Itâ€™s hard to speak no evil about See No Evil, Hear No Evil, the third on-screen collaboration between Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. It bears the stench of missed opportunity. Trapped inside its overwritten crime story is a breezy character study starring two men with genuine chemistry and a flair for both physical and verbal comedy. In the rare moments when Pryor and Wilder simply talk to each other, thereâ€™s the potential for a funny and poignant interracial two-hander like Iâ€™m Not Rappaport. Itâ€™s too bad that potential is squandered on a senseless murder plot.
Pryor plays Wally Karue, a blind man who constantly tries to hide his blindness. He gets a job working at a newsstand run by Wilderâ€™s Dave Lyons, a deaf man who shares Wallyâ€™s misguided pride about his affliction. The duo do a fair job masking their missing abilities: Dave reads lips and Wally is a pro at commandeering his other senses for navigational purposes. Together, they complete one another, a dependency made palatable by the realistic friendship vibe Wilder and Pryor create on screen.
The actors are so credible together that one forgives a lot in this movie. A fight scene between Wally and some bar bullies could have easily ended with Dave punching out the guys himself, but weâ€™d be robbed of the sheer joy of watching these guys work through a conjoined piece of physical slapstick. Later, when their attempt to impersonate European doctors goes spectacularly awry, the two work off each other so well it saves a poorly written scene. Pryorâ€™s fake accent is a delicious cross between the Swedish Chef and the neighborhood wino from his stand-up routines.
The screenplay is a poorly stitched-together patchwork of ideas, which shouldnâ€™t be a surprise, as See No Evil, Hear No Evil is credited to five writers, including Wilder, who supposedly rewrote it before signing on. He most likely added the extra character-based tangents to this film, elements like Wallyâ€™s gambling vice and the underlying bitterness that comes when one is suddenly robbed of hearing or sight. Both actors have effective scenes where they describe how their disabilities came about, and whether or not theyâ€™ve come to live with this reality. Pryorâ€™s description of how he went blind is a howl of fury that the film unwisely protracts in favor of getting back to scenes of kidnapping and murder.
Arthur Hiller, who helmed the duoâ€™s first collaboration, Silver Streak, tries to combine the suspenseful espionage of that film with the plot about an innocent man wrongly accused from Stir Crazy. Wallyâ€™s bookie stumbles into the Union Square building where Daveâ€™s newsstand resides. Heâ€™s pursued by a tall, gorgeous woman from the Brigitte Nielsen-in-Beverly-Hills-Cop-2 school of murderous babes. In addition to setting the plot in motion with a pistol, Eve (Joan Severance) provides occasional eye candy for the half of our duo who can actually see her.
Courtesy of Eve, Wally and Dave become the proprietors of a dead body, shot in broad daylight in the lobby of a huge New York City building. Theyâ€™re the only witnesses, if you can call them that; Wally only smells Severanceâ€™s Shalimar perfume as she exits the building, and Dave doesnâ€™t hear the gunshots at all. He only sees Severanceâ€™s dynamite legs as she walks away post-murder. Neither of them know about the mysterious gold coin the bookie left in Daveâ€™s change box, a coin Eve will return for at some point.
While Dave and Wally deal with an incompetent NYPD who thinks theyâ€™re capable of cold-blooded murder, Eve meets up with her partner in crime, Kirgoâ€”a wonderful name for a character, but as played by Kevin Spacey, he comes off as the dramatic version of Kevin Klineâ€™s Otto from A Fish Called Wanda. Kirgo advises Eve that she must wipe out the witnesses, and lucky for her, sheâ€™s committed murder in the least trafficked lobby in Manhattan.
Posing as their lawyers, Kirgo and Eve try to spring Dave and Wally. Their sense memories identify Eve, and the game is afoot. From here, See No Evil, Hear No Evil veers sharply into â€™80-action-movie territory, with blind car chases, mistaken identities, and family members in jeopardy. It all leads to a crime boss who shares a common trait with Wally. Having a blind hero and a blind villain is a nice touch, but the crime story is rendered useless by its convoluted nature.
Audience goodwill toward the Wilder-Pryor pairing hadnâ€™t yet run out in 1989, and this movie was a hit. It topped the chart for two weeks back in 1989, making way for the astonishingly bad fourth pairing of these two actors, Another You. In that film, Pryor looks extremely ravaged by M.S. His physical deterioration is more than hinted at in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, but the comic spark in his eyes hadnâ€™t yet been extinguished.
Watching this again, armed with the knowledge of Pryorâ€™s fate, I felt a pang in my heart for what could have been. As leading men, this was the penultimate film for both of them, and unlike their last film, itâ€™s not so easily dismissible. Its wasted potential is an evil one can neither unsee nor unhear.
The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis LumiĂ¨reâ€™s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decadesâ€”and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosisâ€”since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, thereâ€™s never been a time when audiences didnâ€™t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a â€śsafe spaceâ€ť in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that â€śitâ€™s only a movie.â€ť
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where weâ€™re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, thereâ€™s a startlingly fresh take on the genreâ€™s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, thereâ€™s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins
50. Them (2006)
Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. Thatâ€™s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You wonâ€™t be able to shake Them after seeing it because itâ€™s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, itâ€™s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the filmâ€™s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just donâ€™t watch it alone. Simon Abrams
49. Black Death (2010)
Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smithâ€™s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where itâ€™s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloniâ€™s austere script charts the crewâ€™s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of Godâ€™s handâ€”in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individualsâ€”remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager
48. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Willâ€™s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friendâ€™s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or anotherâ€™s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internetâ€™s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Willâ€™s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
47. Midsommar (2019)
Anybody whoâ€™s seen Robin Hardyâ€™s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Asterâ€™s Midsommar. From early on, thereâ€™s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the filmâ€™s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cultâ€™s summer solstice festival. The film masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a mass terror, aligning our foreknowledge of that with the anxiety felt by the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), in the wake of a recent family tragedy. The result is a deeply unnerving film about the indissoluble, somehow archaic bond between self and familyâ€”one more psychologically robust than Asterâ€™s similarly themed Hereditary. And itâ€™s also very funny. Pat Brown
46. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynchâ€™s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empireâ€™s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but thereâ€™s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits usâ€”tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Ed Gonzalez
45. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derricksonâ€™s Sinister isnâ€™t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone eraâ€”in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the formatâ€™s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulseâ€”a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh
44. Maniac (2012)
Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and GrĂ©gory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfounâ€™s Maniac begins with a psychopathâ€™s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniacâ€™s killing spreeâ€”this time set in Los Angelesâ€”almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombieâ€™s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez
43. Depraved (2019)
What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessendenâ€™s Depraved, heâ€™s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. Heâ€™s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasnâ€™t broken free so much as changed the machineâ€™s functionâ€”from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessendenâ€™s first feature as both writer and director since 2006â€™s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together â€śmonster,â€ť Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasnâ€™t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife
42. 28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyleâ€™s 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out â€śHello! Hello!â€ť into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly â€śRageâ€ť virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen Kingâ€™s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone whoâ€™s struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp
41. Piranha 3D (2010)
Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Ajaâ€™s latest are less Steven Spielbergâ€™s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Cormanâ€™s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Ajaâ€™s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Ajaâ€™s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campyâ€”epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalpingâ€”that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager
Review: Zombieland: Double Tap Shrugs Toward the End of the World
Behind the filmâ€™s self-awareness and irony is a hollow emotional core.1.5
â€śDouble tap,â€ť the belated Zombieland sequelâ€™s namesake, refers to the rule of shooting a zombie more than once in order to ensure that itâ€™s dead. Like the rest of the rules devised by the seriesâ€™s dweebish protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), itâ€™s spelled out in large on-screen text, an amusingly self-aware touch in the original 2009 film that has, a decade later into our irony-poisoned present, lost its luster.
Part of that is because the sequel highlights these rules more frequently and prominently, injecting them with flashy text effects that are more distracting than funny. But itâ€™s also because self-awareness doesnâ€™t feel nearly as refreshing as it did in 2009, with seemingly every big studio movie nowadays winking and nodding at audiences, trying to swaddle us in layers of protective irony (that writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to script the vacuous Deadpool films is no accident). Zombieland: Double Tap effortlessly operates in the same groove as the original, but thatâ€™s less a compliment than a measure of a failure to evolve.
Revising the world of Zombieland feels like returning to a television program you gave up on watching; though the cast has aged, the character dynamics remain largely the same, if slightly more exaggerated and perhaps overly familiar. Boisterous gunslinger Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is a little more cartoonish now, while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) is all grown up. Sheâ€™s more than old enough to drive, and thus old enough to run away with a pacifist hippie, Berkeley (Avan Jogia), prompting Columbus, Tallahassee, and conwoman Wichita (Emma Stone) to track her down. Theyâ€™re a makeshift family now, despite still referring to one another by the city aliases that were meant to prevent getting too attached.
A newcomer to their group still goes by her real name, Madison (Zoey Deutch), and as a caricatured dumb blonde, she typifies much of the filmâ€™s easy, uninspired comedy. The supremely overqualified cast powers through tiresome, pop culture-laden exchanges via sheer charisma; Stone, though unfortunately reduced to playing a â€śjealous girlfriendâ€ť type, is particularly expressive. But returning director Ruben Fleischer, despite pairing with the usually excellent cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, too often shoots the actors in close-up, robbing much of the film of the chemistry that the actors display in wider shots.
Double Tap also plays unthinkingly into the zombie fantasy as survivalist gun porn, even going so far as to add a Gen Z commune of idiot pacifists who melt down guns into peace symbols. This sequel, however, is too mediocre for such an idea to register with more than a shrug. The film isnâ€™t using the concept to make a point, after all; behind the self-awareness and the irony is merely a hollow emotional core, a lack of anything to say because saying something would require ambition rather than complacent winks and nods.
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenwriter: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff
In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.1
â€śOnce upon a timeâ€¦or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,â€ť begins the voiceover narration of Disneyâ€™s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequelâ€™s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptationsâ€”on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.
Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who nowâ€”like Ozâ€™s Wicked Witch of the Westâ€”has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deedsâ€”or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, sheâ€™s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficentâ€™s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.
Mistress of Evil posits a â€śtrue storyâ€ť behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though sheâ€™s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, weâ€™re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that theyâ€™re both young humans, though Joachim RĂ¸nningâ€™s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillipâ€™s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the characterâ€™s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolieâ€™s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficentâ€™s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichĂ©d plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humansâ€”the screenplay, of course, makes Conallâ€™s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borraâ€™s call for a revolutionâ€”Jolieâ€™s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forestâ€™s denizens.
The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficentâ€™s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disneyâ€™s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothersâ€™ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise womanâ€™s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princessâ€™s chamber, so to speak.
In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot thatâ€™s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim RĂ¸nning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center
By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothersâ€™ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.2
When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldnâ€™t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didnâ€™t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.
Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was â€ścoolâ€ť and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasnâ€™t until after their parentsâ€™ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jillâ€™s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.
Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkinsâ€™s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothersâ€™ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. Itâ€™s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.
In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they donâ€™t. (As Alex muses at one point, â€śWe take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.â€ť) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, itâ€™s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothersâ€™ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boysâ€™ abuse.
Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. Itâ€™s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkinsâ€™s film wants us to believe that the brothersâ€™ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jillâ€™s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcusâ€™s abuse? Were there other victims?
Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothersâ€™ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldnâ€™t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcusâ€™s younger brother, whose existence the film doesnâ€™t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcusâ€™s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother whoâ€™d rather keep it buried.
Thatâ€™s why Tell Me Who I Amâ€™s attempt to end on a note of closureâ€”â€śItâ€™s over finally,â€ť Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abusedâ€”comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, itâ€™s hard not feel that the picture weâ€™ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.
Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermyâ€™s Inherent Boldness
Erin Derhamâ€™s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermyâ€™s subversive spirit.1.5
Erin Derhamâ€™s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the filmâ€™s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the filmâ€™s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.
Itâ€™s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentaryâ€™s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermistsâ€™ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. Itâ€™s as if she approached the documentaryâ€™s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermyâ€™s subversive spirit.
This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermistsâ€™ artistry, except the clichĂ©d polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. Itâ€™s an artistry thatâ€™s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.
Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves â€śseeing the insides and the anatomy of thingsâ€ť as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the mediumâ€”how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters sheâ€™s divided the filmâ€™s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashionâ€”all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.
The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Caroneâ€™s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at homeâ€”that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.
Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence
Patrick Lussierâ€™s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.0.0
In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with â€śmockbustersâ€ť: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussierâ€™s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillipsâ€™s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichĂ©s.
Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakersâ€™ estimation of their target audienceâ€™s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the filmâ€™s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottleâ€”played with a knifeâ€”Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenterâ€™s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthalâ€™s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.
But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the filmâ€™s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: â€śHe murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?â€ť Then, after a beat, â€śWhat does that?â€ť
Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. Heâ€™s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuckâ€”like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolenceâ€”as inane as any other aspect of Trick.
Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings
The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.
David Lynchâ€™s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, â€śWe donâ€™t stop here,â€ť the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.
Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. Itâ€™s Robert Forsterâ€™s only scene in the film, and itâ€™s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and wearinessâ€”that of an indolent man whoâ€™s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forsterâ€™s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.
Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantinoâ€™s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. â€śMy career by then was dead,â€ť Forster told the AV Clubâ€™s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. â€śNo agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothingâ€¦I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.â€ť
Like so many of Tarantinoâ€™s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forsterâ€™s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man whoâ€™s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grierâ€™s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. Itâ€™s one of American cinemaâ€™s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what heâ€™s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. Heâ€™s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown heâ€™s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.
Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Hustonâ€™s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexlerâ€™s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teagueâ€™s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustigâ€™s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.
It wasnâ€™t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often â€śtrashâ€ť films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forsterâ€™s death went public, the director said in a statement:
â€śToday the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices Iâ€™ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.â€ť
Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payneâ€™s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Trumanâ€™s brother, on the third season of Lynchâ€™s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.
Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and â€śdisappearerâ€ť named Ed who helps Bryan Cranstonâ€™s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the showâ€™s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilliganâ€™s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actorâ€™s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paulâ€™s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one canâ€™t help but respect the conviction of Forsterâ€™s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.
Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion
The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.1.5
Alexis Michalikâ€™s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas SolivĂ©rĂ¨s) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Maddenâ€™s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the storyâ€™s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninnyâ€”as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennesâ€™s Shakespeare was positioned asâ€”whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.
For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, thereâ€™s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostandâ€™s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his playâ€™s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, LĂ©onidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the filmâ€™s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).
Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergeracâ€™s production. With Rostandâ€™s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the authorâ€™s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.
As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (ClĂ©mentine CĂ©lariĂ©) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) whoâ€™s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur HonorĂ© (Jean-Michel Martial), the black cafĂ© owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.
Cyrano, My Loveâ€™s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothersâ€™ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the playâ€™s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.
Cast: Thomas SolivĂ©rĂ¨s, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, ClĂ©mentine CĂ©lariĂ©, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc AndrĂ©oni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils
In the filmâ€™s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.3
The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect thatâ€™s most pronounced during the filmâ€™s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynchâ€™s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburbâ€™s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing thatâ€™s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.
The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isnâ€™t, in the filmâ€™s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, itâ€™s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than theyâ€™re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasnâ€™t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.
Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that theyâ€™re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jillâ€™s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, sheâ€™s horrified, but Nick, the boyâ€™s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but heâ€™s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.
There isnâ€™t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jillâ€™s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that weâ€™re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.
A schoolteacher, Miss Human (Dâ€™Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of â€śa better life,â€ť they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the filmâ€™s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.
Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, Dâ€™Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria
Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.3
Feras Fayyadâ€™s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Kjetil C. Astrupâ€™s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, itâ€™s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, thatâ€™s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?
Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is, despite its present state of disrepair, speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyadâ€™s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. Itâ€™s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the Westâ€™s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.
Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees whoâ€™ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.
By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospitalâ€™s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salimâ€™s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesnâ€™t have access.
Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that sheâ€™d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesnâ€™t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and sheâ€™s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, sheâ€™s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who canâ€™t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, sheâ€™s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.
Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking peopleâ€”many childrenâ€”rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes theyâ€™re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.
Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, though, work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the film is preceded by a still and distant opening shot of the Ghouta skyline, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool perspective conflicting sharply with the later close-ups of suffering bombing victims.
As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospitalâ€™s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The filmâ€™s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.
Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Blu-ray Review: Bill Forsythâ€™s Local Hero on the Criterion Collection
Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria
Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils
Review: Big Thiefâ€™s Two Hands Crackles with the Intensity of a Live Album
Review: Watchmen Offers an Intriguing Rebuttal of Its Source Material
Blu-ray Review: Ritwik Ghatakâ€™s The Cloud-Capped Star on the Criterion Collection
The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Review: Ghostbusters: The Video Game Still Lacks Finesse in Remastered Form
Review: The Lightning Thief Struggles to Summon Epic-Scale Spectacle
- Features13 hours ago
The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
- Video7 days ago
Blu-ray Review: Bill Forsythâ€™s Local Hero on the Criterion Collection
- Film7 days ago
Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria
- Film6 days ago
Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils