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The Conversations: 3D

If there’s anything that can excite an impassioned debate among film fans, it’s the topic of 3D.

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The Conversations: 3D

Ed Howard: If there’s anything that can excite an impassioned debate among film fans, it’s the topic of 3D. The technology has been around for a long time in one form or another—the first 3D films were released in the 1950s—but its popularity tends to wax and wane, sometimes reaching peaks where it’s a huge fad and a box office draw, while at other times the technology falls into disfavor and disuse. We are currently, without a doubt, in the middle of one of 3D’s peak periods, and there are even those, like James Cameron, who argue that 3D is the future of film. It’s pretty rare these days for any big animated film or summer blockbuster to get released to theaters without being in 3D, and older hits from the Star Wars series to Titanic are being refitted and re-released with 3D effects grafted on.

Our entry point for this conversation is provided by the release of two 3D family/adventure flicks made by esteemed directors working in the 3D format for the first time. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin are very different movies, both in their own right and in how they use 3D. Scorsese’s latest work is a deeply personal (but also, paradoxically, uncharacteristic) ode to the early cinema, a formalist celebration of the joys of movies. Spielberg’s film, an adaptation of the beloved comics by Belgian artist Hergé, is arguably less of a personal work, a propulsive, often funny, action movie that hardly ever pauses for breath. Though both films share a certain witty European sensibility and both are family-friendly crowd-pleasers, it’s hard to imagine two more different movies in terms of tone: the breathless, wide-eyed wonder of Hugo and the kinetic, nearly slapstick violence and adventure of Tintin.

Precisely because these films are so different, and because they’re the product of two highly respected American directors rather than just two more disposable holiday-season spectacles, they provide a perfect opportunity to discuss the merits of 3D, to consider whether this technology really is, as filmmakers like Cameron seem to think, the future of film and a valuable aesthetic tool, or if it’s simply a faddy gimmick that’s cycled back into popularity before people get tired of it again. These films provide an interesting case study for these questions. One curiosity is that the brasher, louder Tintin arguably uses 3D effects much more subtly and minimally than the comparatively low-key Hugo, which suggests that 3D can easily be separated from the other elements of a film’s style and tone. I wonder if that disconnect between 3D and the rest of a film’s elements provides some proof for the viewpoint that 3D is an unnecessary gimmick rather than a truly vital means of expression.

Jason Bellamy: Before I grapple with that thought, let me back up a moment and provide a brief account of my history with 3D as context. I don’t remember exactly when I first donned a set of perception-distorting glasses, but I do know that prior to this recent 3D craze I experienced the sensation of swimming with fish through a vertical kelp maze in an underwater short at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and long before that I saw portions of The Birds in 3D at MGM Studios and had a Muppets 3D experience at another theme park (Disney’s California Adventure, I think). There were other 3D exposures, too, here and there, but the first 3D Hollywood feature film that I saw in its entirety was Cameron’s Avatar. Since then I have seen four 3D movies: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Hugo (twice), Tarsem’s Immortals and Tintin, in that order. Of course, seeing a 3D film these days means suffering through about 20 minutes of 3D trailers, so while I didn’t actually attend recent releases like The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides or The Three Musketeers, I saw enough of their 3D imagery to get a sense for the way those movies try to swashbuckle into the audience’s lap with penetrating swords. Likewise, I have a sense for how the re-releases of Star Wars and Titanic will look with an extra “dimension.”

I mention all of that to make it clear that my experience with 3D makes for an extremely small sample size. But, if we’re honest, that’s true for almost everyone. We’re having this conversation now because two revered 2D directors, Scorsese and Spielberg, have dipped their toes into 3D waters. But that leaves countless revered 2D directors who haven’t come anywhere close to the pool (and it ignores the possibility, however doubtful, that Scorsese or Spielberg might someday decide to commit to 3D altogether). 3D might not be “new,” but as an art form it’s in its infancy, and great filmmakers like Scorsese and Spielberg are in the infancy of their 3D careers. With improving technology, there are possibilities available to 3D filmmakers today that weren’t available 50 years ago, certainly, and probably even 5, and even if those technological developments don’t continue (and I suspect they will, for a while), 3D could remain cinema’s New World for decades, as filmmakers partake in a kind of 3D land-grab, racing to be the first to put their signature on a shot in the 3D format that might have been memorably accomplished in 2D before they were born. (Whether there’s true “invention” in that is another debate altogether. Point is, someone will look to be 3D’s Orson Welles.)

Time will tell how this all plays out, but I’ll admit at the outset that I’m stunned at how much my physical response to 3D—never mind my critical opinion of it—has changed since seeing Avatar only two years ago. What not so long ago felt distinct, odd and even nauseating (the 3D effect has been known to give me migraines lasting for hours), now feels startlingly, well, normal. Put another way, the more 3D I see, the less 3D I “notice.” And while that might sound damning (and, indeed, maybe it is), and while you wonder if the disconnect between the overtness of the 3D effect in Hugo and Tintin and the overall style and tone of those movies might expose 3D as empty gimmickry, I see the same thing and wonder if we might be heading toward a time, maybe even very soon, in which 3D becomes so unassuming that it becomes difficult to argue that it has a significant negative effect, as many traditionalist cinephiles are quick to argue. So while today the challenge is often to demonstrate 3D’s value in order to justify its very existence, are we approaching a point in which the more difficult challenge becomes arguing 3D’s impediment and/or impairment?

Hugo

EH: That’s a good question, and before I answer it, I’ll admit that, like you, my experience with 3D is fairly limited. I don’t enjoy the effect, so I tend to avoid 3D showings unless I have a really strong motivation to go, like the opportunity to see what a favorite director like Herzog or Scorsese does with the technology. For me, anyway, 3D still has substantial impediments. I agree with Jim Emerson, who wrote (regarding Avatar, though his words are equally true for almost any 3D feature), “[Each] layer looks flat, stacked in front of or behind some other layer. So, people for example look like cardboard cutouts rather than rounded figures. What’s worse, if the camera’s depth of field holds something out of focus in the foreground or background, you can’t do anything about it. If you look at something that’s closer or farther away, your eyes have a natural tendency to bring it into focus. 3D camerawork frustrates that instinct.”

The technology keeps improving, and filmmakers may get better at avoiding the worst headache-inducing tendencies of the form, but I don’t think the basic situation has changed since Emerson wrote that in 2009. I think he’s right that 3D filmmaking is essentially “dictatorial” in a way that 2D imagery is not: 3D assumes a certain way of looking at an image, and a viewer who tries to see the image in a different way than the director intended will only be rewarded with eyestrain. A good 2D director tries to guide the viewer’s eyes to the important aspects of an image, not to force the viewer to look at one part of the image and one part only. There’s little room in 3D for visual ambiguity: try to imagine a 3D version of the final shot from Michael Haneke’s Caché, a crowd scene in which the viewer must scan and search for the meaning. I think that 3D encourages a substantially different—and more limited—way of seeing than we’re accustomed to from 2D movies, or indeed any other art form. Whereas in most art the ideal viewer is an active viewer, the ideal viewer for a 3D movie is passive, because being a thinking film viewer—really looking at the composition as a whole—is strongly discouraged by a format in which certain parts of the frame seem to be hovering in midair while other parts are blurry and indistinct.

For that reason, 3D has, historically, primarily been a medium of spectacle and entertainment, and in my opinion there are serious obstacles to it being anything but that. Even if the technology improves to the point where some of the current visual limitations—like the dimmer colors and blurriness—are overcome, which is very possible, the larger issue of active versus passive viewership remains. The two movies we’re focusing on during this conversation are again a perfect example. With Hugo, I had two extreme reactions to the 3D imagery: I thought it was inventive and powerful at times (especially in the recreations of Georges Méliès’ films) and distracting and gimmicky at others, as in all the shots where something juts out of the frame just because it can. While watching Tintin, on the other hand, there were long stretches where I barely noticed the 3D. Some of the frenzied action sequences were perhaps a little more disorienting than they would have been in 2D, and occasionally I felt that familiar and uncomfortable 3D sensation of having my gaze ripped from one focus to another. For the most part, though, I felt like Tintin did very little with 3D, for good or ill, but maybe that’s just because it’s such a different movie than Hugo. Tintin hurtles along, delivering one action set piece after another, ramping up the outrageousness until it climaxes with that ludicrous crane duel at the end, and it’s easy to get swept up in its rush of images. Hugo is a much more deliberate and patiently paced film, and its 3D compositions seem more deliberate, too. Scorsese does some interesting things with 3D in Hugo, but because he calls more attention to the 3D effects, I found that on the whole I enjoyed the easy-to-forget, unambitious 3D in Tintin more. Which, again, raises the question: even if we leave aside the technological and physiological issues with 3D, if the more enjoyable 3D movie is the one that does so little with the device that it can mostly be ignored, what does this say about the creative possibilities of the form?

The Adventures of Tintin

JB: I’m not sure it says anything, actually. See, the trouble with much of the conversation about 3D at the moment is that it supposes that this effect with the rare ability to be in your face must wow us with in-your-face imagery to be valid, because otherwise why bother? I understand that line of thinking, but I wonder if it might be outdated. If we were to discuss great achievements in CGI, for example, your mind might reflexively call up images from innumerable summer blockbusters that exist primarily to show off their ostentatious effects, and yet some of the best CGI is the stuff that goes entirely unnoticed. (As luck would have it, one of Emerson’s latest posts at Scanners touches on this very subject in describing how David Fincher combines multiple takes within the same frame in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) So I wonder: why doesn’t 3D deserve the chance to be thought of in the same light, as an effect to subtly accentuate compositions or to lie dormant for the majority of the film and come out of hibernation only when needed?

That’s kind of the way Herzog uses 3D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Each scene isn’t approached with the intent to embrace the 3D effect, as there are numerous traditional sit-down interviews that render the effect moot. But we accept the moments in which the 3D is incidental for the opportunity to see 3D put to brilliant effect in Herzog’s examination of the Chauvet caves. Before I saw the documentary I came across several interviews in which Herzog insisted that 3D was the “only way” to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams, because it was the “only way” he could accurately convey how the ancient cave art makes use of the natural undulations of the rock canvas, so that a bulge in a cave wall accentuates the hump of an animal’s back, and so on. Uncle Werner is prone to exaggeration, so I must admit that when I heard these claims I assumed he was merely trying to hype his film and validate his use of 3D without losing his art-house cred. Once I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams, however, I couldn’t help but agree. Indeed, the 3D improved my appreciation of the cave art’s use of the topography of the rock walls while also enhancing my basic understanding of the overall cave environment, all of which heightened the all-important feeling of being there.

Looping back to your previous comment about the compatibility of the 3D effect with a film’s overall tone, Herzog’s 3D use would seem more than justified, because the effect is a direct extension of Herzog’s cinematic intent. And yet it’s only fair to point out that one of the reasons the 3D is so noticeable in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is because Herzog is constantly calling attention to it by explicitly commenting on the shape of the caves. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t feel the power of the 3D on our own, but it’s worth asking, what if the Chauvet caves were simply the setting and not the subject of Herzog’s documentary? What if the caves provided the environment for a movie like The Descent? In that case, the 3D effect might not seem necessary, and certainly it wouldn’t be so pronounced, as our focus would be on the action in the narrative and physical foreground, but that doesn’t mean the 3D wouldn’t be effective, enhancing our claustrophobia and/or sense of confinement on a comparatively subconscious level, heightening our feeling of being there.

I bring that up to get us here: If we approach 3D with the attitude that it can only be justified when the effect is noticeable and significant, what we’re essentially saying, I think, is that 3D is valid only if a 2D projection of the same film would be cinematically and dramatically inferior. In the case of Cave of Forgotten Dreams I would argue that, yes, a 2D projection is inferior to the 3D version. I wouldn’t say the same of Hugo and Tintin, I admit, but I’m not sure it’s actually fair to look at them that way. After all, if we were to adjust our collective attitude and put the burden of proof on 2D, I wouldn’t call the 3D projections of Hugo and Tintin inferior either. In moments? Absolutely. On the whole? No.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

EH: The thing is, I do think that 3D projections of all of these films are inferior to 2D projections. At the very least, any benefits of the 3D projection are always counterbalanced by the limitations of 3D and the (many) things it displays poorly. Granted, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a special case because Herzog does make very inventive use of the technology, and he gets some very striking effects in which he uses 3D to explore the curved, uneven surfaces of the cave walls he’s filming. But, as I commented when I reviewed the film for the 2010 DOC NYC festival, there are some tradeoffs involved: the cave interiors benefit from Herzog’s ability to emphasize the paintings’ use of the rock contours, but the exteriors are often a blurry, disorienting mess, and the artificial depth of 3D often ruins the much more sophisticated 2D/compositional sense of depth already present in Herzog’s sweeping natural vistas. Even films that use 3D well, in ways subtle or obvious, are still hampered by basic deficiencies in the format that seem to afflict all 3D films. Moreover, I’ve since revisited Cave of Forgotten Dreams on 2D DVD and I can’t say that I missed the 3D: we sometimes forget, in the hype over 3D’s in-your-face extra dimension, that there are perfectly fine ways to convey depth and contour in 2D through shadows and compositional cues.

That’s why I, as you say, put the burden of proof on 3D rather than 2D. My feeling is, if I’m going to be putting up with dull colors and blurry motion and the flatness of individual layers that Emerson mentions, the director better be doing something especially interesting with 3D to compensate for these problems. To some extent, Herzog and Scorsese do make interesting use of 3D in their experiments with it, and even then I’m not convinced that either film had to be made in 3D, no matter what the directors say. With a film like Tintin, in which the 3D basically just adds some subtle depth effects, it feels like what’s added by 3D is negligible whereas what’s lost is fairly significant.

The 3D in Hugo has more to recommend it. I especially loved a few of the shots late in the film in which Scorsese cleverly uses 3D to create layers separating the audience from the movie sets of silent filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). In one of these scenes, Scorsese shoots through a lobster tank, so that in the foreground, fish flutter around in 3D and lobsters are dropped into the water, gracefully sinking down towards the bottom of the frame, while the actors scurry into position in the background, distorted by the water. The shot is still striking in 2D, but the 3D adds an additional sensation of depth and layering that provides a visual echo of the arts-and-crafts-like cutout sets of Méliès’ films, with their layered backdrops. In another shot, sparklers erupt and sizzle in the foreground, floating outside the screen, while behind the colored lights Méliès’ wife Jeanne d’Alcy (Helen McCrory) reclines, her figure partially obscured by the shower of sparks. These shots are especially effective because they seem like Scorsese’s tribute to the joyous, creative and much cruder special effects that Méliès himself coaxed from the theatrical and magical bag of tricks available to him in the early 1900s.

Part of Scorsese’s project here is to celebrate a director who stretched the boundaries of the primitive filmmaking technology of his era, so it makes sense that in the 3D version of Hugo, Scorsese would be similarly playful with the much more advanced technology of our time. If Méliès, who always loved a spectacle, had had 3D available to play with, he surely would have, so Scorsese’s use of it in this film is another aspect of the film’s delight in visual experimentation. For me, that resonance between technology and content justifies the use of 3D here and compensates for the usual issues with the technology—which Scorsese by no means avoids entirely.

Hugo

JB: I think we agree on Hugo. It’s been argued more than once, in the relatively short aftermath of the film’s release, that Scorsese misses the very point he’s trying to make with his tribute to cinema by presenting the snippets of Méliès’ films in 3D, as if Scorsese is distorting the history he’s celebrating, but I disagree. If the 3D-ized Méliès footage in Hugo was dominated by images flying off the screen then, sure, Scorsese might be misleading the audience about the charms of Méliès’ cinema, but as it is the 3D presentation simply ensures that the montage of Méliès footage remains consistent within the 3D universe in which Hugo unfolds. To have presented the Méliès footage in 2D would have called attention to its antiqueness, which would have worked against Hugo’s core themes about the timelessness of cinematic imagination and magic.

In the scenes you mentioned and others, you’re right, of course, that Scorsese often turns the weaknesses of 3D into strengths, particularly when he captures the layered sets of Méliès’ movie studio, and also when he introduces us to Méliès’ toy shop, which with its vibrant colors, jagged edges and multiple overlapping flat layers looks like a masterful diorama—an intricate toy model of a toy store that made for one of my favorite images of 2011. Likewise, Scorsese wisely uses 3D mostly to bring the center of the screen away from us, rather than toward us, enhancing the depth of the “stage” rather than projecting elements “off the screen,” which allows him to avoid the typical trap of 3D in which our attention is drawn to a point on the screen that will inevitably get blurry as it passes out of focus. One of the movie’s first shots presents the sensation of hurtling through the train station where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives, with its many stores and commuters whizzing by in the periphery. Later, Scorsese amplifies the dizzying heights of the station’s massive clock tower with a Vertigo-inspired glimpse downward through its well of winding staircases. Thus, when Scorsese chooses to let the action project toward us, such as the shot of the clock tower’s swaying pendulum or during the sequence in which the Station Inspector’s Doberman Pinscher first gives chase of Hugo, the 3D effect is glaring and awkward not simply because the focal point of the image is out of focus but also because the implementation of 3D as an “outward” effect rather than an “inward” effect is a diversion from Scorsese’s norm.

If I were going to build the case against 3D, I’d start there: often the very element on (or “off”) the screen that 3D means to enhance is, paradoxically, the least focused. That chase sequence is the perfect example: as the Doberman runs toward the camera, its legs and ears are in focus, but its eyes, muzzle and nose, the very features that give the dog and the shot character, are a muddy blur. That, to me, is the dirty little secret of this recent 3D craze, in which Hollywood has tried to lure moviegoers off the couch and back into the multiplexes (at higher prices) by turning out action movies in 3D, because action is one of the things that 3D struggles to present with clarity. The second most compelling argument against 3D is the flatness of each layer (the “cardboard cutout” effect Emerson rightfully targets), although in my experience my brain quickly learns to ignore those edges and see everything as one piece, so while I agree it’s a fault, it’s a potentially negligible one.

All of that said, the argument that I find weakest is the one that suggests that 3D filmmakers “force” our eyes to points on the screen or otherwise thwart our ability to “look around” a shot. Is it true? No question. But the problem with that argument is that it falsely implies that 2D films aren’t full of the same: moments in which filmmakers “force” our eyes to points on the screen, either by what they choose to leave in focus or by what they choose to leave outside of the frame altogether. David Cronenberg’s recent A Dangerous Method provides an interesting comparison in this regard, because in many shots Cronenberg focuses on a talking-head in the foreground and one in the background by using a split diopter (a familiar Cronenberg toy not popular among other filmmakers), while in other shots he puts the foreground or background out of focus, “forcing” our eyes to one region of the screen. There’s no “wrong” or “right” in either approach, or in the mixture of the two, and any decent cinephile would rightly protect Cronenberg’s license to draw our attention to whatever he sees fit, by whatever means necessary. And yet when 3D and 2D compositions are casually compared you’d get the sense that the majority of 2D compositions are shot in deep focus or that they otherwise resemble that memorable “look around” shot at the end of Caché. (Never mind, by the way, that many of the train station shots in Hugo invite some amount of looking around, so it’s a fallacy to suggest 3D must always have a small focal point.) I don’t mean to imply that as moviegoers we can’t have preferences; of course we can. But when it comes to directing our focus, 3D films that “force” our attention to one particular feature are really no different than 2D movies that utilize a lot of closeups.

Hugo

EH: As you say, Scorsese definitely doesn’t avoid the pitfalls of 3D at all times. There always seems to be a temptation with 3D to indulge in attention-grabbing effects that exist for no other reason than to wow the audience with objects that seem to stick out into the theater. There are several shots like this in Hugo, like a watch fob that dangles out into three-dimensional space in front of a blurry backdrop, or some shots where the gears and mechanisms in the train station’s walls project out of the screen. In one shot, Hugo pushes a lever, and for some reason Scorsese shoots it from below like it’s Charles Foster Kane giving a speech, with the boy towering over the audience and the lever projecting out from the foreground in 3D. It’s a disconcerting composition that seems to exist only to provide the expected 3D “thrill” of things jutting out of the screen above the audience’s heads. Such moments never fail to take me out of the movie, since I’m left with the suspicion that there’s little narrative or thematic purpose to many of these shots beyond technical grandstanding.

Granted, this complaint is not inherently about 3D technology, but rather about the way in which the technology is typically used. More problematic are the instances in which 3D’s to-some-extent-unavoidable failings detract from a film’s aesthetics. You’ve pinpointed one weakness of the format in discussing 3D’s problems with clarity in scenes with a lot of action and motion. Indeed, I find that 3D is generally much more effective when the images are relatively static. Towards the end of Hugo, there’s a shot of Méliès addressing a crowd, which Scorsese shoots so that the camera is behind the filmmaker, with the crowd spread out in the auditorium below him. The 3D subtly enhances the sense of depth that’s already communicated by the way Scorsese composed the shot, and adds to the sense of Méliès being awed and moved by so many people belatedly appreciating his art. It also has a subtle mirroring effect, in that the film’s audience in the movie theater is mirrored by the audience for Méliès’ speech, with Méliès himself as the plane of the mirror. Similarly, one of the shots I most admired in Cave of Forgotten Dreams was a quirky composition in which Herzog placed the head of a female scientist in the foreground, staring out at the audience, with the 3D effect heightening the awkward tension of this fourth-wall-breaking moment.

Such shots are largely static, and they achieve their effectiveness by using 3D to exaggerate the illusion of depth or spatiality within a frame over a sustained period of time. When 3D is combined with rapid motion and rapid cutting, though, the result is often just confounding and eye-straining. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the shakycam shots where Herzog follows a group of scientists along a rocky path, or a shot where he tracks a bird in flight, are blurry and hard to watch, even though the 3D effect in these scenes isn’t pronounced at all. In Hugo, Scorsese uses 3D to create a pop-up layer of falling snowflakes in certain outdoor scenes, an effect I found tremendously distracting, like being asked to look at the image through a hazy curtain.

These are the most obvious failings of 3D as a technology, in that it’s often simply ugly: Hugo’s snowy exteriors when seen in 2D are absolutely lovely, and look much crisper when the snow is contained within the frame rather than seeming to hover in a flat layer outside of it. However, I still contend that Emerson’s complaint about 3D’s “dictatorial” control of the viewer is a valid one as well. I don’t think it’s correct to say that there’s no difference between the way we view a 3D film and the way we view a 2D film with a lot of closeups. The directing of attention that goes on in a 3D film is often physiological as much as aesthetic, in that it can be physically uncomfortable to look somewhere other than where the director intends. To me, that is not at all the same as the comparatively gentle ways in which a director can compose and cut 2D images to guide the viewer’s attention to one point or another. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, of course, and just as there are 2D films that might be more “dictatorial,” allowing for only limited viewer freedom, there might be 3D films or 3D scenes in which the viewer has some ability to look around within the frame without experiencing eyeball fatigue. But in general, I find 3D images more limiting and less free than 2D compositions.

Hugo

JB: As a general rule, yeah. Still, there’s danger in looking at 3D as an inherently flawed approach by comparing it to 2D, somewhat akin to considering silent films as inherently flawed compared to “talkies” (do we still call them that?), or black-and-white to color, simply because in one obvious area they are “less than.” It seems unfair to demand that 3D be everything that 2D is “and more.” Sure, that’s the way that Hollywood is marketing these pictures, but Hollywood also markets the idea of Adam Sandler playing two roles in the same film as double the fun; that’s marketing. Why can’t 3D be “more” of one thing and less of something else, with those strengths and limitations understood and expected, rather than constantly praised and ridiculed? No one would take seriously a complaint from a 3D fan that the chariot race in Ben-Hur sucks because the horses don’t seem to break the plane of the screen, so why should we be so quick to repeatedly slam 3D for being what it isn’t and never tried to be? There’s a kind of artistic bigotry in that, is there not?

To be clear, I say that as a means of trying to reframe the discussion that so often happens in relation to 3D, not to discourage debate (especially this one). Nor do I mean to imply that criticisms of 3D are invalid. Indeed, the “cardboard cutout” effect is the perfect example of how 3D creates dimension and removes it simultaneously (kind of like the kid who puts one foot back in the bathtub in order to dry the other one), which raises legitimate questions about whether 3D achieves its supposed aims. But to complain that images in the periphery of a composition’s focal point are out of focus strikes me as akin to complaining that there’s no sound in a silent picture—those complaints look for things that the filmmaker isn’t (necessarily) attempting to provide.

Then again, if 3D’s critics accept it for what it is, its fans should do the same, because ultimately praising the depth of a 3D picture is akin to praising the absence of color in a black-and-white movie. True, some 3D films will achieve that depth better than others, just like some black-and-white imagery is better than others. And, true, in this regenerated infancy of 3D movies, it’s to be expected that there will be routine noticeable improvements in the craft that merit mentioning. Still, as much as I don’t think 3D needs to be approached by traditionalist cinephiles with the revolted disgust usually reserved for sex offenders, and as much as movies like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Hugo have made me curious, and maybe even a tiny bit hopeful, about the potential for 3D, I do wonder if 3D’s worst enemy is in fact the 3D movement itself.

While only time will tell if this latest 3D craze is nothing more than a passing fad, I think it’s fair to say that up to this point 3D films have, as a whole, thrived at the box office in large part due to their element of deviation, and even if 3D is here to stay, the newness and unusualness of 3D absolutely has an expiration date. Thus, while the parade of commercials for 3D TVs this past holiday season could signal the ingraining of 3D as an artistic norm (which is theoretically good for the 3D movement), it might also signal the demystification of 3D. And if that sounds like it’s simply a concern for marketers trying to coax people to the multiplex, I don’t think it is. Avatar, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Hugo each, in its own way, thrives on the delivery of an “alternate-world” experience that is diminished the closer that 3D gets to the norm. It stands to reason then that the more prevalent that 3D becomes, the less apparent its effect will be. And at that point the limitations of 3D might be what truly stands out.

The Adventures of Tintin

EH: I agree that there’s a certain novelty factor to 3D, which is why the technology has gone through such dramatic cycles of hype and disinterest. Maybe that cycle will be different this time, maybe 3D will be here to stay, but history makes me doubt it. Part of the cyclic appeal of 3D comes from the idea, instilled largely by marketing and hype, that 3D is somehow more “immersive” than plain old 2D film. This is patently false—we’ve already mentioned some of the ways in which 3D is actually less immersive—but it’s nevertheless an appealing concept to a lot of filmmakers and viewers. Particularly with mainstream blockbusters and action movies, the idea of greater immersion has often been touted as a feature of both 3D and IMAX, sometimes even in combination with one another for some kind of mind-blowing ultimate immersion experience.

This obsession with immersion can be connected to the sci-fi promise of virtual reality, which would be the ultimate form of immersive entertainment. Some prophets of 3D would have us believe that the recent incarnation of the technology is a step forward, a baby step on the path towards the eventual realization of truly virtual reality media, but I just don’t buy it. Even if we assume that total immersion is a desirable goal, which I’m not at all sure it is, 3D can provide only an approximation of such immersion, and a rather unconvincing one at that. 3D never makes me think, “Wow, Tintin is actually in the theater with me,” because the effect is so artificial, relying on a quirk of human vision to create an illusion of depth. 2D movies have varying levels of immersion, too, in part because certain directors want viewers to forget they’re watching a movie and focus on the story and characters, while more formalist and self-conscious directors deliberately break immersion with stylistic maneuvers. But that’s a deliberate stylistic choice, and directors working in 2D have the freedom to make those choices, while whenever 3D does anything more than provide the kind of subtle depth cues that Spielberg mostly sticks to in Tintin, the audience is unavoidably going to be aware of the device.

That’s why I still think that 3D is a fairly limited stylistic tool. It’s not especially versatile: either things are flying out of the screen for sensationalist rollercoaster-like thrills, or the effect is barely noticeable. And often, when it is noticeable, it’s for all the wrong reasons. One shot in Tintin that stuck out for me was an image of Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel) singing, in which she’s at the center of the frame, while off to the left the blurry arm of an audience member juts out of the screen in the foreground. The shot should be directing all attention towards Bianca as she performs, but instead there’s this ugly, out-of-focus appendage that’s being jammed into my peripheral vision and distracting me. The composition is perfectly balanced in 2D, giving the impression that the shot is taken from the vantage point of an audience member listening to the concert, while the 3D is ridiculous.

The Adventures of Tintin

JB: I’m glad you brought up Tintin, although it’s probably telling that we haven’t discussed it much to this point: it’s an action-packed movie that’s unbelievably unexciting. But that’s no fault of the visuals. Although I have no doubt that scattered throughout the movie there are several moments like the one you just identified in which objects are distractingly out of focus, for the most part the 3D compositions are rich with color and texture, dramatically lit, thoughtfully arranged and cleverly staged. The hitch in the movie’s giddy-up is that these incredible visual spectacles aren’t rooted in any sort of emotional investment or dramatic consequence, which is a sin I didn’t think the oh-so-sentimental Spielberg was capable of committing.

Part of the problem is probably the screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, which seems to assume an emotional investment in the main character per the comic book series that most members of the audience are unlikely to have. But the biggest snag is the motion-capture/digital animation format, which on the one hand frees Spielberg to stage wildly elaborate action sequences without “cuts” but on the other hand neuters the power of some of Spielberg’s signature shots, among them “The Spielberg Face,” a term explored by Kevin B. Lee in his recent (and terrific) video essay. Tintin seems to be evidence that Spielberg needs real eyes to gaze into to find emotion. Or maybe the movie just doesn’t slow down long enough to be “about” anything other than the frenetic action sequence of the moment, leaving Tintin to play out like some digital tribute mashup to all the action sequences Spielberg has shot to this point or ever hoped to do. Either one.

To echo something you said near the start of this discussion, what’s interesting to me about Tintin is that while I was constantly delighted by the movie’s compositions, in particular its use of color, I was almost never consciously aware of its 3D. To some degree, I’m sure that’s a product of my slow but steady acclimation to that visual format; Tintin was my fourth 3D experience in about a one-month span. But even if the subtlety of the 3D can be considered a filmmaking triumph, a sign that the effect can be applied inoffensively, accentuating but not dominating our experience, the inherent drawback is this: in memory, nothing about Tintin is “in 3D,” not more so than any 2D movie, at least, and that’s damning. When I reflect on Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the first image I recall is a shot in which the cave floor, littered with bone fragments and other debris, extends up and “away” from us, creating perhaps the most “authentic” 3D effect I’ve yet to encounter. And when I think of Hugo, I picture the aforementioned diorama effect of Méliès toy shop, or the way the dust particles in the train station twinkle in the foreground of several shots. But Tintin? I remember the fun shootout on the boat at night, which recalls a similar scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or the shots of Tintin flying a biplane into an enormous storm, but in my memory those scenes play out like standard 2D movie sequences. And while that isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing, the fleeting impact of the 3D effects does invite the question of whether the 3D had any significant immediate impact whatsoever. Maybe the 3D in Tintin is just “there.”

The Adventures of Tintin

EH: That’s my feeling as well. And while I can’t really disagree with anything you say about Tintin, I think I do have somewhat warmer feelings towards the movie on the whole. The motion capture animation that the film uses is another technology, like 3D, that has made tremendous advances and improvements without quite overcoming its fundamental flaws, so all the human characters fall into the “uncanny valley” of being too realistic to register as a cartoon and too unreal to register as fully human. Motion capture has gotten better, and Tintin is probably the best I’ve ever seen the style look, but it’s still distracting, as well as being an especially poor substitute for the elegant, artful linework of Hergé, the master cartoonist whose work Spielberg is adapting here. Even so, as an adaptation of this great source material, Spielberg does a fine job of capturing the gentle humor and boyish glee of the intrepid boy reporter as he careens around the world on his adventures, and a somewhat lesser job of capturing the subtle, elusive emotional subtexts that often glide through the comics.

That might be okay, though. Spielberg’s Tintin is unrelentingly kinetic and intense, barreling through one grand set piece after another. This approach reaches overkill levels towards the end of the picture with an epic duel between dock cranes, which is too much, too soon after the adrenaline rush pleasures of the seemingly unending chase sequence through Bagghar. Before the crane duel, though, the film is unceasingly thrilling and fun, whether Spielberg’s cramming in character humor—Nick Frost and Simon Pegg’s Thomson and Thompson are note-perfect, as is the cameo by Bianca Castafiore—or unleashing one great action scene after another. I can see why some would complain that the film is emotionally empty, but for my part I appreciate that Spielberg made such a well-paced, exhilarating action flick without sentimentalizing the source material.

As you say, though, whatever else Tintin is, it plays in memory—and often even while it’s on—as a 2D movie. That’s certainly not the case with Hugo, a much more complex and emotionally compelling movie that’s also far more aggressive in its application of 3D. If 3D is to have a future, it’s not going to be with movies like Tintin, which use the effect mostly unobtrusively but also unimpressively. Although I’m still ambivalent about 3D, and on the whole I won’t mind if the fad once more dies out (as unlikely as that seems at the moment), I will say that movies like Hugo or Cave of Forgotten Dreams alternately impress and annoy me with their 3D effects, but at least they really embrace the technology wholeheartedly and do something bold with it.

The Adventures of Tintin

JB: My guess is you’ll see more of that, because I don’t think 3D is going away anytime soon. There were reports over the summer that the allure of 3D at the box office had waned, but I doubt that means much. First of all, the modern 3D craze can be drawn back to Cameron’s Avatar, which was a record-setting hit, so of course interest was going to fall from there. More importantly, I haven’t seen any reports that convince me the failing movies in question would have done better in plain old 2D. (Readers: If I’m wrong about this, please provide links.) Regardless, there’s just too much money to be made in 3D right now, which is why Beauty and the Beast just came back in 3D, following in the paw prints of The Lion King over the summer, and the Star Wars movies will come back to the big screen in 3D later this year, and so will Titanic. I suspect that these enormously popular 2D films could be return-engagement hits in their original formats if they were marketed just as aggressively, but so long as a 3D ticket costs more, 3D creates the greater chance for big profits while giving marketers an excuse to pass off old as new.

Then there’s this: since Cameron’s Terminator 2 and Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in the early 1990s, the highest grossing movies of any year have predominantly been adventure-based CGI spectacles. I don’t want to imply that all of those movies were empty cash grabs, but Hollywood was already deeply entrenched in the practice of equating scale with awesomeness, and 3D fits into that business model much too neatly to be discarded. Thus, I fear the only way that 3D would really, truly go away would be if audiences completely gave up on the format, making a statement with their wallets, which is difficult to do when many multiplexes don’t offer a 2D equivalent or make those screenings so limited that they are difficult to attend. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the big-name directors refused to work in the format, because otherwise Hollywood has even the 3D-averse cinephiles by the balls. (Why did I see Hugo and Tintin in 3D? Two reasons: Scoresese and Spielberg.)

No doubt, many of us will keep bitching about 3D for as long as it hangs around, while others shrug and accept it. At the moment, I feel somewhere between those two poles. The only thing that would make me “want” to see a 3D movie would be curiosity about how a great filmmaker would use it, and yet I find the witch-hunt against 3D to be mostly silly and hypocritical. It was by embracing the new that motion pictures came along in the first place and then added sound and color, which no one seems to be protesting these days. Make no mistake, I don’t view 3D as some natural evolutionary state of cinema by any means. But I predict it will remain in our future, even if I don’t think it’s the future. All of which means that 3D flicks like Hugo and The Adventures of Tintin will start to feel as ubiquitous as superhero movies. Now there’s a genre of filmmaking that needs to go away!

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema. He can also be found on Twitter.

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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.

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The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Photo: Focus World
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’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 decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’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 “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins


Them

50. Them (2006)

Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’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 film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams


Black Death

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 Smith’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 it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager


The Invitation

48. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’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 Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’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


Midsommar

47. Midsommar (2019)

Anybody who’s seen Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. From early on, there’s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the film’s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cult’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 family—one more psychologically robust than Aster’s similarly themed Hereditary. And it’s also very funny. Pat Brown


Mulholland Drive

46. Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch’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 Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’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 us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Ed Gonzalez


Sinister

45. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—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 format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—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


Maniac

44. Maniac (2012)

Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’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 maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—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 Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez


Depraved

43. Depraved (2019)

What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’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 “monster,” 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 hasn’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


28 Days Later

42. 28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle’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 “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” 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 King’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 who’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


Piranha 3D

41. Piranha 3D (2010)

Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’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. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager

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Review: Zombieland: Double Tap Shrugs Toward the End of the World

Behind the film’s self-awareness and irony is a hollow emotional core.

1.5

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Zombieland: Double Tap
Photo: Columbia Pictures

“Double tap,” the belated Zombieland sequel’s namesake, refers to the rule of shooting a zombie more than once in order to ensure that it’s dead. Like the rest of the rules devised by the series’s dweebish protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), it’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 it’s also because self-awareness doesn’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 that’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. She’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. They’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 film’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 “jealous girlfriend” 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 isn’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

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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.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’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 sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—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 now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—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, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’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 “true story” 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 she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’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, Phillip’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 character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.

The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’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 brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’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 princess’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 that’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 Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center

By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.

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Tell Me Who I Am
Photo: Netflix

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 couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’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 “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ 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 Jill’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 Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ 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. It’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 don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ 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. It’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 Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ 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 Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’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 brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’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 who’d rather keep it buried.

That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—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, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’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

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’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 film’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.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’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 taxidermists’ 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. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’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 taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’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 “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” 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 medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’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 fashion—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 Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—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

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Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence

Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.

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Trick
Photo: RLJE Films

In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’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 clichés.

Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’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 bottle—played with a knife—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 Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’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 film’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: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”

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. He’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 fuck—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 ultraviolence—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

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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’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, “We don’t stop here,” 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. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’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 weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’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 Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’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 he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’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 Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’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 Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” 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 Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today 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 I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’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. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’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 “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’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 can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’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.

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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

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’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 Solivérès) 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 Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—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, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (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 film’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 Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’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 (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’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 Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café 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 Love’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 brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’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 Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, 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

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

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 that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’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 that’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 isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’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 they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’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 we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” 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 film’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, D’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

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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.

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The Cave
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Feras Fayyad’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. Astrup’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’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. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’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 who’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 hospital’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. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’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 she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’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 she’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, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’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 people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’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 hospital’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 film’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

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