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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

For our third installment of “The Conversations,” we decided to each select a film from the past 10 years that we thought was unfortunately overlooked and/or unfairly maligned.

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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

Jason Bellamy: For our third installment of “The Conversations,” we decided to each select a film from the past 10 years that we thought was unfortunately overlooked and/or unfairly maligned. Serendipitously, we selected films that the other person had yet to see. You elected to champion 2004’s Undertow. I selected 2002’s Solaris. These films have few similarities, and so there will be no attempt to connect them beyond our feeling that they are deserving of increased discussion and praise.

Thus, we begin with Undertow. Prior to seeing this film, I knew exactly four things about it: 1) Its director is David Gordon Green; 2) Its star is Jamie Bell (or as I usually call him, “The kid from Billy Elliot”); 3) It’s set in the South; 4) Roger Ebert loved, loved, loved it. That’s it, and that’s all. I vaguely remember the film coming out and being interested in it. Yet somehow I never got to it until now.

If Undertow was maligned (I’ve avoided checking Metacritic to this point), I don’t remember that. Overlooked seems right. Mention of Green usually inspires reference to Undertow predecessors George Washington and All the Real Girls. I’m sure you and Ebert aren’t Undertow’s only fans, but I can’t say I remember anyone else so much as mentioning it.

Am I surprised? Having seen Undertow a few days ago, I can’t say that I am. Not even five full years since its release, Undertow strikes me as the typical forgotten film: not brilliant enough to be considered great, not faulty enough to be worthy of venomous derision, not complex or ambiguous enough to inspire endless debate. I have multiple thoughts on the film, but for the most part I’d like to approach this discussion through your views, and I’ll start by asking you a question: Did you submit Undertow for examination here because you think the film is criminally misunderstood or because you think it’s criminally unknown (or something else in between)?

Ed Howard: I wanted to talk about Undertow largely because it’s been forgotten: you’re right that almost no one brings it up these days in talking about Green, who’s mostly known for his first two films and now the Judd Apatow collaboration Pineapple Express. Ebert’s rave aside, I believe Undertow got decidedly mixed reviews upon release, including its fair share of very negative ones, but on the whole I wouldn’t say it’s maligned so much as simply overlooked. That’s unfortunate, because in my opinion it is Green’s best film thus far, the film that comes closest to fulfilling the tremendous promise he’s displayed in all his features. It’s not a perfect film by any means, not a masterpiece, but in its own strange way it is “great,” a baroque fable about the loss of childhood innocence and the totemic power of family. I don’t use that word “fable” lightly, either. I think Green is quite consciously tapping into the language and aesthetic of fables and children’s stories, especially the darkness running through the Grimm fairy tales or, in movies, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. This is what I like so much about this film. All of Green’s films are fables to one extent or another, heavily stylized fantasy visions of the South. It’s tempting to call George Washington or All the Real Girls “realist,” or maybe “poetic realist,” but in fact they only give the impression of realism. The rhythms of these films approximate the slow rhythms of life, with lots of start/stop conversations and languid pauses, but the language and aesthetic choices distance the films from ordinary reality.

Undertow is the first of Green’s films to fully embrace this tendency, to revel in the artificiality of his vision of the American South. The film contains realism as just one mode among many, one choice that the director might make for a time before shifting to something else. There’s a lovely, moody silent sequence in which Green cuts back and forth between the brooding John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) smoking in his den, and his rebellious son Chris (Jamie Bell) constructing a rough wooden toy for his younger brother Tim (Devon Alan). This is Green’s poetic realist moment, as is the mumbled, halting conversation between John and Chris afterwards, but the quietly realistic sensibility of these moments jars against, for example, the cartoonish performance of Josh Lucas as John’s bitter brother Deel, or the exaggerated idiot savant behavior of the paint-eating Tim, or the barrage of filters and effects applied to the opening credits. The film shifts genres fluidly: the credits seem to promise a darkly comic farce, a rural parody of 70s cop TV, while later the two brothers move from a low-key domestic drama to gory horror to a chase thriller drawn heavily from The Night of the Hunter. This is Green’s loosest and most imaginative film. Here he discards the urge toward realism that ran through his earlier films, and finally admits, “this is a myth.” And it’s a poignant, affecting myth, centered around the relationship between two young brothers and their desire for family, safety, security and love.

JB: Ebert’s review makes similar observations. He ends his assessment saying: “Films like Undertow leave some audiences unsettled, because they do not proceed predictably by the rules. But they are immediately available to our emotions, and we fall into a kind of walking trance, as if being told a story at an age when we half-believed everything we heard.” That’s right on the money. It’s to Green’s credit that Undertow shifts genres as “fluidly” as it does, and yet I wonder if these transitions are too seamless for their own good. I imagine that watching Undertow made many moviegoers feel like WALL-E in the scene when the robot goes to file away one of his latest detrital treasures and realizes with confusion that the utensil in his hand doesn’t belong in the cup of plastic spoons or the cup of plastic forks, because it’s a spork. Right or wrong, audiences and sometimes even critics tend to file cinematic sporks in the waste bin of filmmaker gaffes. But there’s no question in my mind that Green is confidently and intentionally crossing genre lines here. He’s a filmmaker who isn’t rebellious so much as he is liberated from such restrictions to the point that he almost seems oblivious. That’s a compliment.

As for the notion that Undertow is Green’s best film, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. George Washington is the kind of picture that should (and did) make people drop everything and take notice of a filmmaker in his 20s, but there’s an intentional aimlessness about that film that I find overwhelming. In Ebert’s Undertow review he cites the moment when the girl asks, “Can I carve my name in your face?” and I laughed reading that, because George Washington is a collection of similar non sequiturs (not all of them spoken). By comparison, All the Real Girls is far more conventional, and it’s the closest Green film to my heart, because of the effortless and understated way in which Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel paint a heart-rending portrait of young love. That said, I’m not convinced that Green has made a “great” film as yet, though he’s certainly done enough to convince me that he’s a great filmmaker.

EH: That “carve my name” moment that both you and Ebert mention is a very good example of what Green is aiming for. As I believe Ebert points out, no one ever expresses themselves in quite that way, and yet everyone has felt the kinds of things that are being expressed: the confusion and potential pain of love, the angst of adolescence and puberty. The line is funny just because it’s so bizarre, so completely unexpected, and yet it’s not just an empty non sequitur. It’s a way of summing up, in a single line, the awkward, weird tensions of young love and desire. You get the feeling that these kids don’t know how to express themselves yet, don’t know what they want or what they mean to one another: they’re saying things, and doing things, they don’t fully understand. As good as they are, both George Washington and All the Real Girls sometimes feel self-consciously quirky, and I think Undertow is the first of Green’s films where the off-putting weirdness of his aesthetic is more purposeful. This film is a fable because fables are universal, they express feelings and fears we all have in stylized form. The distrust of strangers runs through the grisly tale of Hansel and Gretel, the desire to be able to transcend oneself drives the mermaid who wants to become a human, and Undertow is motivated, above all, by the need for family structures, for comfort and security.

When the film opens, Chris is alienated from his father, feeling trapped and confined by life on the isolated farm that John moved them to as a way of escaping from the world. When Deel arrives, Chris initially sees in him a potentially more promising father figure, something he hungers for so desperately that he doesn’t note the more sinister undercurrents of Deel’s persona. Of course, soon enough we learn that Deel is probably Chris’ biological father, and that he’s no more worthy as a father figure or role model than John is. The rest of the film continues this search for family, the desire to find someplace to simply fit in and make a comfortable home. The episodic structure allows Green to explore this central idea in several different contexts. First, Chris and Tim settle in with a black couple (Eddie Rouse and Patrice Johnson) who are badly affected by the premature death of their own child some years ago, but who are obviously deeply in love and remain joyous and appreciative of life. They provide a model for Chris and Tim, who barely remember their own mother and never experienced anything like the fun and humor that these people infuse into their clearly poor but nevertheless vibrant household. Later, the two boys attempt to create a familial structure among the homeless teens living in a kind of open-air hippie commune in the woods.

And in one of the film’s best scenes, Chris and Tim actually construct their own home from the detritus lying around a junk yard. The “Home Sweet Home” mug they place within this rusted metal structure is a bit much, an example of Green making his point too obviously, but the scene as a whole is nonetheless affecting: these two kids are so desperate for some shred of normality that they try to build a home from discarded car parts. In a lot of ways, Undertow is about America’s abandonment of its kids, the disinterest that so many people today seem to show in raising their children, providing them with the love and attention they need. The film is full of kids simply wandering, left to their own devices, saddled with parents who are either completely absent or absorbed in themselves or, at best, fiery clichés like the shotgun-wielding overprotective father who chases Chris during the opening credits. Because this is a fairy tale, Chris and Tim finally find what they need at the end, in the form of the kindly grandparents (Bill McKinney and Thelma Louise Carter) who accept them and take them in. But this happy ending doesn’t erase the violence and abjection that preceded it, the harrowing journey that these kids must take just in order to finally find a family.

JB: It’s certainly a harrowing journey. Emotionally, Undertow’s greatest triumph is the tactile vulnerability of Chris and Tim. Of all the genres that Undertow explores, from its Dukes of Hazzard meets Mark Twain opening to its Night of the Hunter-esque premise, horror isn’t one of them. Nothing goes bump in the night here—every threatening moment happens in broad daylight. And yet my stomach was in knots for Chris and Tim, even though the Southern-fried buffoonery of Deel suggests that he’s only slightly more competent than Rosco P. Coltrane. The latter half of the film is saturated with dread.

Thus, my disappointment with Undertow stems from the fact that there isn’t much else to it. In his mostly negative review for Variety, Scott Foundas notes that while “Green’s partisans claim he lyricizes the South… what Green does is more fetishization than lyricization. He wallows in the dirt, mud and sweat…piling the twangy Southern accents on extra-thick and filling the soundtrack with the incessant sound of hogs squealing.” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly is in the same ballpark when he calls Green “an artist so sensitive that he savors every moment, to the point that you occasionally wished he’d savor it a little less.”

I’m all for meditative films, and I don’t think a picture needs to be epic to be “great” or “classic.” Still, Green’s films have a way of looking at puddles as if they are oceans. After splashing around for a while it can be unsatisfying to realize that I’m only wet up to my ankles. As Gleiberman puts it in relation to Undertow: “By the end, you realize there’s not much beneath that surface.” I’d agree. Which isn’t to suggest that Undertow is some sort of dismal failure—I have a hard time imagining how someone could get that worked up over it—it’s just to say that Undertow isn’t a film that suggests I’ll find more within it on a repeat visit.

Am I undervaluing Undertow? Let’s be direct: In your opinion, how great is it?

EH: In my opinion, yes, you’re undervaluing Undertow. Maybe I just like what Green finds in the puddles he’s looking at. Maybe I don’t think that looking at puddles is inherently less valuable or interesting than looking at oceans. After all, it’s just water either way, and by looking at puddles we might learn something about oceans. To unpack the metaphor, Green’s films locate universal truths and themes within seemingly prosaic events and characters. Basically, I don’t agree that there’s nothing deeper or more substantial to Green’s films, and to this one in particular. Beyond its genre pastiche (and would you really argue the central gory murder isn’t horror?) and its lyrical mood, the film gets at universal ideas and fears in very interesting ways. The dread we feel for Chris and Tim isn’t just—or even primarily—about Deel catching up to them. It’s more an existential dread, a fear that things aren’t going to work out for these drifting, parentless kids, that they won’t be able to find a place where they can fit in and be allowed to grow up normally.

As much as Green’s style is structured around disruptions and disjunctions, very showy intrusions of artifice, the film is emotionally complex and layered, not only in the bond between the two brothers, but in the distant, deceit-based relationship between Deel and John, the subtle parallels between the two generations of the family we see here, and the conflicted emotions of John, who seems to want desperately to be a decent father to his sons without quite having the emotional resources to carry through on it. The emotions in this film are small and subtle—in direct contrast to the outsized performance of Deel, inspired as much by Wile E. Coyote as anything else—but no less potent for their quiet simplicity. I already mentioned the scene of John contemplatively smoking while Chris assembles a wooden airplane out in the shed, but it’s a perfect example of the way Green infuses such simple moments with deeper subtexts. By fading back and forth between father and son, each quiet and alone in his separate space, Green unifies them even while emphasizing the distance between them; the camera moves as though panning from one to the other within the same space, bridging the gap between them in a way their conversations never do.

There’s a similar emotional ambiguity to the scene of John staring at his family’s portrait on the wall, which at first seems like a straightforward expression of his longing for his dead wife and the united family he’s since lost. Later, however, when we learn more about that portrait and what secret it hides, in retrospect we begin to wonder what exactly John is feeling at that moment. Greed? Foreboding? Regret? Guilt? Nostalgia? All of the above? There’s a great deal of complexity to even deceptively simple moments like that, which are opened up and complicated by the web of relationships and conflicted feelings between the characters. I’ve seen the film several times now, and each time I feel the emotions that much more intensely, see the underlying themes with that much more clarity. It’s a film that is broad and obvious in its surface effects, but much subtler and quieter beneath the surface, a strange combination that has perhaps contributed to its overall dismissal from the film conversation.

JB: Interesting. Maybe it deserves another look. (Knowing me, it’ll get one either way.) But I think one of the reasons I felt underwhelmed by Undertow had to do with an inkling that I’d seen it before. Prior to introducing myself to Green on DVD just a few years ago, I often heard it said that Terrence Malick is one of his key influences. In George Washington and All the Real Girls, I saw hints of what people were talking about, but on the whole I thought comparisons to Malick were overstated. Having now seen Undertow, I understand. This film is like a perfect hybrid of Badlands and Days of Heaven, from its muddy young runaways drifting through a ghastly fairy tale, to its ambiguous idiot-savant dialogue, to its meditative pacing, to its fondness for voiceover and, of course, its reverence for lush naturally-lit compositions. Given that Malick is known for the succulence of his images, it seems like a twisted Hollywood in-joke that Green would borrow Malick’s aesthetic so blatantly for a film that includes a character who eats every filthy (yet somehow appetizing) thing in sight. That amuses me.

To be clear, I’m not accusing Green of thievery in noting his Malick emulation, and I’ve noticed that you have found numerous ways to praise the compositions of Green’s film without mentioning the edible deliciousness of its celluloid. Still, for someone who loves Malick, Undertow’s allusions are plentiful to the point of distraction, causing my mind to wander to Badlands and Days of Heaven—which is the same thing as wanting to watch those films immediately. If Undertow wasn’t so locked in to the palette and themes of those Malick landmarks, I might have settled into its mood more freely. Instead, Undertow struck me as a film that’s better to look at than to look into. I still enjoyed it more than not, but I didn’t find the emotional heft in it that you have, certainly in comparison to a Malick picture.

EH: Well, there’s no use arguing the Malick references, since he’s an obvious influence on Green—hell, he even produced this film, so the affinities between them are apparent. I think it’s interesting, though, that you’d call Undertow “a film that’s better to look at than to look into.” Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, I could imagine that description applying just as easily to Days of Heaven, an undeniably beautiful film that I love in many ways, but which nevertheless leaves me with the impression that Malick is sometimes more comfortable filming wheat fields than people. Now, of course, this is all a bit tongue-in-cheek: there’s a lot of emotional depth to Days of Heaven, a lot going on in between its landscape shots. But on its surface it’s a rather conventional love triangle story that happens to be graced with some of the most sumptuous cinematography in the cinema.

I won’t go so far as to argue that Undertow is a better film, by any means, but I think you’re doing to Green’s film something similar to what I just did to Malick’s. It’s very easy not to look beyond the pretty surfaces of films like this, to be seduced by the beauty of the images or the cinematic allusions and miss out on the emotional undercurrents. I think a lot of people do the same thing with Tarantino: they get so caught up with trying to spot all the kung-fu movies he references that the emotional arc of Uma Thurman’s Bride across both volumes of Kill Bill simply doesn’t make the impact it should. So I guess the question is, is originality everything? And does Green simply regurgitate Malick like so many paint chips, or does he process his influences into something new? Clearly, I believe the latter, but I’ll throw it back to you for now.

JB: I’m glad you asked. I absolutely agree that since Green so closely approximates Malick that it’s fair to presume that the same criticisms I applied to Undertow could also apply to Days of Heaven or Badlands. Thus, in a very basic respect, Undertow’s biggest burden is coming second. No, originality isn’t everything, but, from an audience perspective, discovery is a hell of a lot. For example, I’m sure that when Saving Private Ryan came out and Steven Spielberg was receiving unrestrained praise for his epic D-Day sequence, fans of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One must have been wondering what the big fucking deal was. In this case, I wouldn’t fault Fuller followers for being emotionally attached to “their” beach storming sequence, nor would I fault those unfamiliar with The Big Red One for thinking that Spielberg had created something wildly unmatched. Those are both fair and just reactions. (And let me pause here to offer that Spielberg does just what he should with Saving Private Ryan: he borrows what works and then adds to it, enhances it, reinvents it. The influence of Fuller is undeniable, but the brushstrokes of Spielberg are recognizable, too.)

To use a different analogy, what I’m getting at is the idea that perhaps the second trip to the moon can’t possibly have the same emotional impact as the first. At the risk of implying that Green is some kind of rip-off artist, I see less enhancement and reinvention of Malick in Undertow than reflection of Malick. It’s close to being the same thing, but somehow Green’s implementation of the same techniques isn’t quite as poignant, in ways I’m not sure I could ever quantify. Essentially, it’s a gut feeling. So what’s interesting to me is that I agree with the idea you hinted at, that perhaps Green and Malick have the same fascinations or impulses or intentions. Underneath it all, maybe it’s an illusion that Malick’s films are somehow more genuine. But after falling for Malick’s artistry like I have, I can’t help but have a special reverence for it. Still, I’m open-minded enough to qualify that with this: Perhaps I’m making a mistake of Vertigo proportions. As we know, the brown-haired Judy is actually more authentic than the blonde Madeleine … but good luck getting Scottie to believe that. For him, Madeleine is the measuring stick, and always will be. The same goes for me and Malick.

Before we move on, I want to touch on your reference to Tarantino, because I was thinking of that very example as I was writing my previous comments. Without a doubt, there’s a similarity in my reactions above and those of Tarantino naysayers so consumed with identifying which films Kill Bill references that they overlook what it actually does. Also similar is that way that I’m criticizing Green for the same reason that Tarantino gets into trouble: because the emulation is so fucking skillful that it appears dangerously effortless, as if these guys are painting by number rather than creating from within. That said, I think there are two distinct differences between Tarantino’s emulation and Green’s, both of which come down to the plural vs. the singular. First, Kill Bill, to keep with the example, nakedly and wholeheartedly embraces the stylistic trademarks of multiple filmmakers, while Undertow stylistically references pretty much Malick alone. Second, Tarantino is one of many filmmakers to blatantly draw upon Sergio Leone, to pick one, while Green is the only filmmaker I can think of to so unabashedly (and adeptly) channel Malick. The result? Tarantino is like the musician who tries to emulate Dylan and the Beatles simultaneously. He’s part of a mob. He blends in a bit more. Green, on the other hand, is like the poet who is ballsy enough (or dumb enough) to write in lowercase. Just like I couldn’t possibly read that poet’s work without thinking of e.e. cummings, I can’t possibly look at Undertow without seeing Malick. I think it’s a special case.

EH: See, I don’t actually agree that Malick is the only cinematic touchstone for Green here. Maybe that’s true of George Washington and All the Real Girls, which is one of the things that makes me value them slightly less than I would otherwise, but in Undertow I see the first evidence of Green reaching beyond Malick’s influence, entering territory that his mentor never explored. Most obviously, we’ve already discussed the ways in which the film is a genre pastiche, drawing its basic story from The Night of the Hunter, visually referencing 70s cop shows, and incorporating disjunctive techniques borrowed from avant-garde film, like the freeze frames and color filters that are used most frequently during the credits but recur at key moments throughout the film.

If Green’s first two films might be reduced to Malick rip-offs—and as much as I find to like in those films, I wouldn’t disagree—Undertow cannot be dismissed so easily. With this film, he begins incorporating the influence of Malick into a larger, more idiosyncratic patchwork, becoming more like Tarantino in that he’s developing his own cinematic personality from the confluence of his influences. That’s my take on it, anyway. Though Undertow often visually recalls Malick, the texture of the film feels quite distinct from its antecedents. Most noticeably, Green subtly blends the languid moodiness of Malick with more jittery interjections, purposefully shattering the overall atmosphere with those washed-out and filtered inserts—the most powerful of which are the haunting, sustained shot of Chris staring into a bathroom mirror, and the credits shot that freezes on a closeup of Chris’ foot a half-second before he lifts it off the ground to run away. There are a lot of subtle touches in the film that owe little to Malick, that in fact show Green developing his own sensibility that incorporates Malick as only one influence among many. I think, in that respect, he has further to go from here, and I fully expect him to make better films than Undertow in the future, but for now this film is an intriguing, beautifully realized work in its own right.

And also a startlingly funny one. I don’t think we’ve touched yet on just how damn funny this film often is, perhaps because its humor is so jarringly at odds with the overall melancholy tone of its narrative that it’s easy to forget about it in retrospect. This is another crucial way in which Green diverges from Malick, who whatever else he might be, couldn’t really be called funny. There’s a streak of dark humor running throughout Undertow, but it’s not cynical mockery. It’s more like an appreciation that even the darkest, most macabre moments can look entirely different depending on one’s perspective. John phrases it best when he tells his son, “sometimes it’s the strange moments that stick with you.” That’s the closest I can get to pinning down a sensibility that’s distinctively Green’s. It’s the sensibility that stages the opening chase as an exaggerated farce in which Chris gets a nail stuck through his foot and hobbles around with a wooden board stuck to him, an image that is both painfully horrifying and, seen from an objective distance, kind of ridiculous. And it’s the sensibility that, after Chris’ dad picks him up from the police station, has the desk officer casually hand back the board to Chris as though it’s one of his possessions. There’s a real deadpan humor to this film, a sense that as dark as things are for the characters, they’re not yet so hopeless that laughter is impossible. Even Deel’s frenzied pursuit of the duo is frequently hilarious, especially when he runs into a succession of laconic rural types who might’ve been rejected extras for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. If nothing else, I don’t think Malick has ever made a film that’s this funny, nor one where the humor rubs so uncomfortably against the darker emotions at the story’s core.

JB: Well, giving credit to someone for being funnier than Malick is a little like patting someone on the back for being more somber than Trey Parker and Matt Stone. “Frequently hilarious” seems a bit far (though it certainly applies to the tow-truck scene), but I concede the larger point. Green isn’t explicitly tied to Malick, by any stretch; thematically he mixes his influences with the gusto of Tarantino. Visually, however, I maintain that Undertow is right out of the Malick portfolio, with mostly insignificant exception. In the same way that Tarsem’s The Fall seems made to sell Blu-ray players and high definition TVs, Undertow looks like it could be a late-1970s ad for Kodak film stock—albeit with dirty-fingered models. Ebert was too forgiving when he wrote that “we never catch [Green] photographing anything for its scenic or decorative effect,” because that presumes that only traditionally beautiful things can be ogled. Regardless, if Undertow’s only fault was being easy on the eyes, that would be no fault at all.

As I filtered through reviews at Metacritic over the course of our conversation, I noticed something that seems to further underline why the film has been overlooked. In the handful of reviews I sampled, Undertow was called a “fable,” a “Brothers Grimm tale,” a “thriller,” a “’balls-to-the-wall’ revenge story” and a “deep-fried piece of Sothern Gothic.” These aren’t necessarily antithetical descriptions, but they illustrate the difficulty with which someone might describe the film. All the Real Girls remains the Green film that I most cherish, and yet I agree that Undertow doesn’t deserve to be ignored. I’m thankful to have seen it. At the same time, I wait expectantly for the day when Green creates a film that cannot be forgotten.

EH: Although I obviously appreciate Undertow much more than you, we’re not entirely at opposite poles here, in that I’m also eager to see where Green goes next: I think Undertow is a promising indication of a great director breaking out rather than a mature masterpiece. It deserves to be remembered, and I hope there are others who love and enjoy it as much as I do, but more than anything I hope that Undertow serves as a stepping stone for even better work in Green’s future. And even if it means confounding those critics who want something they can easily describe, I hope that Green remains as unclassifiable and slippery as he is here. I’ve never bought into that old maxim about a story only being worthwhile if it can be summarized in a sentence. That doesn’t mean it’s a good story; it means it’s a simple one. That’s a screenwriter’s theorem for those who believe that a film’s strength lies in clearly and powerfully expressing a single idea, which is certainly a valid thing for a film to do but hardly the only valid thing. Green’s oeuvre thus far, particularly Undertow, is an eloquent rebuttal of this too-ingrained idea. It’s a film that deliberately contains traces of all the disparate attributes those Metacritic reviews mention, and yet it cannot be completely described by any of those phrases alone. To me, this evasiveness and restless creativity can only be a good thing, even if it isn’t the best way to attain commercial success. Like you, I look forward to watching Green develop further as a filmmaker, but I think I’ll always have a soft spot for the bizarre, messy pleasures of Undertow.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.

2.5

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The Good Liar
Photo: Warner Bros.

An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.

For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.

Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.

If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.

The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.

Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment

Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.

2.5

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Dark Waters
Photo: Focus Features

Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.

In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.

In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.

Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.

More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.

Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land

All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.

1.5

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Charlie’s Angels
Photo: Columbia Pictures

As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.

Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.

The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).

Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.

Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.

One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.

In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy

Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.

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Photo: Showtime Documentary Films

When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.

Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.

And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.

I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.

You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?

It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.

It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.

When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?

I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.

Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.

Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.

Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.

Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.

I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.

I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.

A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?

Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.

It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.

That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.

You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?

In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.

As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?

Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.

And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.

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Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices

Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.

3

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The Hottest August
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.

Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.

Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.

Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.

Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.

With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.

Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film

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Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties

It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.

3

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I Lost My Body
Photo: Netflix

Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.

Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.

Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.

The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.

Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.

Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era

In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.

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The Report
Photo: Amazon Studios

The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The LaundromatThe Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.

The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.

It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.

Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.

The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.

Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.

It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.

Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Stand by Me

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Creepshow

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Silver Bullet

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Dolores Claiborne

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Misery

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.

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Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve

There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

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Last Christmas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.

Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.

The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.

Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.

Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.

Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Midway Delights in the Thrill of Battle Without Actual Peril

In the film, the Battle of Midway suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

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Midway
Photo: Summit Entertainment

“With the advent of CGI,” critic J. Hoberman writes in his 2012 book Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema?, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.” Rarely has this point been more vividly illustrated than in Roland Emmerich’s slick historical combat epic Midway, in which the eponymous WWII naval battle is depicted with such an abundance of shimmery digital effects that it suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.

Emmerich, a latter-day heir to the cinema-as-spectacle tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, employs special effects in Midway not to induce a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude, nor to exhilarate audiences with a series of death-defying stunts. Rather, the film’s scenes of combat are more like elaborate paintings, similar in spirit and function to the cycloramas that were such popular attractions at the turn of the 20th century: vast panoramas that compact all the major highlights of a particular event into a single canvas.

Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there’s no attempt here to key the viewer to the chaos and horror of battle. In fact, there’s scarcely any blood to be found in Midway. In addition to the Battle of Midway, the film depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and other skirmishes in the Pacific during WWII, and these sequences, so bathed in honeyed sunlight, exude a sense of wide-eyed gee-whiz glee: all the fun of battle with none of the icky gore.

Midway is a paean to those brave American soldiers of the greatest generation, one that positions the brave sailors of the U.S. Navy as scrappy underdogs who, after the humiliating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, make it their mission to avenge themselves on the Japanese. The film studiously avoids acknowledging anything about the era it depicts that might make its target audience (read: white History Channel-watching patriarchs) uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in its treatment—or, rather, complete non-treatment—of race. Emmerich not only completely sidesteps the issue of racial segregation in the military, black soldiers are completely unseen in the film, despite the fact that many African-Americans served on U.S. ships that fought at Midway, albeit primarily in support roles.

Though most of the film’s characters, a bland succession of largely interchangeable good ol’ boys, are based on real-life historical personages, Wes Tooke’s leaden screenplay renders them all as little more than stock war-movie types. Devil-may-care flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a ‘40s-era twist on Top Gun’s Maverick who gains some maturity when he’s promoted to command his own unit of pilots, is the closest thing that Midway has to a protagonist. Less flashy but similarly righteous is a naval intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who fights the good fight against the bureaucracy in order to convince the higher-ups that the Japanese plan to attack the Midway atoll. Woody Harrelson also shows up looking tired and slightly lost as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, while Dennis Quaid is saddled with the role of Vice Admiral Bull Halsey, who’s mostly on hand to attest that shingles are absolutely terrible.

The Americans are all salty, gruff, and jokey, while the Japanese are somber and aphoristic, though both sides share a fondness for speaking in banal clichés. The script never invests us in any of these characters, failing to establish real narrative stakes for any of them. The plot is really little more than perfunctory filler between the battle sequences, which are peppered throughout the film with the regularity of dance numbers in a Rogers and Astaire musical.

Midway is reportedly a longtime passion project for Emmerich, for which he scraped together funds from a number of sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (These funders included some Chinese equity firms, which may account for the presence of a completely tangential subplot involving Army Air Forces officer Jimmy Doolittle, played by Aaron Eckhart, bonding with oppressed peasants in Japanese-occupied China). But while Emmerich’s childlike excitement at the whiz-bang action of naval combat is palpable, the film’s battle sequences lack any real suspense or sense of danger. In these moments, Midway suggests old newsreel footage come to life. The film’s veneer may be unmistakably modern, but it’s no less devoted to promoting and flattering a certain idea of heroism, even as it keeps the men inside all those ships and planes at a distance from audiences.

Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Jun Kunimura, Etsushi Toyokawa, Brandon Sklenar, James Carpinello, Jake Manley Director: Roland Emmerich Screenwriter: Wes Tooke Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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