captures much of the feeling, of the world of childhood experience, in which they might be based. As a result, Good Boys never transcends its Superbad-but-with-11-year-olds shtick.
Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Millie Davis, Josh Caras, Will Forte, Retta, Lil Rel Howery, Sam Richardson, Stephen Merchant Director: Gene Stupnitsky Screenwriter: Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld Is a Gonzo Look at an Unsolved Mystery
The film is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society.3
Like Oliver Stone’s JFK and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld is about a mystery that isn’t solved, and how that inconclusiveness spotlights the insidious functions of society. Brügger also has in common with Stone and Fincher a visceral fascination with the minutiae of a particularly flabbergasting conspiracy theory. At one point near the end of the film, Brügger even comes clean, admitting that his investigation of the suspicious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld is mostly a pretense for allowing him to partake of a larger reportorial adventure that includes, among other things, Belgium assassins. By that point, though, Brügger needn’t bother with the confession, as his true obsessions are already quite clear.
Brügger is also the de facto host of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and he has a penchant for hamming it up that brings to mind Werner Herzog. At the start of the film, as if seemingly ready for a safari, the Danish filmmaker is seen wearing an all-white uniform, which he claims is the wardrobe worn by the ultimate villain of his narrative. Brügger is holed up in a hotel with two African secretaries, Saphir Mabanza and Clarinah Mfengu, dictating to them the events we’re about to see. Both the wardrobe and the presence of these secretaries are gimmicks, and while the former is harmless, the latter is of questionable taste.
Much of the film pivots on various colonialist atrocities wrought in Africa by the British and other imperialist powers. And so it seems that Brügger wants the shock of these implications to register on the faces of Saphir and Clarinah, people who have a potentially intimate connection to his alternate history. In other words, he seems to have hired these women in order to achieve a sensational effect. To their credit, they don’t oblige him, and their sober intensity suggests that they don’t need a white man to tell them of the evils of the world.
Of course, Brügger isn’t trying to be likable, as he’s pointedly allergic to the pathos affected by Herzog and, more gallingly, Michael Moore. There’s something of an irony to many first-person documentaries: They prove that bad news often makes for good drama, with their makers all the while feeling the need to make a show of being enraged or saddened. Brügger, who resembles a slimmer Louis C.K., never once bothers with this pose, and his honesty gives Cold Case Hammarskjöld an aura of self-absorption that’s weirdly bracing and resonant in an age that’s dominated seemingly by nothing but conspiracy theories, “alternate facts” that suggest that reality is dictated by those with the most power. Brügger, a scrappy journalist, seeks truth as a means of accessing that very power, looking to cement his own name.
Brügger’s narrative is an intimidating thicket of dead ends, coincidences, and a seemingly endless procession of interviews with creepy elderly white men who almost certainly know more than they care to admit. Hammarskjöld was a drab-looking, pipe-smoking Swedish diplomat whom many assumed would be the very embodiment of minding the status quo of global politics, though he turned out to be an idealist who was especially concerned with the exploitation of the Congo. Several powers were vying for control of the Congo’s mineral resources, including Belgium, the Soviet Union, and Britain, and Hammarskjöld supported nothing less than revolution, leading to a costly U.N.-backed military mission in Katanga. On September 18, 1961, a U.N. plane carrying Hammarskjöld went down in a field in Northern Rhodesia—an area that’s now part of Zambia—eight miles from the Ndola airport, which Brügger memorably describes as a perfect “kill room” for being tucked away from prying eyes.
Following a labyrinthine trail, Brügger makes an intoxicatingly convincing case for the U.N. DC-6 crash, which killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others, as a murder conspiracy. Interviewing people who lived near the Ndola airport at the time, Brügger reveals that investigators didn’t pay any attention to these witnesses, who spoke of bursting, gunshot-like sounds and of fire coming from the plane—negligence that’s probably due as much to racism and a disinterest in the truth. Brügger also speaks with Charles Southall, a former official of the National Security Agency, who heard a recording of the crash that references a second plane and gunshots. Along the way, various potential smoking guns pop up, including a panel of metal riddled with what appears to be bullet holes, and, most ghastly, an ace of spades card that was placed on Hammarskjöld’s corpse, which was remarkably and inexplicably intact following the crash.
The documentary’s structure is somewhat loose, reflecting how detection often involves running in circles, discarding trails only to see them heat up again, and so forth. At times, Brügger’s transitions can be murky, as he’ll be talking to a new person before we can entirely digest how he arrived at this point. But the somewhat arbitrary quality of Cold Case Hammarskjöld becomes a significant source of its power, suggesting less a singular answer than a reality composed of a hundred half-truths. Eventually, Brügger homes in on a secret operation known as the South African Group for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which becomes the object of the filmmaker’s obsession, to the point that Hammarskjöld is nearly forgotten.
Brügger never entirely proves SAIMR’s existence, as he’s led to the organization via documents uncovered from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that are suspiciously on the nose, suggesting the stuff of bad spy fiction. SAIMR is said to be a private mercenary group, probably serving the U.N. in secret, and responsible for Hammarskjöld’s murder as well as a plot to kill the black population of Africa with cheap medical centers that are actually giving patients shots of the H.I.V. virus. This revelation is so operatically evil, so beyond the pale of a liberal’s worst fantasies, that it serves to transform Cold Case Hammarskjöld into a kind of political horror film. And Brügger, in his meticulous sense of sensationalism, does prove one point via his lack of answers: that he and his dogged collaborators are asking questions which should’ve been posed at much higher levels of multiple chains of government. In Brügger’s hands, the general indifference of the major world powers to the possible murder of a key political figure suggests nothing less than maintenance of a diseased hierarchy.
Director: Mads Brügger Screenwriter: Mads Brügger Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Blinded by the Light Is a Wet, Sloppy, Public Kiss to Bruce Springsteen
The film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of it seems to barely hold together.2.5
As rebel icons go, Bruce Springsteen is as unlikely as they come. One does not, after all, tend to look to a man nicknamed “The Boss” for advice on raging against the machine. But in 1987 England under Margaret Thatcher, amid economic turmoil and fascist demonstrations, a British-Pakistani teenager, Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), hungers for a dissenting voice in his life. Javed is constantly at the whim of his domineering, recently laid-off father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and his only real outlet for his troubles is writing poetry. But once his friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), foists Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town cassettes upon him, Javed gets swept up in Springsteen’s music, hearing no small part of himself in the white American singer-singer’s working-class howl.
What follows in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is a wet, sloppy, public kiss to Springsteen that’s at once hackneyed and infectious. Inspired by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park, the film has a love for Springsteen’s music that feels raw and real. For one, it sees no shame in Javed and his pals dorkily dancing in the streets to “Born to Run,” as the filmmakers understand that teenage obsession really is that all-encompassing, so open-hearted that it naturally teeters into absolute corn.
Blinded by the Light is also endearing for not feeling like its edges have been sanded off. Indeed, you may find yourself worrying about Javed plastering the walls of his room exclusively in Springsteen posters, or about the way he gives a teasing, zombie-like moan to the stick-in-the-mud kid running the school radio station: “Bruuuuce.” There is, the film understands, a dizzying thrill to finding yourself in something that’s not even explicitly designed for you, like you’re in on a secret. Springsteen certainly wasn’t thinking of a British-Pakistani kid when writing his lyrics, but they speak to Javed anyway.
Chadha’s film bottles a palpable emotion of unabashed joy, even when the rest of the story seems to barely hold together. Its comedy is always mugging and its melodrama is especially heightened, and to the point that scenes are apt to trigger secondhand embarrassment, as when Javed and Roops chant Bruce lyrics at boys harassing them. Much of the drama feels like the narrative of a music video, which needs to be big and obvious enough so that viewers can recognize what’s happening based on the imagery and the music alone. But with the songs stripped away in Blinded by the Light’s latter half, the supporting characters and themes are left as stumbling, half-sketched husks. It becomes clear that the music cues fill in so many gaps, standing in for whatever nuance might have otherwise supported scenes like a parade confrontation that relies on the blaring “Jungleland” sax solo.
Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Rob Brydon, Meera Ganatra Director: Gurdinder Chadha Screenwriter: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurdinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged Soars When It Disregards Characterization
The film wrings white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.2.5
While Johannes Roberts’s 47 Meters Down was marred by strained dialogue and flat characterizations, it certainly knew how to instill a sense of dread in the audience. That film’s premise, about two sisters with conflicting personalities who take an adventurous excursion that goes horribly awry, carries over to 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, though this standalone film is less concerned with exploring its main characters’ familial relationship. And that’s mostly for the better, as it gives Roberts more than enough room to foreground the grueling terror of coming into contact with sharks in the ocean deep.
In its opening stretch, Uncaged aggressively runs the gamut of teen-movie clichés. Indeed, as soon as it’s done establishing the contentious relationship between two stepsisters, shy and awkward Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and outgoing and popular Sasha (Corinne Foxx), the film is flashing the girls’ frustration with their archeologist father, Grant (John Corbett), for spending too much time working. And then there’s Catherine (Brec Bassinger), the prototypical mean girl who fake-apologizes for foisting Mia into the pool outside the international all-girls high school they all attend in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That Uncaged doesn’t end with Mia, accidentally or otherwise, throwing Catherine into a shark’s maw is the final proof that all of the film’s initially corny character work is in service of absolutely nothing.
Mercifully, though, the film quickly shifts into thriller mode once Sasha drags Mia off to a remote region of the Yucatán, where their father recently discovered a submerged Mayan city. Soon after Mia, Sasha, and the latter’s adventurous friends, Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) and Alexa (Brianne Tju), arrive at the site and enjoy a swim above the main entrance to the city, they decide to strap on scuba gear and plunge into the water in order to gawk at the ancient relics that lurk below the surface. One crashed city column later and the girls come face to face with a deadly species of sharks that has evolved to survive in the darkness of the labyrinthine system of caves and tunnels where marine life isn’t supposed to exist.
Roberts wastes no time ratcheting up the tension, and a stifling sense of claustrophobia, once the girls find themselves trapped underwater and are forced to navigate a series of increasingly tight passageways, all while trying to harness the dwindling supply of oxygen from their scuba tanks. The filmmakers sustain this vise-grip suspense as the girls continue to face an array of unexpected, increasingly challenging obstacles, which, in fairly realistic fashion, extends their time stuck below the surface alongside the blind yet vicious sharks. At one point, they discover a pocket of air that proves to be as much of a bane as it is a boon.
Throughout, Roberts makes ample use of negative space as Mia and company make their way through the Mayan city with flashlights in hand. All the while, the bubbles from their scuba gear and the clouds of dust caused by falling rocks intensify their feelings of disorientation and panic, while also helpfully obscuring the low-rent nature of the film’s CGI effects. If, toward the end of Uncaged, the impact of these visual tactics is dulled by a few too many “gotcha” moments, the film more or less keeps things efficiently moving, wringing white-knuckle tension less through jump scares than from the darkness of a seemingly infinite void.
Cast: Sistin Stallon, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sophie Nelisse, Brec Bassinger, Khylin Rhambo, Davi Santos, John Corbett, Nia Long Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary Is Gratingly Self-Knowing
Over and over, the film reminds us that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.1.5
Despite its title, Ben Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary isn’t exactly about comedian-cum-magician John Edward Szeles. The film initially seems like it will remain within the boundaries of conventional portraiture. We’re presented with clips of Szeles’s performances, talking-head interviews with his family and other comedians, and the news that he only has a year left to live due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Then, a title card indicates that we’re a few years into the future and that Szeles has outlived his prognosis. He decides to start performing again—against his doctor’s wishes—and the looming prospect of death gives Berman enough material to supply this film.
Unfortunately, Berman’s plans for a straightforward documentary are thwarted by events beyond his control. Most notably, it comes to light that another documentary about Szeles’s life is being produced, apparently by the people behind Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. The news makes Berman visibly nervous, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary soon devolves into an awkward account of its own completion, with Berman talking with the other documentary’s crew, worrying about his own film being overshadowed, and stressing out about the extent to which Szeles might favor the other project.
Szeles’s interviews with online publications, radio shows, and Berman himself readily—and redundantly—corroborate the filmmaker’s impression that his subject is more excited about the other documentary being made about him. Berman doesn’t ask questions that carve out the fullness of anyone on camera, as he seems more interested in making sure that we grasp the severity of his dilemma. By the time he interviews John’s parents in order to draw empathy from them, claiming that he “for once […] was making a documentary out of love and art,” The Amazing Jonathan Documentary comes to feel like an echo chamber of affirmation.
Much like Szeles’s own act—composed of prop gags built around simplistic puns, gross-out illusions, and jokes that riff on his ostensible inabilities as a magician—Berman’s film is convinced of its own cleverness. While The Amazing Johnathan Documentary hints at being a meta film about the hardships of documentary filmmaking, or a mirror to Berman’s own foibles as a person, it’s constantly cut short by a lack of foresight. At one point, Berman decides to smoke meth with Szeles—who’s revealed to have been addicted to the drug in the past—as an act of “gonzo journalism” and to make the documentary more “interesting,” though the moment is ultimately cut from the film for legal reasons. Later, when Szeles accompanies Criss Angel to the presentation of the latter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Berman is forced to use press footage because he didn’t make the event. This resulted from a lack of communication between Berman and Szeles, illuminating their current rift, but Berman’s acknowledgement of this tension is emblematic of the film’s biggest failure: The lack of cooperation from Berman and Szeles isn’t outrageous enough to be amusing on its own, nor does it come across as anything more than run-of-the-mill discord among colleagues.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary seems born out of necessity rather than intent—a side effect of Berman needing to find a sensible ending for the film. We eventually find out that Always Amazing, the other documentary being made about Szeles, actually has no connection to Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. And in a desperate, last-ditch stab at coherence, Berman ends up getting Simon Chinn—the Oscar-winning producer behind those films—to sign on as his executive producer. The moment feels like a consolation prize for those who had to sit through so much ego-massaging on Berman’s part. It’s a final stroke of luck for the filmmaker, but it also suggests a bandage being placed on a gunshot wound, reminding us again that banking on a gimmick isn’t an adequate substitute for an incisive character portrait.
Director: Ben Berman Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Aquarela Viscerally Attests to Mother Nature’s Fight for Survival
At heart, Aquarela is a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water.3
On the surface, Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela suggests a conventional nature doc, filled as it is with breathtaking images that attest to Mother Nature’s might and majesty. But at heart, it’s a war film: a cacophonous survey of the global battle between man and water. The film’s wide array of visual evidence showing people in brutal disharmony with their surroundings presents a compelling case that as humanity continues to assault the planet through climate change, our Earth is fighting back twice as hard.
The film opens with a series of scenes in which a group of Russian officials traipse around a large expanse of ice, periodically stabbing at it with long poles. It takes a while before we understand that they’ve been tasked with recovering automobiles that have fallen through the frozen body of water, which has started to thaw earlier in the season than normal. In one nail-biting sequence, a car speeds along the ice before, without warning, abruptly falling through and disappearing beneath the surface. A rescue crew saves the driver and passenger in a chaotic sequence in which no one’s safety seems guaranteed, not even those behind the camera, whom we never see but whose terror is palpable in the nervous camerawork.
From a sequence of a sailboat operated by a single woman battling a fierce storm to shots in which giant chunks of ice that have fallen off a glacier bob up and down in the water like gigantic breaching whales, Aquarela doesn’t lack for simultaneously awesome and terrifying images. There’s a ferociousness and churning volatility to the film’s view of nature—a point heavily underlined by Eicca Toppinen’s heavy metal-inflected score. Though not quite as abrasive as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, which utilized an arsenal of GoPro cameras to create a turbulent, viscerally unsettling document of a commercial fishing trawler’s voyage at sea, Aquarela evinces a similar desire to overwhelm and discombobulate its audience. Kossakovsky employs a deeply immersive sound design that emphasizes the rough swoosh of waves and the shattering cracks of thawing glaciers.
Through a variety of cinematographic gestures—picturesque long shots, underwater footage, and tracking shots of waves—Kossakovsky gives us a wide view of the diversity of forms that water takes on Earth. Massive fields of drift ice are juxtaposed against ocean water that seems viscous and almost as black as oil. But Aquarela isn’t merely interested in showcasing water’s different states of matter, as it also constructs a subtle but distinct narrative in which water itself is the protagonist in a war for its own survival. After one particularly violent sequence of glaciers cracking apart, we see a disquieting shot of jagged, broken ice that suggests a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers. But later in the film, it’s as if the water is avenging itself on humankind with a series of hurricanes and torrential downpours.
Aquarela ultimately closes with the image of a rainbow appearing across Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall. If that sounds like a serene coda, it feels more like the mournful calm after a particularly harrowing catastrophe. Someday, this battle between nature and humanity will end, but Kossakovsky suggests that there will be no victors on either side, only victims.
Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 89 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time
These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.
“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.
Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson
100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)
Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.
99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)
A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ‘70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson
98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)
A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson
97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)
James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith
96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)
A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson
95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith
94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)
While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene
93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ‘50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager
92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)
Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager
91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ‘80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez
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