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The Conversations: Barry Lyndon

I suspect the biggest reason Barry Lyndon is overlooked is because of its slow, deliberate, drawn-out pace and, this is crucial, its lack of a signature moment.

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The Conversations: Barry Lyndon

Jason Bellamy: Both in chronology and in tone, Barry Lyndon is Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic middle child. Sandwiched between more provocative films like Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Barry Lyndon is comparatively subdued, straightforward and introverted. Overlooked, too. Released in 1975 to less than breathtaking box office figures and only slightly more enthusiastic reviews, the film has since gained a considerable amount of praise and respect, yet it remains somewhat underground. Part of Barry Lyndon’s relative anonymity is due to its surroundings: one mountain amongst a mighty range, all too easily ignored in the vast panorama of Kubrick’s achievements. Part is attributable to the self-perpetuating cycle of anonymity (I suspect Barry Lyndon might be the most unseen of the Kubrick films I mentioned above, making it difficult to attain grassroots popularity). Part might even be attributable to the film’s unsexy poster, which became its unsexy VHS/DVD cover. (Back in the day when folks used to browse Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, which cover do you think popped off the shelf: this one or this one?) But I suspect the biggest reason Barry Lyndon is overlooked is because of its slow, deliberate, drawn-out pace and, this is crucial, its lack of a signature moment.

What I mean by the latter is that Barry Lyndon, so far as I can tell, has no iconic image or quote or scene or plot twist. Based on the 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, and adapted for the screen by Kubrick himself, Barry Lyndon tells the story of a man who thirsts for love and loses it, thirsts for wealth and finds it, thirsts for status and nearly attains it, and then loses it all. It’s the story of a man who engages in duels, war, cons and affairs. And yet despite all that action, despite all that conflict, Barry Lyndon unfolds with astonishing evenness. I wouldn’t say it’s an emotional flatline, because that would imply lifelessness, but it’s certainly an atypically level film. Almost monotonously so. While Howard Hawks said that a good film is three good scenes and no bad ones, Barry Lyndon might be described as a long film with no great scenes and no bad ones. If that sounds like an insult, I don’t mean it to. Rather, it’s an attempt to capture the feeling of watching this film. As Martin Scorsese said of Barry Lyndon, “People didn’t get it when it came out. Many still don’t. Basically, in one exquisitely beautiful image after another, you’re watching the progress of a man as he moves from the purest innocence to the coldest sophistication, ending in absolute bitterness—and it’s all a matter of simple, elemental survival.” In many ways, Barry Lyndon is a simple, elemental film, too, is it not?

Ed Howard: I don’t know about “simple,” but there’s no doubt that Barry Lyndon looks, on the surface, like an uncharacteristically direct film from Kubrick, and your list of the films that preceded and followed this one in his filmography emphasizes how strangely this period piece character study sits within the context of his career. But appearances can be deceiving. The film opens with a few indications that this is not the staid period piece it sometimes might seem to be. The detached irony of the narration subtly tweaks the conventions of the historical epic right from the start, highlighting the absurdity of the duel where Barry’s father dies, an early foreshadowing of Barry’s own future fate. Soon after, Kubrick further announces his sense of humor when, during a scene of Barry and his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) silently, sullenly playing cards, the narrator drolly intones, “First love, what a change it makes in a lad.” It’s a joke worthy of Woody Allen, introducing a wryly ironic disconnect between words and images that makes the film complex, satirical and multilayered more than simple or elemental—especially when it later becomes clear just what changes this love will cause in Barry’s life.

That said, your point that the film doesn’t have any scenes that really stand out is confirmed by my own experience with it. Until recently, I last saw Barry Lyndon over a decade ago, when I was going through a big Kubrick phase, like I suspect a lot of young cinephiles do. Though I know I liked it at the time, going into this conversation I can’t say I remembered a single concrete scene. What had stayed with me from the film, it turned out, was an overall mood, an aura: languid, beautiful, melancholy. The lighting stayed with me long after the plot had evaporated from my mind. Kubrick shot the film in predominantly natural light for both exteriors and interiors, and the effect is striking, particularly in the indoor scenes where the frame is bathed in the flickering golden glow of candles.

Most of Kubrick’s other films have scenes and images that are instantly recognizable and eminently quotable, sometimes to the detriment of the films as a whole, which threaten to be dwarfed by all the parodies and tributes to “Here’s Johnny” or the apes in 2001. Barry Lyndon doesn’t have any similarly iconic moments, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have affecting and powerful individual scenes. It just hasn’t passed into pop culture infamy the way so much of the rest of Kubrick’s work has. That only makes it easier to appreciate the film as a whole, as a unified work that has Kubrick’s characteristic dry wit, his formalist rigor, his slightly detached perspective on the sufferings of his characters. In other words, though Barry Lyndon seems in many superficial ways like a very atypical Kubrick film, an exception in a fairly cohesive career, it’s a lot less simple than it seems—and a lot more Kubrickian.

Barry Lyndon

JB: Absolutely. By calling it simple, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s simple-minded, or that it lacks in cinematic grandiosity. Indeed, if Barry Lyndon has a signature, it would be its breathtaking “natural” lighting. (It’s difficult to have a discussion about natural lighting without mentioning Barry Lyndon, and vice versa.) Visually, the film is striking and ornate—anyone with even a cursory understanding of the challenges of shooting with natural light can’t help but appreciate its mastery—and yet Barry Lyndon is also, well, natural. Whereas Terrence Malick, another fan of shooting in natural light, spends a considerable amount of time in the magic hour, and Wong Kar-wai has a penchant for deeply saturated images and Yasujio Ozu’s films are rigidly composed, Barry Lyndon doesn’t exist in quite the same state of heightened reality. It’s an anachronistically clean period piece (as so many are), one in which the costumes always seem freshly cleaned and pressed, as if mud and wrinkles didn’t exist in the 18th century. But beyond that, the visual allure feels surprisingly organic, as if Kubrick has discovered a world where, day or night, indoors or out, at play or at war, exquisite beauty is inescapable.

That said, the precision of Kubrick’s cinematography is unmistakable, too. An inordinate number of the film’s compositions put the focal point of the action in the dead center of the frame. And of course Barry Lyndon is also full of Kubrick’s familiar slow pans and zooms (forward and reverse). In those respects, Barry Lyndon is quite Kubrickian. And then, as you mentioned, there’s the film’s detached tone. As he often does, Roger Ebert summed it up perfectly in his Great Movies essay: “[Barry Lyndon] is certainly in every frame a Kubrick film: technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness. … Barry Lyndon is aggressive in its cool detachment. It defies us to care, it asks us to remain only observers of its stately excellence.”

Later, Ebert asks: “How many directors would have had Kubrick’s confidence in taking this ultimately inconsequential story of a man’s rise and fall, and realizing it in a style that dictates our attitude toward it? We don’t simply see Kubrick’s movie, we see it in the frame of mind he insists on—unless we’re so closed to the notion of directorial styles that the whole thing just seems like a beautiful extravagance (which it is). There is no other way to see Barry than the way Kubrick sees him.” So let’s build on that. Ed, how does Kubrick see Barry Lyndon?

Barry Lyndon

EH: That’s a very apt question. Kubrick has, I think, a very strong attitude about Barry. There’s ambiguity and subtlety in Barry Lyndon, but nevertheless Kubrick does seem to have a very particular attitude that he wants to communicate about his main character—and indeed about all the characters in this film. Though this attitude is apparent throughout, I think it’s most obvious in the succinct “epilogue,” a sentence of onscreen text that sums up the film’s thrust perfectly. Such textual codas are often (lazily) used to track the progress of characters after the film’s action ends, but in this case Kubrick’s narrator has already noted that there is nothing further to say about Barry’s adventures after the film’s final image of him, limping into a carriage with one leg, fated to disappear into a long, sad decline.

Instead of wrapping up loose ends, the epilogue provides an elegantly stated moral takeaway: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.” That’s the key to the film, and to Kubrick’s attitude about Barry. It’s a radical historical perspective that upturns all the artificial distinctions and boundaries raised by society and emphasizes the common humanity of all these people, most of them cruel and petty and greedy and foolish, whatever their class or background. They fight and scrape for some material rewards, for a noble title or riches, for the esteem granted by a lordship or a fancy estate, but they are all forgotten by time regardless. They all die and once in the ground there’s nothing to distinguish the lords from the low-born, the kings from the con men, the sophisticated ladies from the farmers’ wives.

In that respect, Barry Lyndon is the story of a man’s wasted life. To answer your question, Kubrick sees Barry as a foolish man who never managed to grasp what’s really important in life. He spends his whole life pursuing material rewards, claiming to be taking the long view—he desires security and comfort for his beloved son—but really existing in a very shortsighted manner. The film is about how petty and inconsequential life can be if we allow it to be, and about the folly of living with an eye towards posterity. In the pursuit of wealth and social status, Barry never seems to realize just how miserable his life has become. Kubrick is a master of depicting boredom and ugliness, and the nearly silent scenes of Barry and his wife endlessly shuffling papers and settling bills capture the emptiness of a life devoted exclusively to the material. The film’s epilogue negates everything else that happens in the film; it’s as though Kubrick is underlining just how little anything Barry does really matters in any larger sense. Kubrick sees Barry as a tragic figure, and the tragedy is not so much that he doesn’t get what he wants, but that even if he had gotten it, it wouldn’t have meant much, it wouldn’t have made his life full or meaningful.

Barry Lyndon

JB: I think that’s quite right, provided we recognize that Barry does wind up finding momentary fulfillment in being a father—perhaps the one thing he didn’t yearn for as a young man—only to have that meaningfulness taken away from him. While I wholly agree that the epilogue does well to illustrate Kubrick’s view of Barry, there’s a two-shot sequence late in the film that is equally telling, and nearly as succinct.

After Barry loses his composure and beats his stepson, which causes him to lose his fortune and social standing, Kubrick cuts from a slow reverse zoom of Barry and his son (David Morley’s Bryan) quietly fishing together in a small rowboat to a fairly tight shot of father and son sitting together and reading. It’s an intimate shot: a book on Bryan’s lap and Bryan on Barry’s lap. Together they flip through the pages and speak in whispered tones, Barry’s smile broad and warm, their mutual affection unmistakable. After a few seconds, Kubrick cuts to a wide shot of the same tableau. There are Barry and Bryan, like before, but now the intimacy of their moment is contrasted by the ornateness of their surroundings. The wide shot reveals that Barry and Bryan are sitting on a couch perhaps 15 feet long, in front of a rug that’s just as wide, beneath a painting that’s just as tall. And yet the massive room they’re sitting in feels, if anything, underfurnished. This shot, for me, illustrates the emptiness of all of Barry’s previous pursuits better than any other. Barry spends the film looking for wealth and status, but in truth all he needed to be happy was a small bit of quiet space in which to be a father to an adoring son.

The great tragedy is that Barry never seems to realize this. Except when he’s playing father to Bryan, Barry is a man without a genuine identity. He begins the film as an Irishman named Redmond Barry and soon is fighting for the British, eluding his scandalous past. He then escapes his military service and briefly plays husband to a German woman he meets during his flight. He then comes across some Prussian officers and pretends to be a British lieutenant. He’s then exposed as a fraud and ends up in a Prussian soldier’s uniform instead. He’s then sent to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari, at which time he’s told to pose as a Hungarian, but instead he admits his Irish roots to the chevalier and becomes a double-agent, meanwhile posing as a simple butler to help the chevalier cheat at cards. Barry then poses as the chevalier in order that the two might escape Prussian surveillance and continue their cons indefinitely. Finally, he meets and marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Barenson) and thus becomes Barry Lyndon.

Near the start of the film’s second chapter, Barry sits in the back of a carriage with Lady Lyndon, smoking on a pipe with a smug expression on his face that exhibits his pride over fooling all of those around him. But mostly he’s fooling himself. In the carriage directly behind Barry rides his stepson who sees his mother’s new husband for exactly what he is: “a common opportunist.” Barry might accept opportunist, but he wants to be anything but common. It’s not enough to spoil Bryan rotten; Barry regales his young son with stories of his heroism in war, spinning a clearly bullshit tale in which he’s the first man over the wall before cutting off the heads of 19 men while wounding several others. Bryan loves the tale so much that he requests it on his deathbed. And thus Barry’s fraudulence extends into the one thing in his life that was otherwise pure: his love of his son.

Barry Lyndon

EH: Yes, it does, and one of the curious things about the movie is that for some time Barry is defrauding even the audience, at least in part because Kubrick keeps Barry’s motivations and thoughts somewhat hidden and obscure. Barry’s pursuit of Lady Lyndon is probably the turning point in that respect. His courtship of her initially appears as sincere to the audience as it presumably does to the woman herself. Barry seems genuinely fascinated with her and attracted to her, pursuing her during a card game and keeping constant company with her thereafter. Although the narrator makes some typically snarky remarks about Barry continuing his rise in the world and gaining advantage through his intimacy with the lady, there is otherwise very little hint that this is anything other than a romance, albeit one that takes place largely offscreen.

The wedding helps to disintegrate those romantic notions, because it’s staged as such a joyless affair, with Kubrick’s characteristic flat affect and ironic distance. The preacher, with a bland and expressionless face, drily recounts all the church-sanctioned justifications for marriage, but love doesn’t enter into the equation. Instead, he suggests that marriage is important mainly as a “defense against sin,” a way to avoid fornication, which in a very different way is as utilitarian and unsentimental a view of marriage as Barry’s own perspective on it. And then the carriage ride exposes the true nature of Barry’s ambition: having achieved his goal of wooing and marrying Lady Lyndon, he lets the mask drop, both to her and to the film’s audience, by coolly blowing smoke in her face while the narrator informs us that Barry soon views his wife as little more than decorative furniture. Like Barry’s new wife, only then do we really grasp the full extent of Barry’s emptiness and deception, only then do we realize just what kind of a man he actually is.

Shortly after this scene, Kubrick cuts from Barry and Lady Lyndon in bed, cradling their newborn son—“her ladyship presented Barry with a son,” is the narrator’s stiff, emotionless way of putting it—directly to Barry in the midst of an orgy, making out with a pair of topless girls. Kubrick then cuts back to Barry’s wife lying with her older son resting his head on her shoulder and her new baby in a cradle that she’s distractedly rocking. Both Lady Lyndon and her son look narcotized and distant, staring blankly past the camera without seeming to see anything. The composition is static and still, with only one of Kubrick’s slow backwards tracking shots introducing some movement into the frame, pulling away from the figures to enhance the sense of absence and emotional deadness. The narration juxtaposes Lady Lyndon’s zombie-like demeanor against Barry’s belief that she should be taking joy in the raising of her sons while Barry concerns himself with society and pleasure. By this point, Barry, who started out as an unfortunate young man struggling to better himself, has become the villain of his own story.

Barry Lyndon

JB: He’s become the villain, yes, but it’s important to note that he’s never the hero. Over the first half of the picture, Barry is repeatedly shown to be a fool—and his foolishness is exacerbated by his lack of self-awareness (he doesn’t realize he’s a fool). It all begins with that early scene of Barry playing cards with his cousin Nora, for whom he has a crush. The narrator suggests that love flows “instinctively from a man…like a bird sings,” but not for Barry. Nora stuffs a ribbon in her cleavage and urges Barry to find and remove it, saying she’ll think very little of him if he doesn’t, but Barry is so intimidated by the moment that he gives up without trying. Only when Nora takes his hand and places it on her breast does Barry locate the ribbon, but even then he can’t quite find his manhood. At this point, Nora notes that Barry’s hand is trembling, and when he suggests that it’s due to excitement, not fear, Nora calls him on it. “You’re a liar,” she says, and as she bends down to kiss him, Barry closes his eyes and waits submissively.

It’s a testament to Barry’s foolishness that his uncle arranges to con him through a fake duel with Captain Quin (Leonard Rossiter) in order to get him out of the way. And it’s further testament to Barry’s foolishness that Captain Feeny (Arthur O’Sullivan) so quickly sizes him up as a ripe target for a robbery. But the best evidence of Barry’s ineptitude is found in his interactions with Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger). We can tell from their first meeting, when Barry says he’s riding toward a town that in fact is behind him, that he’s in over his head, but Barry’s deception fully unravels later on, in a private candlelit conversation with Potzdorf in which Barry seems to think he has the upper hand. What’s telling isn’t that Barry is exposed as liar, imposter and deserter, it’s how he’s exposed, through what the narrator describes as a combination of “questions and flattery.” Essentially, Barry is so full of himself that when Potzdorf says that all he knows of England is that it’s the “bravest country in the world, and that we’re really lucky to have such allies,” Barry doesn’t detect that he’s being led on. Indeed, even when Potzdorf summons a sergeant to perform an arrest, Barry momentarily believes he can still talk his way out of the jam; up until then, he’s found himself quite convincing.

Of course, later on, Barry will indeed con Potzdorf, with the guidance of the Chevalier de Balibari. And he’ll con Lady Lyndon. And he’ll con his son with stories of heroism in war. So Barry isn’t completely lacking in cleverness. But his weakness is his inflated self-perception. He’s so convinced that he’s a man of intelligence, grace and stature that he assumes everyone around him thinks so, too.

Barry Lyndon

EH: Barry is a paragon of self-deception, and at the heart of this deception is a popular democratic ideal that he’s fully internalized, the idea of class mobility. Barry, for all his faults and follies, is a real believer in the possibility of advancement; he’s an American-style social striver in an earlier era and another continent, who thinks that he can force himself upwards from poverty and ruin to the highest strata of society. In that sense, Barry isn’t just a fool or a villain—he’s also a victim. A victim, primarily, of a social structure in which his ambitions and his ideals would be impossible to realize even if he had gone about things in a more intelligent manner. Kubrick isn’t just crafting a portrait of a fool, which would be all too easy. He’s suggesting that Barry’s particular brand of foolishness is a symptom of a society that restricts the opportunities of the lower classes at every opportunity.

Barry learns this lesson most ruinously when he contrives to earn a title for himself through bribery and flattery, believing that he can propel himself into a lordship and earn the respect and status he so desperately wants. Instead, he destroys his wife’s fortune for naught, setting up the devastating sequence of tragedies in the film’s final act. It’s telling that when Barry assembles a troop of soldiers to fight in the Americas, hoping to impress the English king, the blunt, somewhat sarcastic response is that he should gather more troops and go fight himself. To the end, Barry is seen as good enough to be a soldier but not to be a lord. Earlier in the film, the scenes of Barry at war, first with the English army and then with the Prussians, establish that these wars are motivated by upper-class concerns, rooted in the interests of lords and kings, but fought by the poor, by criminals and conscripts. The armies are assembled by force and trickery: some people are literally kidnapped from their homes and forced into duty, while others are offered some small amount of money to serve in the (slim) hope of escaping poverty. When Barry is recruited into the army, the recruiter says that they need new men to replace those who have retired with a pension, a laughable and transparent ruse. But Barry, always a fool, and with few enough prospects anyway, truly believes that the army will be his route out of poverty, his first step towards respectability and prestige.

One crucial battle of Barry’s brief but bloody military career is a skirmish over a section of road that the English army wants to cross. As the narrator says, this is not the kind of epic battle that the history books immortalize. It is a petty, insignificant exchange, a fight over a small strip of land of dubious importance, one with little ultimate impact except for the men who die during its course. Kubrick’s compositions emphasize the absurdity of this style of battle, as the English soldiers march solidly forward towards the enemy lines, not breaking ranks as the enemy fires on them, many men dropping to the ground with each barrage as the men next to them continue marching forward without even looking around them. Kubrick maintains a characteristic stoic distance that emphasizes just how meaningless any individual life is in the midst of this absurd, anti-human war machine. Men fall and die and their comrades simply step over them, eyes locked straight ahead on the enemy, marching towards death with the determination of men whose lives aren’t valued any higher than the cost of a bullet. Barry, through some outrageous luck and his own oversized ambition, eventually does transcend this low level, but in a deeper sense he never quite escapes this devaluation of his life and his worth. Even when he is being honored by the Prussian army, the officer who presents him with his award can’t resist delivering a speech about what an anomaly his bravery was, about how Barry remains low class trash in spite of his achievements. Actions don’t matter nearly as much as origins. That’s the dominant ideology of this society, and though Barry occasionally manages to circumvent its rigid boundaries, they will ultimately suffocate him.

Barry Lyndon

JB: Considering all that we’ve said about Barry thus far, it’s probably past time for discussing the actor who plays him: Ryan O’Neal. It’s certainly an interesting casting choice, perhaps more so in retrospect than at the time, and that’s saying something. When Barry Lyndon was released in 1975, O’Neal had been a regular on TV’s Peyton Place, and he’d starred in one of the most successful modern romances in cinema history, 1970’s Love Story, so he was hardly anonymous, but I’m not sure there was anything about his early career that suggested that he was on the path to playing complex leading men—although perhaps I’m letting my awareness of O’Neal’s post-Barry Lyndon roles overly influence that analysis. In any case, I think it’s safe to say that O’Neal’s performance here is an outlier in his career, a rare opportunity to work with strong material and a talented director.

That said, despite the fact that Barry Lyndon is almost always thought of as a Kubrickian achievement, I think O’Neal’s performance is one of its great strengths. O’Neal is what you might call memorably forgettable here. By that I mean that it’s impossible to think of Barry Lyndon without thinking about O’Neal, because indeed O’Neal’s character is the focal point of nearly every scene in a lengthy film that even by title alone announces itself as a one-man character study, and yet O’Neal’s Barry doesn’t dominate our consciousness as a distinct character. He isn’t Charles Foster Kane, or Michael Corleone, or T.E. Lawrence, or Daniel Plainview; indeed, Barry often feels like the supporting player in his own film. Opposite Nora, Quin, Potzdorf, his stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) and so on, our attention is repeatedly drawn to those opposite him.

Barry is a blank. I’m not an actor, but I suspect that’s much harder to play than it seems. O’Neal isn’t totally without big acting moments—his brawl with his stepson and his tearful exchange with his dying son leap to mind—but for the most part his performance is quiet, reserved, inward, even when Barry is puffing out his chest with pride or arrogance. It’s an approach that serves the character well, underlining Barry’s lack of original character, right down to that light Irish accent that sounds as if Barry was never fully invested in his roots. O’Neal is, in essence, an actor playing an actor. And what’s remarkable is that while Barry is always in the midst of a performance, O’Neal never seems to be.

Barry Lyndon

EH: O’Neal’s unshowy performance is indeed another example of this film’s admirable restraint. In terms of performances, O’Neal’s portrayal of Barry reminds me very much of Tom Cruise’s turn as the similarly blank, unsympathetic Dr. Bill in Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Barry and Bill are both intentionally flat protagonists whose emotional range is rather stunted, and who seem rather clueless and lost when faced with the realization that they are not, in fact, the centers of their respective universes. Like Bill, over the course of this film Barry must come to terms with a cruel world that foils all his plans and continually shatters his illusion of himself as a strong, clever schemer. Both Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon are Kubrick’s stabs at masculine pride, though the two films go about tearing down their male archetypes in very different fashions.

If Eyes Wide Shut is all about male identity as defined by sex, Barry Lyndon is about worldly masculine ambition, the desire for power and money. That’s because Bill has accomplished the ideal that Barry can only haplessly reach for: Bill is rich and successful, his life furnished with all the conventional signifiers of status and prestige. Bill doesn’t need to grasp for a higher status the way Barry does, but the fact that he’s still striving for something more, that he still feels unfulfilled, suggests that this is a neverending quest. Bill is a Barry-like figure who has attained what he thought he wanted and now channels his unquenchable desire into sexuality, desperately trying to feel fulfilled in the same way that Barry is continually setting new goals for himself in his one-step-forward-two-steps-back attempts to climb the social ladder. In contrast to Bill, who is engulfed by sexuality everywhere he turns, Barry, with the exception of his supposedly genuine feelings for Nora, seems ambivalent about sex. He pursues the lovely Lady Lyndon but as soon as he has her he wants very little to do with her. Sex is a means to an end for Barry; he defines himself not by his sexuality but by his ambition, by his desire for social and economic status. Bill, who has the social and economic success that Barry craves, instead feels inadequate in his sexuality. It’s as though these blank-faced, remote men are yawning voids who feel a profound absence in their lives and attempt to fill it with whatever they think is missing. If they achieve success in one area, it only makes them aware of what they lack elsewhere.

Barry Lyndon

JB: It might be a bit misleading to suggest that Barry is ambivalent about sex, considering that once he’s married we see him cavorting with a few women not his wife. Barry uses sex as a means to an end with Lady Lyndon, sure, but he also seems to view wanton extramarital sex as a status symbol—although I agree it’s a desire for status, not for sex itself, that seems to give Barry his hard-on. Of course, broadly speaking, you’re correct that Barry is seeking to gain the same kind of status and prestige that Bill already has in Eyes Wide Shut. The biggest difference between those two lead characters is that while both of them operate as if they are the center of their universe, and while both of them are surprised whenever someone around them sees them as anything less than that, Barry knows exactly what he wants, while Bill spends the majority of Eyes Wide Shut more or less pretending to himself that he knows what he wants. (Bill, too, is actually driven by something other than sex itself: a need to reassure himself that he can have whatever he wants, thus living up to the status he has achieved.)

Certainly Barry is the center of this film’s universe, and yet we’re constantly reminded of his smallness, his insignificance. And that leads us to perhaps the second most significant “character” in this film: the narrator. It’s impossible for me to imagine how Barry Lyndon would function without “him.” Voiced by Michael Hordern, the narration has a children’s storybook quality that on first viewing conjured in my mind images of Winnie the Pooh and the 100 Acre Wood. (Turns out I wasn’t far off: Hordern eventually went on to narrate a TV adaptation of Paddington Bear.) The narration is quaint, soothing, sympathetic, and yet at the same time it can be wry and critical, commenting on the action in a way that provides necessary context or sharpens our focus. It’s often argued that filmmakers should strive to “show not tell” the thoughts and emotions of their characters, but Barry Lyndon is a film that finds a happy marriage doing both. The narration never serves as a replacement for portrayal, it simply enhances it, allowing Kubrick to impart great emotional depth into scenes that, due to the story’s broad and episodic nature, often have very little opportunity for physical build-up.

A terrific example is the scene in which Barry first meets the Chevalier de Balibari, having been sent by Potzdorf as a spy. Barry isn’t supposed to know English, but once in the presence of the chevalier, Barry is overcome by the chevalier’s regal appearance and nobility, and by an accent that reminds him of home, and he finds it impossible to continue with the charade. These details are imparted to us almost solely from the narration; Kubrick’s camera simply shows Barry’s pensive face. But through the combination of the narration and physical action, the scene delivers a sharp emotional punch. “Those who have never been out of their country know little what it is to hear a friendly voice in captivity,” the narrator says, as if admitting that even he is at a loss to explain completely the tearful scene that follows, when Barry drops his disguise and the chevalier consoles him. But in Barry’s pained face, we feel what the words can’t describe. In this scene and others, the narration is crucial to our basic understanding of what’s happening, and it’s also a key to a deeper understanding.

Barry Lyndon

EH: What I love about the narration in Barry Lyndon is that, as you say, it breaks what is often considered to be one of the central rules of screenwriting and writing in general: show, don’t tell. That idea is sometimes considered such a hard-and-fast rule that voiceovers are disparaged on principle, but here Kubrick demonstrates just how powerful and effective a voiceover, even or especially one that tells us outright what the characters are feeling, can be. The narrator is crucial to the film because he provides a perspective outside of Barry. The narrator, with his removed, quasi-omniscient perspective, is evidence that Barry’s delusion of himself as the center of the world is just that, a delusion. The narrator’s irony is necessary because it undermines Barry’s earnestness at every turn. Throughout his rise to high society, Barry keeps telling himself that he’ll never again allow himself to be lowered or prevented from attaining what he believes is his deserved status. But we only hear this through the narrator, whose wry, detached tones—and the repetition of this mantra after each of Barry’s failures—suggests just how ridiculous Barry is, just how distorted his vision of the world actually is.

If the film were narrated by Barry, or if Barry made his feelings known more directly, there would be no distance from Barry’s skewed perspective on his own life. The narrator allows Kubrick—and the audience—to observe Barry’s flounderings from a greater distance, to see his self-deceptions and blatant manipulations for what they are. We feel for Barry, but not in the same intimate way that we would in a film that was more closely aligned with his point of view. Instead, we’re encouraged not only to sympathize with Barry and to share his emotions, but to understand him; in that sense, you’re absolutely right, the voiceover is the path leading to a deeper understanding of Barry the man and the social forces that define and drive him. It strikes me that Woody Allen definitely took a page from Kubrick’s book when making Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which similarly uses a wry, detached voiceover to obliquely comment on the misguidedness of his characters’ strivings.

The narration isn’t the only way in which Kubrick undercuts Barry’s progress into high society. One of the funniest scenes in the film is the one where Barry, in a rage over his stepson Lord Bullingdon’s open insults, leaps onto the young man and beats him during a concert. Despite the strong emotions that provoke Barry’s actions, this is a comic set piece, as the assembled nobles go slipping and falling in an attempt to break the two men apart. One man slides across the floor towards the camera, and it ends with all the powdered wigs in a football pileup on top of Barry. This scene shares with the narration a wry tone that finds the comedy and the absurdity in emotions and incidents that are deadly serious for the people involved.

Barry Lyndon

JB: Barry’s attack on his stepson reminds me of Daniel Plainview’s brawl with Eli Sunday at the end of There Will Be Blood. It’s violent, terrifying, oversized and, yes, at the same time it’s hilariously absurd. Kubrick seems to delight in the sight of dandified men trying to mix it up in a scuffle, and so after Barry gets in a few licks, Kubrick hangs around to watch all the other men ineptly trying to break up the fight, giving us a broad shot full of wigs, powdered faces and stockings running up to the knee churning in a rugby pile of immaculately dressed men.

In addition to exposing Barry as a “common opportunist” in a nobleman’s clothing, Kubrick seems to be skewering the supposed nobility of the era at large. I mentioned earlier the scene in which Barry meets the chevalier, and that’s another good example. The narrator says that Barry was swayed by the “splendor” of the chevalier’s appearance and the “nobility” of his manner, but to our eyes there’s nothing striking about the chevalier whatsoever. His painted pink cheeks are especially clownish. The painted moles on his face seem randomly placed. And then there’s his eye patch. Splendor? Hardly. As for his manner, the chevalier seems less noble than spiritless, bored. This is what Barry finds glamorous? Why? Only a silly people—the kind of people who would give their young son a sheep-drawn carriage to ride on his birthday and then use that same sheep-drawn carriage as a hearse when the son dies—would dress and behave this way, Kubrick seems to be implying. And, furthermore, only an especially silly people would duel.

Barry Lyndon is punctuated by no less than three duels: the one that opens the film, in which Barry’s father is killed; the one that sends Barry on the lam, in which Barry appears to kill Captain Quin; and the one near the end of the film, in which Barry and Lord Bullingdon seem determined not to kill one another. Each scene has a slightly different mood—from swift and deadly to drawn out and inconsequential (relatively speaking)—but each scene highlights the absurdities of dueling, and thus the foolishness of any people who would partake in the ritual. In the first duel, the absurdity of the activity is made clear when the narrator notes that Barry’s father’s promising life was cut short because of something as trivial as “the sale of some horses.” The stakes are even more ridiculous in the second duel, between Barry and Captain Quin, because if Barry loses the duel he’s potentially dead, but by winning the duel he is cast out by the very family that he hoped to impress so that he might continue his love affair with his cousin; a true no-win situation. The greatest absurdity of this duel, though, turns out to be the revelation that Barry’s duel with Quin wasn’t a duel at all but a ruse designed to trick the ignorant youngster into leaving town.

As for the final duel, Kubrick milks it for all the tension he can: showing the guns being carefully loaded, observing the pre-duel coin-toss, watching the men take their places 10 paces apart, letting the referee’s instructions echo through the cavernous space, all while menacing strings and kettle drums of the score groan and pound in a steady rhythm. But there’s absurdity here, too, in the constantly cooing pigeons, in the accidental discharge of Lord Bullingdon’s gun and in the way Barry bravely and nobly faces his death only to be shot in the leg, leading to a lot of undignified moaning. You mentioned earlier the “all are equal now” epilogue, and sure enough there are clues throughout Barry Lyndon that this era, like this main character, wasn’t nearly as special, noble or otherwise impressive as the people within it seemed to believe.

Barry Lyndon

EH: The duels are indeed one of the primary vehicles for Kubrick’s satire of the “noble” class and their silly, artificial rules for living. As you say, the film opens with a duel, which immediately establishes the absurdity of staking one’s life over minor slights of “honor,” so that a life is erased in mere seconds. This absurdity calls into question the whole concept of honor as it’s understood by the society depicted in this film—duels as presented by Kubrick are not so much showcases for honor and nobility but evidence of fragile egos forced by convention to respond to even the slightest of imagined insults. Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript, released 10 years earlier, similarly skewers the aristocratic class for its eagerness to waste lives in petty duels: the main character remembers that his father once fought 10 duels in a single day in order to avoid an argument, a hilarious formulation that wouldn’t be at all out of place in Barry Lyndon.

The interesting thing about Kubrick’s approach to duels is that, as absurd and wasteful as he makes them seem, he doesn’t eliminate the genuine tension and emotion of these showdowns, at least in the two duels in which Barry takes part. When Barry faces Captain Quin, Kubrick emphasizes the fear and hesitance of the duelists, who quiver and tremble, barely disguising their terror at facing death. The romanticized ideal of dueling—stoic nobleman bravely staking their lives to maintain their honor—is quite different from the way Kubrick presents dueling, as this pointless face-off between shaky-handed men who stare at one another in abject horror. Quin’s wide-eyed expression is both poignant and comical—but tips more towards the latter in light of the eventual revelation that he knew the duel was a farce all along, so in hindsight we realize he was scared not of death but of being shot with a blank.

In Barry’s second duel, Kubrick draws out the preparation for the showdown with such portentousness that the tension becomes nearly unbearable. The martial strings drone in the background, blending with the cooing of the birds and the papery rustle of wings as pigeons flutter around the barn. The scene is solemn, even ritualistic, with thin slit windows and crosses carved into the stone walls behind the duelists, letting in slivers of bluish light that make the scene seem holy and eerie, a place of worship rather than a place of idiotic death and maiming. The long shots of the barn with the two men setting up to shoot each other are especially breathtaking, finding a weird kind of beauty in this slow, mechanical ritual. The aesthetic gloss of this scene, however, only makes it all the more startling when the duel itself quickly descends into comedy. The arcane rules for this particular duel, where the men take turns shooting each other, with chance determining who shoots first, make it especially silly, and then Lord Bullingdon’s accidental firing of his gun into the ground—and his terrified, little-boy-in-trouble expression afterwards—only exacerbate the lunatic surrealism of this practice.

Barry Lyndon

JB: By the time Barry enters into that final duel, he’s seemingly lost everything. We’ve seen him shunned from his old social circle. We’ve watched his son die. And then, in the duel with his stepson, Barry is shot by Lord Bullingdon even after he spares his stepson by intentionally firing into the ground. Barry’s sacrificed shot seems less a matter of etiquette (you wasted a shot, so I will) and more like an olive branch, an admission of guilt, an act of atonement. Barry knows that he has treated his stepson poorly, so he understands Lord Bullingdon’s rage, much like Captain Quin must have understood Barry’s rage all those years ago. There’s a sense when Barry fires his shot into the ground that he hopes Lord Bullingdon will shoot him dead and end his misery, but when Lord Bullingdon announces that he has not received “satisfaction” there’s a subtle expression of surprise that flashes across Barry’s face, as if the last thing he imagined is that Lord Bullingdon would continue with the duel after Barry spared him.

Of course, Barry’s ultimate fate in the duel is the worst thing he can imagine. He isn’t spared. He isn’t killed. He’s maimed, blasted in the leg. In the next scene, the doctor examines Barry’s leg and says he’ll have to amputate. “Lose the leg? What for?” Barry asks. “The simple answer to that is ’to save your life,’” the doctor replies. This, it turns out, is the low point for Barry. Suddenly it registers for him that there’s no coming back from this duel, the way he’d reinvented himself all those years ago. He’ll forever be crippled, and he’ll forever have a physical reminder of his sins. And as Barry comes to this realization, weeping in bed, a church bell tolls in the background.

The next scene finds Lord Bullingdon heading to the Lyndon estate by carriage, hatching a plan by which to get Barry’s mother out of the house before he steps foot through the door. While Lord Bullingdon schemes, the same priest who married Barry and Lady Lyndon can’t suppress a smile, realizing in that moment that Barry has been cast out by a man who shows signs of being as conniving as he was. Kubrick seems to be reminding us that when one selfish asshole steps out of the spotlight, another one comes along to take his place.

Barry Lyndon

EH: That sense of progression is important because Barry Lyndon is, in the end, as much about society as a whole as it is about the one man who gives the film its title. All of this maneuvering for wealth and prestige doesn’t actually make anyone happy, neither the victors nor the losers like Barry. In the last scene of the film, Lady Lyndon and her son somberly shuffle through piles of paper for Lady Lyndon to sign, the endless bills and paperwork associated with their life of privilege and success. This scene intentionally mirrors the earlier one in which Lady Lyndon and Barry joylessly went through these same paper rituals: there’s no pleasure, no contentment, in the management of the massive wealth for which these people fight so tirelessly.

Instead, there’s only loss and sadness. Kubrick alternates closeups of Lady Lyndon and her son in the final moments of the film, focusing on the moment when she has to sign for the annuity paid to Barry to keep him away from the family. Lady Lyndon seems lost in thought, and her red-rimmed eyes, used to crying, well up a bit. But there’s also the very slightest of smiles dancing briefly at the corners of her mouth, as though she’s remembering whatever small happy moments the couple might have had together, or the son they’d so loved. Those fleeting moments of pleasure are ultimately lost in the struggle to live, not for the moment, not for the sake of enjoying life, but for accumulating reputation and wealth for posterity. Barry Lyndon demonstrates the folly of such an attitude, and it does so by completely embodying it in Barry, an empty vessel filled almost entirely with base urges and stupidity. Kubrick harshly satirizes this man and the grabby approach to life he represents, but more remarkably he also makes us feel for Barry, lamenting the waste of time and life that disappear into the vacuum of Barry’s ambition. That’s why the final moments of the film are so devastating, so sad, embodying in the exchange of glances between Lady Lyndon and her son a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions and lost opportunities.

Barry Lyndon

JB: It really does feel like a lifetime. The coupling of the narration and the deliberate pace give Barry Lyndon a decidedly novel-esque feel, as if we’re paging through Barry’s life in Thackeray’s original. Like so much of Kubrick’s work, the atmosphere of the whole is more telling than any specific gesture, line or scene. Barry Lyndon is an experience more than a plot, wrapping us up in its colorful panoramas and moody candlelit closeups to create a precise sense of time and space. If it’s best remembered for the way it looks, perhaps that’s fitting, given that it’s about a man who at his height only appears remarkable. But clearly there is more to Barry Lyndon than lush visuals. It’s a film with character about a man who lacks it.

Nevertheless, the praise for the film’s visual splendor is hardly misplaced. Kubrick gives us a bland character in a movie dominated by visuals that are anything but. To quote Scorsese again, Barry Lyndon really is “one exquisitely beautiful image after another,” and it’s the consistency of those breathtaking compositions that gives this deliberately methodical film its undeniable momentum. It’s not a film one is drawn to so much as a film one can’t break away from. For all of Barry Lyndon’s cool detachment, the obvious care of Kubrick’s filmmaking gives it a strange warmth.

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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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance

It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).

For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.

Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.

As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.

The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.

For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation

Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.

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Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Photo: PBS Distribution

According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.

That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.

But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.

Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.

Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.

That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”

Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.

Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane

Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.

Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”

Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.

In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.

The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.

The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.

If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.

The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.

Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.

Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.

Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.

That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.

More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.

No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook

Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.

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The Nightingale
Photo: Matt Nettheim

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:

Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.

Watch the official trailer below:

IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.

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Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche

Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.

Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.

Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.

Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.

Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.

And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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