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Review: The Big Red One

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The Big Red One

Samuel Fuller’s rough and uncompromising genre films (Underworld U.S.A., Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor) were always brimming with blunt poetry, typical of an “authentic American primitive” (as the director was famously dubbed by critic Andrew Sarris). Though never one to drape his rugged films in traditional cinematographic beauty, Fuller’s fast-and-furious direction had a hard-wired velocity and stringent ferocity that—when coupled with his disdain for melodramatic mawkishness—made him a hero of the independent film community (the French New Wave, as well as Americans such as Jim Jarmusch, revered him like a deity) and a paragon of extreme, from-the-gut filmmaking. They may not have been the prettiest or nicest pictures ever created, but you could feel the grit and grandeur of a Samuel Fuller film deep in the pit of your stomach.

Such is most assuredly the case with 1980’s The Big Red One, Fuller’s final masterpiece about a WWII rifle company in the First Infantry (a.k.a. “The Big Red One”) that, courtesy of Time critic Richard Schickel and Warner Bros. executive Brian Jamieson, has now been restored with 40 minutes of long-lost footage as The Big Red One: The Reconstruction. An episodic account of five gunmen—the commanding Sarge (Lee Marvin), brash Zab (Robert Carradine), weak-kneed Griff (Mark Hamill), wisecracking Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and hemorrhoid-plagued Johnson (Kelly Ward)—and their travails through North Africa, Sicily, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, Fuller’s film (based on his own experiences in the military) is an epic depiction of a soldier’s life told within a contextual vacuum.

Uninterested in the larger politics and military strategy of the continent-crossing conflict, Fuller instead concentrates on his characters and their specific, moment-to-moment experiences during skirmishes and downtime in order to capture the agony, joy, madness, and terror of battle. A stirring Omaha beach sequence (shot with stark coarseness by Adam Greenberg) intersperses the soldiers’ attempts to reach safety with shots of a dead man’s watch lying in the blood-red surf, vividly demonstrating the grueling, seemingly endless nature of the siege. Intense close-ups of the infantrymen’s eyes peeking ever-so-slightly out of a foxhole (an image first used by Fuller in 1951’s The Steel Helmet) capture the disbelief, dread, and hopelessness that regularly gripped the men’s hearts. More than any other WWII film, The Big Red One conveys the experience of being on the ground, on the run, and scared to death.

To facilitate viewers projecting themselves into this unnerving, chaotic war, Fuller deliberately fashions his protagonists as two-dimensional archetypes. True, Carradine’s sarcastic, detached Zab—an aspiring, cigar-chomping pulp writer (“The Hemingway of the Bronx”) who provides the film’s hard-bitten, fatalistic narration—is clearly a stand-in for Fuller, and Marvin wonderfully underplays his scenes, bringing a composed (yet never sentimental) tenderness to his role as the paternal Sarge. But the soldiers’ back-stories are intentionally left vague or nonexistent, and the foul-mouthed banter among the soldiers, though amusingly pessimistic, never elucidates much about the inner lives of the characters (save for Hamill’s frazzled Griff, who embodies the role of The Coward). We’re able to put ourselves in these men’s boots because we’re made to feel fundamentally no different from them, just as they are—while in the heat of battle, dodging bullets and desperately praying to God—no different from their adversaries.

Sarge, watching an African cut off dead men’s ears, remarks, “After a fight, you can’t tell the difference between an American and a Kraut ear.” When Johnson finds a memorial to fallen US soldiers in Germany, he believes it’s been hastily created for their current crusade. Once Sarge informs him that it’s actually a tribute to WWI’s dead, his stunned response (“But the names are the same”) is met with Sarge’s despondent reply, “They always are.” Fuller knows well that corpses are corpses, and though the dog tags change, the only thing that truly differentiates soldiers (young or old, German, French, or American) is the strength of their pulse.

Much of this “Reconstruction” version’s newly incorporated material—a combination of scene extensions and wholly original vignettes—helps augment the film’s ambitious scope (including more about Siegfried Rauch’s vicious Nazi true believer Schroeder). Yet the most pleasant surprise is how these restored bits and pieces enhance the film’s incisive portrait of the soldiers as not just scared, angry, dejected, and courageous, but also as sexually frustrated. While the original’s sexual subtext was largely confined to the GI’s protecting their gun barrels from salt water with condoms and a fantasy about frozen female derrieres, the film is now exploding (almost to a gratuitous extent) with sly allusions to the men’s burning desire for a sexual outlet.

“That’s not my gun,” an erect Zab tells the sleeping Johnson after poking him in the back, mere moments after Axis Sally urges the Americans to quit the fight with her comically sultry, breathy American voice. Fuller—who once said about moviemaking, “If the first scene doesn’t give you a hard-on, then throw the goddamn thing away”—knows that, like their bravery and bravado, the soldiers’ pent-up urges are a natural extension of their masculinity-under-duress, and this undercurrent helps alleviate the film’s occasional battle fatigue. “I can understand you being horny, Fritz,” Sarge tells a gay German doctor in a Tunis war hospital after the man has kissed him, “but you’ve got bad breath.”

This farcicality is intrinsic to The Big Red One‘s constitution, since the film’s overriding mission is to expose both the inherent absurdity and tragedy of war—a mission it accomplishes with a sober wit and sensitivity that’s unmatched in Fuller’s canon. As we watch the scene unfold with amused incredulity, Zab explains that to smoke out a sniper, “You send a guy out into the open to see if they get shot…they taught us that one up at West Point.” The sight of enormous German tanks rolling over the tiny holes in which soldiers hide—their heads barely below ground level, and thus nearly touching the vehicles’ treads—epitomizes the terrifying surrealism of the smoky, disorienting battlefield. Faced with a pregnant lady about to burst, Sarge, Griff, and Johnson deliver a baby inside a tank by using condoms on their fingers (for sanitary purposes), bullet belts to keep her legs spread, and exhortations to the woman to “pousser” (“push” in French) which, when incorrectly pronounced by Johnson, sounds a lot like the female anatomy he’s pulling a newborn through. And in the film’s most darkly comic scene, Sarge consoles a soldier who’s just been seriously injured in the groin by barking, “It’s just one of your balls, Smitty. You can live without it. That’s why they gave you two!” Then, as if to prove the relative unimportance of the man’s loss, he flippantly tosses the severed appendage over his shoulder.

Despite its black sense of humor, Fuller’s frank vision of combat leaves no room for schmaltz—to the director, war means death, and death is cold and unromantic—and thus as the rifle unit’s reserve members begin dropping like dominoes, the film barely spends a moment to mourn their loss. Still, The Big Red One does exhibit sympathy and sorrow for the innocent children caught in the middle of this bullet-strewn bedlam, using Marvin’s Sarge—a man whose soft center is barely concealed by his grizzly exterior—as the conduit for its compassion. Sarge agrees to help a young Italian boy bury his mother in exchange for directions to a troublesome German artillery gun; upon arriving at this destination, he has the men hold their fire until the blissfully ignorant children have passed out of the line of fire. Similarly, in a newly expanded scene, a petite girl decorates Sarge’s helmet with flowers, yet when her request for a goodbye kiss puts her life in danger, the director, unable to stomach what he’s just dramatized, employs an abrupt edit to partially obscure whether or not the child has been mortally wounded. When Sarge is unable to heal a young Czechoslovakian concentration camp victim with food and water—instead gently carrying him on his shoulders along a riverbank until the boy passes away—the look on the commander’s worn, stoic countenance is one of unmitigated despair.

In the film’s black-and-white opening scene, Sarge—lost on a WWI German battlefield in 1918, completely unaware that the war has been officially over for hours—is attacked by a stampeding horse (a symbol of combat’s unpredictable violence) and then murders a German soldier while an ominous woodcarving of Christ on the cross, sans eyes, towers overhead. Though he later tells his WWII First Infantry that in war, “We don’t murder—we kill,” Sarge is haunted by his crime, and in a final, tragic irony, he duplicates his mistake at film’s conclusion by knifing Schroeder after Germany’s surrender. While Fuller lets Sarge off the hook by having Schroeder ultimately survive the attack—thus providing the most “optimistic” ending of the director’s career—The Big Red One‘s vision of war as random, cruel, bizarre, and unforgiving is nonetheless ever-present and inescapable. As the wooden Jesus’s hollow, passive gaze upon the corpse-strewn battleground exemplifies, there is no heaven, no hell, no salvation in war—only soldiers, their comrades, and the essential, undeniable will to survive.

Cast: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward, Siegfried Rauch, Stéphane Audran, Serge Marquand, Alain Doutey Director: Samuel Fuller Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 162 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Buy: Video

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Review: Manta Ray Is a Story of Friendship with a Necessarily Humanist Outlook

Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s films is as an oblique portrait of Thailand’s Rohingya refugee crisis.

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Manta Ray
Photo: New Directors/New Films

Thai writer-director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray begins with a dedication: “For the Rohingyas.” While persecuted and stateless for decades, the people of this ethnic group have suffered greatly in recent years due to state-sanctioned military offensives and calculated measures to ensure their starvation. As such, an overwhelming majority of Rohingyas have fled from their home in Myanmar’s Rakhine State to find safety in neighboring countries. The government’s treatment of the refugees has been deplorable—human trafficking camps and mass graves have been found—and Manta Ray functions as an oblique portrait of Aroonpheng’s anger about the situation.

The film opens evocatively, with an armed hunter perusing a dense forest, his vest and the flora around him illuminated by multicolored lights. The scene is soundtracked by minimal strings and the rhythmic chirping of insects—a sonic palette that bolsters the lush imagery, effectively establishing the film’s serious but ethereal tone. We see mysterious men digging graves and quickly witness the contrasting work life of one of them: a nameless fisherman with bleached blond hair (Wanlop Rungkumjad). One day, this fisherman finds a man (Aphisit Hama) collapsed on a stretch of muddy ground—his prostrate body lying against a haunting backdrop of entangled mangrove roots—and rescues the injured man and tends to his wounds.

The man the fisherman saves is never identified, but one assumes that he’s of Rohingya descent. He’s mute, too, and in the numerous near-wordless sequences that depict this new relationship is a sense of camaraderie. The different diegetic sounds—from the hypnotic crashing of waves to the crunching of dry leaves, the scraping of spoons to the sloshing of vomit—instill a meditative ambiance. The horrors and tragedies that the Rohingya man faced are unknown, but the lack of dialogue makes clear his need for reflection and quiescence.

That neither of the two men are explicitly named reflects Aroonpheng’s frustration with Thailand’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis: In Thailand, the Rohingya aren’t given legal status, and current efforts to help them have been inadequate. The relationship between the two main characters in the film depicts a reality that’s unrepresentative of Thailand as a whole. Even more, one suspects that the man the fisherman saves isn’t explicitly identified as Rohingya because the Thai government partially funded Manta Ray; any explicit mention may lead to censorship, preventing the film from being screened as is—or at all—in Thailand.

Eventually, the fisherman gives the Rohingya man a name: Thongchai, after the famous Thai pop singer Bird Thongchai McIntyre. The fisherman sings a line from one of the artist’s earliest singles, and the lyrics match the current situation of the fisherman and the man he saved: “Only the beach, the sea, the wind and the two of us.” The romantic sentiment of the original song is rendered differently given their circumstances; for them, it’s loneliness, helplessness, and resiliency fueled by friendship. The strength of their relationship continues to grow as the fisherman teaches Thongchai how to ride a motorbike, as he tells stories of an ex-wife, and the two ride a Ferris wheel together. Most arresting is a gentle scene that finds the two swaying in a home decorated with multicolor lights and a toy disco ball.

The fisherman soon mysteriously disappears and his ex-wife, Saijai, enters the film. That Saijai is played by molam singer Rasmee, née Rasmee Wayrana, foreshadows the bond that she and Thongchai begin to share. Some of Manta Ray’s scenes loosely play out as refracted, alternate versions of those previously seen with the fisherman. These, in addition to a few dreamlike montages, contribute to the film’s lightly surreal veneer. Ultimately, what Aroonpheng accomplishes with these ambiguous and fantastical scenes is an underlying current of uncertainty, and uneasiness, regarding any comfort that Thongchai finds in Thailand.

The fisherman’s disappearance is preceded by a cryptic phone call, hinting at a darkness lurking behind the scenes. And when a homicide suddenly occurs, the impression that government corruption is responsible becomes less elastic. Despite brief moments of serenity, Aroonpheng posits that the Thai government is far too nefarious to ever grant the Rohingya people a place they can safely call home. Beyond this, the fact that Thongchai easily slots into the role of Saijai’s lover, but is quickly discarded when the fisherman later returns, shows the hateful ideology that fuels some Thai people’s prejudice: Assimilate completely, according to our standards and in our time, or face exile. In Thailand, the Rohingya live as vagabonds, and Manta Ray’s final scene elegantly reveals Thongchai’s understanding of this tragic reality.

Cast: Aphisit Hama, Wanlop Rungkumjad, Rasmee Wayrana Director: Phuttiphong Aroonpheng Screenwriter: Phuttiphong Aroonpheng Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: End of the Century Tells a Sexy and Haunted Riddle of a Romance

The film is at its most intense, and sexiest, when it’s also at its most unknowable.

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End of the Century
Photo: New Directors/New Films

A triptych of snapshots, two real and one possibly imagined, from the lives of two gay men, writer-director Lucio Castro’s End of the Century is at its most intense, and sexiest, when it’s also at its most unknowable. More precisely, up to the moment that one of these men, Ocho (Juan Barberini), remains unknown to himself, withering in uncertainty, Castro’s feature-length directorial debut is a profound and casually artful expression of the lengths to which people go in order to not have to embody their desires.

The film begins at a literal remove from Ocho, capturing the fortyish man as he walks through the octagonal streets of Barcelona. By day, he drinks in the city, and by night, he checks Grindr before jacking off. Right away there’s a hint of José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia in both Castro’s blocking of the handsome and scruffy Ocho and the ineffable weight that emerges from the way he looks at the world, as if the man were willing it to look back at him.

And yet, unlike the tormented artist at the center of Guerín’s film, Ocho is a sensualist who seems resistant to emotional nourishment. That isn’t immediately understood, and isn’t obvious from Ocho’s botched meet-cute with the adorable Javi (Ramon Pujol) at a local beach—a scene that ends with Javi curiously annoyed and Ocho frustrated by his own lack of follow-through. But they get a second chance, after Ocho catches a glimpse of Javi on the street and invites him up to his apartment—and after small talk pregnant with desire, the men have sex with a passion that doesn’t faze Ocho but seems to leave Javi haunted.

Javi’s look would seem to contain multitudes, an impression that’s confirmed after he and Ocho reunite that evening, drinking and eating on the rooftop of Ocho’s building and alternately speaking about their lives. Ocho, who’s Argentinian, is visiting from New York, on the rebound after a 20-year relationship that came to an unexpected end, and Javi is married to another man and living in Berlin. There are multiple worlds between them. And yet, there’s an ease to the way they present themselves to each other that feels very much like the initial stirrings of love. It’s something that Ocho seems to sense, and is possibly why he tells Javi that it feels as if they’ve met before. To which Javi responds, “We have met before.”

If this moment is as discombobulating to Ocho as it is to us, we’ll never know, as Castro radically cuts from the scene before any emotion can register on the man’s face. It’s here that End of the Century seemingly reboots itself, capturing Ocho going through the same motions as he went through at the start of the film, walking through the streets of Barcelona before arriving at the apartment of a friend, Sonia (Mía Maestro). And it’s here, sitting across Ocho and through words filled with quiet anguish, that Sonia speaks of her life in ways that come, like so many other moments in the film, to reverberate with Ocho and Javi’s rooftop musings.

Who is this version of Ocho who’s now with a woman? Who is Sonia’s ex, Eli, and was he really in love with Ocho at one point? And who exactly is this woman who talks, and sometimes sings, of her heartache as if she knows that it might kill her? The film doesn’t answer these and seemingly countless other questions, delighting in our uncertainty over its mysteries until suddenly it all seems to fall into place when Ocho meets Sonia’s boyfriend: Javi. End of the Century’s masterstroke isn’t so much this reveal—which is impossible to expect, given that Castro puts little effort into making Barberini look 20 years younger—but how the filmmaker tasks the viewer with stitching together the story of two men’s lives from how their conversations echo each other across a vast expanse of time.

Castro has a gift for elision. The Ocho of old, who pukes after receiving a blowjob from a stranger, is a long way from the Ocho of new, who doesn’t bat an eye when Javi asks him if he has a condom and Ocho responds, “I’m on PrEP.” But if Ocho’s response to his ostensibly first sexual encounter with a man registers as shame, it’s understood to be something else entirely as soon as he pulls David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration from Sonia’s bookshelf. A bit too on the nose, perhaps, but there’s a quiet beauty to the moment where Javi finds the book, after Ocho has left him for the first time, and opens to a bookmarked page. In this moment, he understands Ocho through Wojnarowicz’s words and, suddenly, we comprehend why Javi appears so tormented throughout the film’s first section.

The story of so many gay men’s coming out is similar, so it’s perhaps inevitable that Ocho and Javi’s conversations about who they are and who they want to be not only mirrors Wojnarowicz’s writing, but also Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. The nonlinear quality of End of the Century, then, could be seen as Castro’s way of putting some distance between Haigh’s film and his own, which similarly resides in a realm somewhere between fantasy and reality.

But if Weekend progressively inches toward the real, End of the Century embraces only fantasy in the end, offering up in its final section a vision of what Ocho and Javi’s lives may have been like if Ocho hadn’t at one point in time pledged allegiance to Wojnarowicz’s pursuit of “perpetual freedom.” It’s a jarring endnote to an initially mysterious film, as the philosophical inquisitiveness of the first two parts is replaced by an indulgence of fiction as wish-fulfillment. (It would be understatement to say that the moment doesn’t hold a candle to the allegorical plunge of Tropical Malady’s second half, where the desire of two men for each other is elevated to the level of myth but without it losing its present-tense veracity.) Whether or not we’ve been dropped into a projection of Ocho’s imagination is almost beside the point, as End of the Century leaves us with the not-so-ambiguous impression that Castro believes that a gay man’s path toward happiness is only possible through the performance of domesticity.

Cast: Juan Barberini, Ramon Pujol, Mía Maestro Director: Lucio Castro Screenwriter: Lucio Castro Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Working Woman Is Powerful Testimony to Workplace Sexual Harassment

Michal Aviad’s film forcefully brings home a reality that many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

3.5

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Working Woman
Photo: Zeitgeist Films

The general outline of director Michael Aviad’s Working Woman will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the discussions provoked by Me Too—and familiar to most women professionals, for that matter. An industrious, white-collar working mother finds herself the target of her superior’s unwanted and violating sexual advances, and despite her attempts to vocalize her discomfort, both his relative power and her precarious economic situation stand in the way of her making a clean break. But—and in this way, Aviad’s film isn’t unlike Dan Reed’s Leaving NeverlandWorking Woman is able to forcefully bring home a reality many of us have been aware of only intellectually.

The film captures the unspoken pressures that keep sexual harassment victims silent and force them into situations where it seems almost impossible to say “no” with enough authority to make the harasser stop. Liron Ben-Shlush plays Orna, a young Israeli mother who gets a job working as a personal assistant to Tel Aviv real estate magnate Benny (Menasche Noy). Orna’s husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), runs a fledging restaurant, and their family comes to rely on her income as Ofer’s dream project struggles through its unprofitable first few months. As Benny’s assistant, Orna finds something like a calling: Intelligent and personable, she proves particularly adept at finding buyers for Benny’s under-construction high-rise on Rishon Beach.

It becomes painfully difficult to tell whether Benny’s praise of Orna’s sales acumen is genuine, as he uses his approbation to engineer situations in which, alone with her and unobserved, he can test and violate the professional boundary between them. His harassment of her starts with small comments: In an early scene, he uses a prospective buyer’s orthodoxy and wealth as an excuse to instruct Orna to put her hair down and wear a skirt (“conservative but chic”) to their meeting. The film grows increasingly tense and unsettling as these ambiguous comments—which you can see Orna trying to rationalize as mere professional advice—escalate to full-on assaults. Benny, performatively contrite after the first forced kissed, grows increasingly brazen, ignoring Orna’s obvious indications that she’s uncomfortable with his advances.

Orna’s experiences at work, of course, have an impact on her personal and home life. Her relationship with Ofer is both affectionate and mutually supportive, but Ofer’s support has limits determined by the same sort of toxic masculinity that produces the Bennys of the world: Ofer is unable to view Orna’s work situation outside of the framework of his own concerns, whether it be the restaurant or his supposed rights to her body. Emotionally and financially, Orna is increasingly painted into a corner, and most of this distress goes unspoken; one of the film’s points, of course, is that in such situations there’s no one to turn to.

This means that much of what the film has to communicate, especially for those of us who don’t speak Hebrew, is delivered through Ben-Shlush’s gestures and expressions rather than in dialogue. The actress signifies her character’s dubious acquiescence and repressed revulsion in a gamut of forced smiles and hesitant body language, but Orna never feels like a one-note character—a victim only. Her workplace is a source of pride as well as a threatening space. One can understand her getting caught up in the thrill of making a difficult sell and forgetting that celebration drinks with Benny might be a bad idea. After all, shouldn’t she be able to?

Aviad concentrates us on the physical and psychological details of harassment largely through such communicative performances and precise blocking. There isn’t excessive commentary in the film’s editing: At a crowded birthday party at Benny’s, we notice in subtly composed long shot the way Benny takes her by the hand to introduce her to other attendees (in actuality, we suspect, to separate her from her husband), and doesn’t let go. There’s no close-up of their hands, or on Orna’s face, but we can almost see her squirming on the inside, and can’t help but notice that Benny is refusing to cease physical contact with her.

Working Woman thus becomes a deeply and intentionally unsettling film. Like Benny, the tension creeps up on the viewer, and the stress ratchets up as Orna is forced into more and more impossible circumstances. Many professional women will probably not need Aviad’s film as proxy to relate to that kind of stress, but for those of us who haven’t directly experienced a Benny, the film is a powerful testimony.

Cast: Liron Ben-Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen Director: Michal Aviad Screenwriter: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik, Michal Aviad Distributor: Zeitgeist Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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