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Summer of ’85: Rambo: First Blood Part II, Take Two

One part ‘70s rogue male action movie, another part innovative Hollywood blockbuster pushed all the way to “11.”

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Summer of ’85: Rambo: First Blood Part II, Take Two
Photo: TriStar Pictures

One part ‘70s rogue male action movie, another part innovative Hollywood blockbuster pushed all the way to “11”, and totally responsible for changing action movie grammar—big silly war flicks were never the same after its May 1985 release—Rambo: First Blood Part II sits in between filmic worlds. Despite it being one of those movies everybody knows, it’s a tough one to parse. Nevertheless, Brandon Soderberg and comics artist and illustrator Benjamin Marra chopped it up about Rambo: First Blood Part II, and tried to get to the center of its wizened, gummy politics but also talk about why it’s just, well, awesome.

Brandon Soderberg: Let’s talk about the waterfall scene towards the end because it inspired this discussion. Basically, Benjamin was part of a panel at the Small Press Expo (SPX) called “The New Action” that was talking to “indie” creators engaged with more visceral narrative styles. At one point in the discussion, Benjamin just kinda lovingly describes the scene, late in Rambo: First Blood Part II, where Rambo fires this explosive arrow at this guy on a waterfall and there’s like one killer beat between the arrow launching and the explosion and then—blam! The guy just gets decimated.

Benjamin Marra: Yeah, that whole scene really resonates with me. I really love it. The music, the way it’s edited, it all just really sticks in my head. I think the scene is emblematic of the action movies around that time. Death Wish 3, Cobra, Commando, The Running Man, Invasion USA, Red Dawn, feel, through the prism of time, completely bizarre. I get the feeling they were constructed without any self-awareness. I can only speculate really that what occurred in those movies at the time they came out was totally acceptable and normal action. That’s at least how I felt about them, but I was pretty young. If any of those movies were released today, they’d probably be perceived as satire.

Brandon: This may send us into an ‘80s action vortex too soon, but Rambo: First Blood Part II’s directed by George P. Cosmatos, who also directed Cobra. Cobra is just really on some other shit. And Commando is also from “the summer of 1985” so there’s this, um, zeitgeist going on here. Some kind of New Wave of Hollywood Action. NWOHA? Kinda like NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) which was going on at the same time. Daringly sincere and over the top, but in this almost unassuming way…

Cobra

Benjamin: I’m a huge fan of Cobra. I actually think that it’s one of the best action movies to come out of the ‘80s and is totally unsung. It pleases me to hear that Cosmatos helmed that film. I wasn’t aware of that fact before. That’s a really, really interesting point to suggest that there was some sort of correlation between American action movies and NWOBHM (which I also am a huge fan of). They definitely both represent the attitude of what was successful pop culture being delivered to the holy grail of buying demographics: male, between the ages of 18 and 30 (or something like that).

Brandon: The DVD has a ’Making Of’ featurette and a commentary that really highlight Cosmatos’ worker-bee perspective on directing the movie. He comes off like an artisan, hired to make the most awesome, invigorating action flick he could make. I think the idea of someone “just doing their job” gets underrated. With Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cosmatos funnels every piece of the movie into that singular goal: “Making a thrilling, innovative action movie.”

Benjamin: I didn’t check out the “Making Of” feature on the DVD. Now I’m sad I missed it. I think it’s totally admirable that Cosmatos worked on the project with a workman-like, just-doing-a-job attitude. I think that attitude can yield tremendous results—Rambo: First Blood Part II being a great example. I can appreciate working like that, not over-thinking things, not approaching a subject with a lot of pretense. I wish that sort of approach to creative work was more appreciated and respected. In comics, the artists that I respect the most are the grinders, the ones who are really productive, who approach making a comic in a workman-like fashion. I also have that same respect for baseball players who play the game right, aren’t trying to go for the glamor or be too flashy. It’s an attitude that crosses disciplines.

Brandon: There’s this palpable transition between First Blood and the sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, here. You got three years between movies but First Blood is pretty ‘70s—Rolling Thunder, Walking Tall or even the Billy Jack movies come to mind. Just solid, smart exploitation. Rambo: First Blood Part II is, like, stuck between two worlds. A small kinda nihilistic character piece and a big, crazy, patriotic Hollywood movie.

Benjamin: Both First Blood and First Blood Part II are stories with very specific, legitimate political agendas wrapped in extremely well-executed action movies. First Blood feels real, like it could happen. It’s a real downer of a movie in a lot of ways. Rambo is this total victim of circumstance. There’s a sense of authenticity. First Blood, Part II is total fantasy, hyperbole, almost on a cartoonish level. But the movie is a total feel-good, fist-pumping, kick-ass action roller coaster. Even at the end, when Rambo delivers his passionate speech about what he really wants, we feel like righteous justice has been served.

Brandon: Yes. And it totally earns that feeling at the end. First Blood is basically a perfect fucking movie. As in, I’ll argue with anybody about that one. There’s just nothing wrong with it. If it had subtitles, it’d be called “a minimalist character study” or something. Rambo: First Blood Part II does its job perfectly, but I can kinda imagine the snarky responses to it. At the same time, the movie sets everything up and by the end, knocks it down in a way that’s just thrilling and rewarding. Given the movie’s intended wide appeal and the direct, simple but controversial message, even the doses of obviousness are effective. It has this quiet/loud dynamic, bouncing from subtlety to bluntness, underlined twenty times scenes that drive home the message.

Benjamin: You have to approach the experience of watching a movie like Rambo: First Blood Part II with an open mind and willingness to go to the places the movie wants to take you. Otherwise you can really have a bad time, asking the wrong questions, pointing out perceived deficiencies. There’s the down times that set up the intense, cascading crescendos. The action beats of Rambo: First Blood Part II resonate, I feel, because of the quiet moments strewn throughout the narrative.

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Brandon: And then the ending more than rewards viewers for moving through those quiet moments. Like, everything just starts blowing up. Also, the scene where Rambo has somehow covered his entire body with mud to just kill a single Russian solider goes there too.

Benjamin: Yes, the ending really reaches an awesome pitch. Rambo unloading his M60 into the computers and confronting the corrupt Charles Napier character is incredibly moving. I love when Rambo takes out the whole squad of Russian soldiers and Viet Cong single-handedly and when he emerges from the mud, that’s the highpoint. The whole movie is as subtle as a sledgehammer, or wrecking ball.

Brandon: But also, not a whole lot happens. It’s more a lot of tiny, slow-growing details and terse combat sequences.

Benjamin: The downtime is pretty awesome, especially the dynamic between Rambo and Co Bao. Their exchanges are electric. I’d disagree with a lot not happening. Tons of shit happens. The plot, sure, is pretty basic. Rambo goes in to check out the existence of POWs, finds them, tries to leave, gets betrayed, gets caught, fucks up a whole bunch of villains and escapes. But within that there’s a whole bunch of stuff that happens: backstabbing Vietnamese pirates, boat chases, helicopter chases, torture, vicious Communists, Stallone flexing, RPGs, explosive arrowheads, different kinds of people, close-ups, disobeying authority, revenge, death of a would-be lover, shooting machine guns from the hip in knee-deep water, etc. Maybe those are the details you were referring to. I don’t know. The movie has an epic feeling for me.

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Brandon: I guess I’m thinking of it in terms of stuff before and also the action movies of right now, which have a tendency to overload the plot and characterization. Rambo: First Blood Part II is insane, but it’s a special kind of insane that didn’t exist before the movie and by now has pretty much faded away.

Benjamin: Agreed. One can look at First Blood as being the end of the ‘70s era action movie, like Bullit or Dirty Harry, where the “action” is more pared down, gut-level in its power. Whereas Rambo: First Blood Part II, ushers in the era of ‘80s action, over-the-top, cartoonish, hyperbolic in its appeal.

Brandon: There’s a J. Hoberman review of Iron Eagle (“Only Make Believe” in Vulgar Modernism) that refers to the Rambo movies and movies like it as “warno”—a conflation of the word “War” and “Porno.” Obviously, Hoberman finds this problematic and my guess is seeing the movies when they were released and imagining a certain sect of the audience gave him the creeps, but I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with “warno.” I don’t even think Rambo: First Blood Part II is this trashy product.

Benjamin: Yeah, I think that term definitely applies. I love Warno. I would watch tons of Warno and I wish there were more of it for me to consume. My entertainment tastes lean hard toward escapism and fantasy, so I’m down with Warno. I definitely don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Is there anything wrong with Romance novels? Hell no. I agree with you about the sheer product point. There’s underlying ideas and themes within the first two and fourth Rambo films (I admit I haven’t seen the third installment) that are its spine. And they’re legit ideas, so that’s what makes the Rambo films more than sheer product.

Brandon: This relates back to Cosmatos’ approach. Because Rambo: First Blood Part II is a big chunk of entertainment and totally embraces that, there’s a tendency not to take it seriously. The divide between “Art” and “Product” is, well, basically bullshit. Your comics really scream this out to me as well. Am I right, or projecting there?

Benjamin: I have a similar opinion as you with regard to the divide between “Art” and “Product.” I see my creative approach as similar to Cosmatos. I strive to create accessible, base-level appealing narratives. As far as mainstream cinema goes, I remember when the recent Spike Jonze Where the Wild Things Are movie came out and I was repulsed by its marketing and what I perceived it to be. (My friends who saw it confirmed my prejudices toward it.) I think Jonze’s approach to the subject-matter is a great example of a creator applying airs of pretense, unnecessary seriousness and desperate emotional injection to a subject rife with joy and celebration and completely abandoning the value of entertainment. In comics, there’s a lot of evidence of devaluing entertainment and fun, especially within the current indie and underground spheres, instead focusing on a tone of pseudo-artistic seriousness and pretension. My comics and illustrations are reactions to this attitude. I want my comics to strike the same chord that Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra and Death Wish 3 strike. I feel that the emotional base for narratives, like movies and comics, don’t have to wallow in the spectrum of depression and sadness in order to connect with their audience in a serious manner. Emotions of fun, joy and entertainment, things that we might consider “guilty pleasures” (but which I just consider awesome) are just as valid a connection to an audience or reader.

Brandon: I think I can sort of deconstruct Hoberman’s invocation of porno to suggest that, like porno, Rambo: First Blood Part II has an awkward, handmade sincerity to it. Like, amongst its base intentions or whatever, there’s a touchable hand or voice behind it. I think your comics, especially Night Business, have that too.

Night Business

Benjamin: My artwork for sure is really about earnest, passionate over-the-top-ness. Sincerity is important in my own work because I’ve learned that if I don’t approach and present my stories in a truthful manner to the reader, the reader won’t connect with the narrative. It’s essential to not only believe in your work as a creator (because if you don’t, neither will your audience), but to inject sincerity, honesty and earnestness into the work. I learned that you can demonstrate lots of technical skill through work, something that I think a lot of pretentious comic creators use to connect with their readers, or you can try to reach your audience through their core, their basic emotional experiences with the world, growing up, their relationship to popular culture. I think there’s a overriding sense of sentiment in that too. With regard to Night Business, I’m connecting with people who have had the same experience with certain pop culture examples like Rambo: First Blood Part II. But I hope that the merits of the story are strong enough to capture the attention and connect with readers who haven’t had the experience of watching Rambo: First Blood Part II and its ilk.

Brandon: To me, this all connects to structure, which is also underrated. One of the cool things about Rambo: First Blood Part II is how everything fits together. Things introduced early on pay off later. Simple, visceral stuff. The rocket launcher’s revealed early and it comes back later. When Co Bao dies, Rambo puts on her necklace and it becomes part of those “Rambo’s gonna go kick some ass” mini-montages.

Benjamin: It’s an exceptionally well-executed film. I certainly appreciate the attention to detail the folks who put it all together had. They hit great, timely beats. The whole thing has a great rhythm to it. The setup, the conflicts, the action scenes and the down time. It makes the whole experience very full and rich.

Night Business

Brandon: Something I notice about a lot of recent action movies is the attempts to sneak around so-called “cliches,” like its all gotta be new and hip. Tried and true formal elements get rejected. You have a really rigid approach to your comics that I thought of when watching Rambo: First Blood Part II. Your use of panels is perhaps the most noticeable way you do this.

Benjamin: With regards to page layout and the panel architecture of the comics I make you’re right on. I try to look to Jack Kirby for solutions to problems on communicating a certain narrative idea. Kirby relied on a three-tiered, 6-panel page which I’ve based all my comic book efforts on. The reasons why I chose this are because Kirby worked in comics for decades and honed everything down to this format and because it’s a tremendous format for supporting the story. I think Kirby’s system is the clearest way of executing a comic book narrative.

Brandon: And the movie’s message, drummed up as it may be, is sincere and inarguable: “Hey man, Vietnam veterans got a lot of shit and a lot of them died for bullshit-ass reasons and like, what the hell?!” This is where it isn’t simple product, where “warno” is just not apt. Rambo: First Blood Part II is skeptical of everybody and everything not named John Rambo.

Benjamin: I think that First Blood is more about the Vietnam veterans being treated unfairly by the American public when they got home from war. To the American people, the vets represented a failure and America wanted to forget them. They wanted to, unfairly, lay blame on the vets. And even though First Blood is a muscular action film, its underlying theme is exceptionally valid. The theme for Rambo: First Blood Part II is hidden a little deeper, but it’s even more egregious: The American government sacrificed POW lives to save on paying the Vietnamese government reparations. Our government refused to acknowledge the lives of soldiers it sent to fight on its behalf. It’s an amazing and colossal offense.

Brandon: And when he returns from the mission and just shoots all the computers that surround Murdock (played by Charles Napier), it’s obviously symbolic, but like art-movie symbolic. It’s moved way beyond reality or representation in a true-to-life way.

Benjamin: I love that part, where Rambo just unloads his M60 at hip level into all the computers and equipment. I had a friend of a friend who was in the army and during one exercise he decided to shoot his SAW at hip level like Rambo, but he quickly lost control of it. No one was injured but it destroyed the illusion of Rambo’s awesome, default shooting-a-machine-gun stance. Or maybe it just gives credence how strong and macho Rambo is. I prefer the latter.

Brandon: The movie could even be viewed as Rambo’s big fantasy. Not saying this is in the movie, but there is a sense that everything is pumped-up just a bit.

Benjamin: Man, I don’t think this movie is just Rambo’s fantasy. I think this is the fantasy of any red-blooded American male!

Brandon: We end up loving him more, though, because he’s so far out. He isn’t exactly relateable. He’s this sad-sack loner who just gets shit done. Have you seen Michael Mann’s Thief? I think Rambo: First Blood Part II moves into that territory. Just so in love with its character’s rogue male attributes that real life norms don’t matter anymore.

Benjamin: Michael Mann is my favorite director currently operating within the Hollywood studio system, but I haven’t ever seen Thief. The idea of an unbroken sense of integrity, duty, a personal code, is very American to me. It supports the individual, the one who’s willing to break the rules in order to do what’s “right.” It’s a trait that’s common—maybe essential—among American action movie stars and it’s the trait you identified in Caan’s character in Thief. It’s something I try to imbue in my male characters. I think that this trait is absent in most current incarnations of the American male in movies. In the Spider-Man movies, the traits of Peter Parker that were played up were his sniveling, whiny, sensitive side—a decision I disagreed with from a creative perspective.

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Brandon: Also, the ostensible villain, Napier, as bad as he is, you see where he’s coming from. His whole point of like, “Look, at this point, if we revealed the existence of these P.O.Ws, we’d look real bad” is reasonable. It isn’t right, but it’s like hard, complex reality running into Rambo’s strict code. You see Napier’s logic.

Benjamin: Well, there’s a multitude of villains, but yeah, the bureaucratic villain, you can definitely understand his motive! It’s the reason why anyone would hate the government. Not only would we “look real bad,” we’d be forced back into conflict with Vietnam! I think it would be against the law or something like that for the government to not attack Vietnam again. So the most prudent course of action is simply to disavow any knowledge of POWs. Sucks.

Brandon: Yeah, tons of villains, but an interesting point about Rambo: First Blood Part II, is that it’s the Bureaucratic villain who is the most nefarious—if only because he’s not totally defeated in the end. Napier also plays an important part in underlining the complex dynamics of the movie. Namely, it’s tough for me to see this movie with the boatloads of snark most “film” types see it with. This isn’t simple Reagan ‘80s junk. The bureaucrats aren’t stuffy Liberals, they’re rich white guys who didn’t even serve! Sound familiar?

Benjamin: It’s funny because I think a lot of Tea Party members would align themselves with Rambo’s politics and perspective (I could be wrong), even though they probably are closer to the Napier character in their true nature. It’s something that occurs in those folks you accurately stated as not having served, this illusory self-perception of being like Rambo, but in actuality they are not warriors. When they were asked to serve, they worked the system so they wouldn’t have to. They are cowards who perceive themselves as warriors. Self-deception.

Brandon: Can we end with Stallone, the actor? I’m a big defender of Stallone and I think he is—and I totally mean this—a Brando disciple: All wounded, mumbly naturalism. Especially in Rambo: First Blood Part II, he goes to great lengths to be eerily charming. Those few moments when he does joke or he finally breaks down and rants about the war mean so much more because most of the time he’s so reserved. It’s like minimalist acting.

Benjamin: Stallone is an unbelievable actor. He’s also an awesome director and screenwriter. Have you seen Driven? It’s fucking out of control. It’s a testament to his talent that he still works as an actor. Hollywood is not forgiving and yet Stallone operates at a level where he is pretty much bulletproof. I think he’s incredibly respected as a professional in the industry. But, yes, back to his acting style. I have no problem with any of his choices. He nails it on every delivery. There are no holes in his performance.

Rambo: First Blood Part II

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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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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

3

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

3.5

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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