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The Conversations: Pixar

Is WALL-E better than you expected, a notable Pixar achievement, or is it just more of the same?

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The Conversations: Pixar

Jason Bellamy: Aggregate movie review sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are never more predictable than when compiling the reviews of a Pixar release. Through almost fifteen years Pixar has been a cinematic goose laying digitally animated golden eggs. Not all of Pixar’s ten features have been universally beloved, but even the studio’s disappointing efforts, like 2006’s Cars, have been treated by critics as mostly worthwhile. Generally speaking, to read reviews of Pixar movies isn’t to see critics wrestling with the question of “Is it good?” but rather “How good is it?” The result creates something of a critical paradox. When a Pixar movie earns a rare pan, the studio’s previous successes seem to work against it. Pixar becomes the A-plus student who suffers a C-minus grade for turning in B-plus work. It becomes the victim of a masterpiece-or-else set of expectations, thus making critical takedowns seem annoyingly nitpicky or pathetically contrarian (yep, that’s an Armond White reference). At the same time, however, when Pixar delivers something that’s truly and utterly magnificent, any praise heaped upon it seems empty. Gushing reviews of a Pixar movie come off like testimonials on the joys of army life written by soldiers in the North Korean military.

I mention all of this because it helps to illustrate how troubling it can be to have critical conversations about Pixar movies. When someone tells me Finding Nemo is “great,” do they mean “It’s a great piece of family entertainment with something for everyone,” or do they mean “It’s on my short list of the greatest cinematic experiences of all time, tied with Taxi Driver”? I can never tell if I’m supposed to be grading on a curve, if I’m supposed to be comparing Monsters, Inc. to just Dreamworks’ Shrek or instead to There Will Be Blood and anything else. If I tell you that I found Cars to be tedious when I saw it on DVD at the age of 30, is that a valid assessment, or am I supposed to analyze the movie through the eyes of the 10-year-old for which it is intended? Why is it that if I tell people I found Toy Story cute but not special, I get wide-eyed looks like I’ve just insulted the 9-year-old in the school play for not being Meryl Streep?

These are issues we can cover over the course of our conversation, but for now all of that is setup for this: I absolutely adore Ratatouille and I have a fondness for A Bug’s Life and Up, but at the top of the Pixar heap is WALL-E. This is the one Pixar movie that, while by no means flawless, I can call great without any hesitation or qualifiers. To me, it is a masterpiece, and not just of its genre. Of all the films I saw last year, there was a small handful that shared its company, but not a single one that was better. Ed, you hadn’t seen WALL-E prior to this conversation, citing little interest in the Pixar series. My question to you now isn’t if WALL-E is as good as I just described. Instead it’s this: Is WALL-E better than you expected, a notable Pixar achievement, or is it just more of the same?

Ed Howard: You’ve pinpointed some of my own problems with talking about Pixar, namely the difference between “great” (full stop) and “great for children’s entertainment.” Anybody who says that Pixar makes great, fun children’s movies is on pretty safe ground, but there seem to be a lot of critics and fans who make rather more grandiose claims about Pixar, and especially about WALL-E. You yourself have picked it out as not only the best Pixar film, but the best film of its year. A.O. Scott called it “a cinematic poem” full of “wit and beauty,” and compared it to Werner Herzog, of all people. Joe Morgenstern said it left him “speechless,” then went on to deem it “a love letter to the possibilities of the movie medium.” For Fernando F. Croce, it conjured feelings of humanity’s “existential smallness” in the world, again warranting comparisons to Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

In this context, I hate to find myself most closely in agreement with Armond White, but I’m afraid I have to be the grumpy contrarian in the room. To answer your question, WALL-E is about what I expect from Pixar, albeit with perhaps some added ambition elevating it over earlier efforts. It is, in spurts, charming, funny, entertaining, poetic, witty and visually graceful. There is much to admire here, much to praise, and I can certainly see the basis for the accolades that have been heaped upon it. There are sequences and images of real beauty and potency here. In these isolated moments, WALL-E truly is great, and not just great for a kids’ movie. At the same time, I feel like these odes to WALL-E’s greatness are necessarily selective, ignoring the film’s infantilizing aesthetic of cuteness, its tendency to condense its action into jaunty montages, and especially its tremendous downward spiral after the first hour, when an amusing tale of robot love gives way to a polemical fable with awkwardly animated human blobs.

So, while I’m sure this will be a controversial and unpopular opinion, I can’t say that WALL-E (or Ratatouille, which I actually like slightly better) has drastically changed my perception of Pixar. The studio consistently produces enjoyable movies, and it is at the cutting edge of computer animation. I like that they consistently use their extraordinarily sophisticated technology towards real aesthetic ends, rather than simply showing off the latest effects and tricks they’ve picked up. Their movies, for the most part, have obvious ambition and smarts. Sometimes, though, I feel like people are giving them credit just for that, regardless of whether or not their ambition actually pays off in full.

JB: I agree with you on the last part, and we also see eye to eye on the strength of the first half of the film compared to the second. Indeed, as you have somewhat implied, I find that Ratatouille is more consistently pleasing than WALL-E, and so for me selecting one favorite over the other is kind of a Sophie’s choice. But about this I have no doubt: Pixar has never been better than it is over WALL-E’s opening forty-five minutes. That first act is so strong, so rich, so moving that it makes up for a mostly lackluster second half in which the dancing sequence, EVE’s rescue of WALL-E in the trash hanger, the bitingly hilarious “Also sprach Zarathustra” sound cue and the final poignant rebooting of WALL-E make for rare highlights among material that is otherwise disappointingly uninspired, with its baby-like human blobs, overly frenetic action and too-frequent ogling of the spaceship Axiom’s expansive interior.

That said, am I being too lenient here? Am I being too selective in calling the film an outright masterpiece? To a degree, maybe. But at the same time I’m reminded of your reaction to the lengthy opening scene in Inglourious Basterds, when you suggested that had the film ended after Shosanna’s sprint into the woods you would have left the theater satisfied. “It just feels so complete, so self-contained, like a perfect short story,” you said of that incredible opening scene at the dairy farm. Now, I grant you that the opening chapter of WALL-E isn’t quite so self-contained. And I admit that WALL-E’s second half includes nothing anywhere near as powerful as the thrills of its first half, whereas Inglourious Basterds eventually follows the tense sequence at the dairy farm with the one in the tavern that’s (almost) equally good. Nevertheless, those opening forty-five minutes of WALL-E lift the movie to such great heights that they eliminate the possibility of it crashing back down to earth, even if it does descend. So, yes, I’m being a bit selective by calling the movie an unqualified masterpiece, if that implies perfection from start to finish. Then again, if you asked me to nominate my favorite 45-minute spans of cinema over the past decade, WALL-E would be on the same short list as Inglourious Basterds. I find it wholly satisfying.

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EH: Maybe, if I felt like you that the opening forty-five minutes of WALL-E were “wholly satisfying,” I’d be more willing to forgive the obvious flaws in the rest of the film. The fact is, though, that while the opening, near-silent scenes are undoubtedly Pixar’s finest achievement thus far, they also suggest the problems that will become harder to ignore throughout the film’s second half. One of these problems is the cloying cuteness in the representation of the titular robot, who at one point actually falls into a pose like a dog begging, his “paws” held up in front of his chest, as he watches the musical Hello, Dolly! on a TV set. I get it, it’s a kids’ movie, there’s going to be a certain degree of sentimentality, but I find moments like that distracting rather than moving: it’s too openly manipulative. I’m much more admiring of the moments when WALL-E’s characterization is achieved subtly, through low-key humor, rather than through this kind of sap: The scene where he can’t decide where to categorize a spork in his filing system, or the one where he runs over his cockroach pal and has a horrified reaction until the little guy recovers.

My bigger problem with the opening scenes is the tendency to reduce everything to a time-lapse montage. It’s almost always a sign of a lousy movie when important events are conveyed through this kind of fast-paced, shorthand—think of the inevitable and endlessly parodied training montages in stuff like the Rocky series. It’s easy to miss, because it’s a near-silent story about a robot, that so many of the opening scenes in WALL-E are handled in a similar manner. The scenes of WALL-E motoring around the empty planet are edited together in a disjunctive way, with little sense of continuity, giving the whole sequence a choppy feel with sweeping tracking shots that cut off before their natural movement is done, as though director Andrew Stanton is afraid to really embrace the Kubrickian long shots of his cinematic inspirations. The technique becomes even more obvious once WALL-E’s love interest EVE arrives, at which point we get not only a falling-in-love montage in which WALL-E stalks the sleek, iPod-like newcomer, but then a more melancholy “break-up” montage after she shuts herself down and gets carted around everywhere by WALL-E. It’s like all of the film’s big narrative beats are delivered through visual and emotional shorthand, rather than allowed to play out naturally. The film spoon-feeds its emotions and ideas to an audience of children, and hey, that’s who it’s intended for. But that means I can only consider it great if, as you suggested above, I grade on a curve.

JB: That’s an interesting reaction. Though I understand your objection to montages in general, none of WALL-E’s feel like lazy shorthand to me. Or, perhaps more to the point, these montages don’t feel like fast-food filmmaking, like something mindlessly zapped in the microwave. As I see it, the falling-in-love montage artfully establishes WALL-E’s persistence, which is the best way to visually articulate the affections of a robot who lacks the vocabulary necessary to express himself in words. Similarly, the “break-up” montage demonstrates WALL-E’s faithfulness. We know that all of these gestures of camaraderie can’t fit into a single day or week, so each snippet serves as a marker for passing time in a world that is otherwise without change. In a sense, it’s the same effect achieved near the end of Groundhog Day when we discover that Bill Murray’s Phil Conners isn’t just a skilled pianist but has managed to pick up ice sculpting, too. We can call this shorthand, sure, because that’s what it is. But isn’t there more depth and art in WALL-E’s approach than there would be if Stanton thrust us forward in time with one cut and an intertitle reading “5 Years Later”?

Thus, I tend to look at these montages from a different angle: Any old filmmaker can have characters tell us how they feel. WALL-E shows us. It has some help, of course, from Hello, Dolly! tunes and Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” But although Roger Ebert bemoaned the use of pop tunes as moody emotion evokers in his 1969 review of Midnight Cowboy, suggesting the tactic to be an unfortunate aftereffect of The Graduate, the reality is that music of some kind or another has been used to support the cinema’s on-screen action since the silent era. Sure enough, what we have here is a resurrection of silent era techniques, with WALL-E frequently approximating Charlie Chaplin. I understand why you see cloying sentimentality in WALL-E’s antics, as if they are the marshmallows in the cereal bowl, designed to appease the young sugar-hungry crowd. But I look at WALL-E and see “The Tramp,” and there’s no shame in that. This isn’t simply manipulative. It’s classic, too.

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That’s why my biggest objection to those initial forty-five minutes would be in regard to those Axiom ads featuring a grating Fred Willard that are as blatant as omniscient narration, thereby betraying the movie’s show-don’t-tell spirit. (Not to mention that the audience young enough to require such explanation would probably find the Axiom ads too confusing to be helpful.) But, believe it or not, this gives us another reason to go back to Inglourious Basterds. That’s a film that cuts away from the action to give us a mini documentary on the flammability of nitrate film stock. That’s a film that is sometimes as subtle as a baseball bat to the skull. That’s a film that at times spoon-feeds its audience, replacing child-aimed cuteness with adult-aimed violence. As you know, I adore both of these films. And I want to make it clear that I don’t think it’s mandatory that all moviegoers be moved by all genres. I have very little interest in horror, for example, and so if these family-minded entertainments don’t satisfy your palate, that’s a fair and honest reaction. Still, it’s interesting that family-friendly movies are often faulted for being faithful to the interests of their younger audiences when more “mature” pictures are often just as manipulative in their approach, just as dumbed-down, just as desperate to play on our emotions.

EH: I guess my main problem, not only with this film but with most “family-friendly” movies, is the over-the-top sentimentality of it all, the way the film makes WALL-E this little avatar of cuteness, staring soulfully into his eyes, which are always tilted at just the right angle to make him look kind of sad and pathetic. He fits in nicely with this culture’s obsession with cuteness, the desire to provoke an “awww” response—the pandering here isn’t as obvious as the little wide-eyed alien kid in District 9, but it still grates on my nerves. Why do we have to talk down to our kids this much? Or is this stuff actually there for the adults in the audience, who need adorable protagonists to really appreciate a film? (And hey, I realize the problem isn’t limited to animated films or kids’ films: Look at how “adorable” most of our movie stars are. Many mainstream, supposedly adult films are just as sentimental, just as cloying and obvious. I don’t go to see Sandra Bullock romantic comedies, either.)

A little spoon-feeding is OK, if there’s something underneath, if there are layers of subtlety beyond the surface, as I think we both agreed there were with the Tarantino film. With WALL-E, I feel like the surface is all there is. It puts everything it has right out there, and an adult audience grasps it immediately, and then that’s it. There’s nothing to dig into here because the film is all sleek surfaces and easy-to-digest emotions. I mean, it’s gorgeous animation, at least before the humans arrive in the second half. All those shining, reflective surfaces bend and throw back light in interesting ways; Pixar even hired the cinematographer Roger Deakins as a consultant, specifically to advise them about the ways in which real light works in a non-animated film. That realism shows through in scenes like the one where EVE holds up a cigarette lighter to her face, or where a scene from Hello, Dolly! is reflected in WALL-E’s glassy eyes, or where the two robots sit together watching a fiery conflagration after EVE blows up a beached boat.

This is gorgeous stuff, no doubt about it, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s very real visual pleasures. I just feel like the opening scenes are designed to show this stuff off and it comes off like a series of disconnected but dazzling shots. I actually think that, in light of this sentimentality, the film is better when it sticks to gags, like the ones I already mentioned above or the sequence where WALL-E gets crushed beneath a pile of runaway shopping carts, demonstrating his persistence, as you mention. But as fine and compelling as the film is at times like this, it doesn’t really hold together. There’s too much preventing me from committing wholly to its vision—and we haven’t even gotten to the disastrous second half yet.

JB: “Disastrous” might be too strong a word to describe the second half (I prefer “uninspired”), but I’m glad you used it, because the bleak, yes, disastrous mise en scène of the opening half is what demonstrates that WALL-E is interested in far more than adorability and digital dazzle. After all, WALL-E’s cutesy gazes are contrasted by the dystopia that surrounds him. Junk. Rust. Dust. Our civilization has disappeared and left behind a trash heap so excessive that WALL-E’s counterparts have expired trying to clean up the mess. If we concede that WALL-E is purposefully adorable and endearing, mustn’t we also concede that the image of lifeless WALL-E clones, scattered about where they fell in the line of duty, is a haunting one? If this movie were only interested in sentimentality, wouldn’t this dystopia be found on some planet other than our own?

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It seems to me that for a film tagged as “family-friendly,” WALL-E must have sparked some incredibly uncomfortable conversations on the ride home from the theater. This is a picture that outright charges us with destroying the planet, with accepting obesity for the sake of convenience and sloth and with becoming so plugged-in that we never look outward beyond our immediate distractions. This isn’t hidden. It’s overt. If you’re an overweight parent sitting in the theater with a giant tub of buttered popcorn on your lap, WALL-E is using you as an example of what’s wrong with society. In fact, it’s essentially comparing your obesity to global warming. There’s nothing “friendly” about that. And so while kids might just latch on to WALL-E’s puppy-dog cuddliness, adults should find this a much more difficult experience to endure. There’s no Nazi-esque villain in this picture (though, yes, there is the HAL 9000 descendent AUTO). Here the evil is us. Wouldn’t you agree that this is a rather challenging theme for any movie, never mind a family-friendly one?

EH: I’d agree; WALL-E tackles a challenging theme. As I suggested above, if ambition was enough, Pixar would really be worthy of all the praise that gets heaped upon their films almost without fail. I’m not so inclined to go handing out A’s for effort, though. The film’s theme is certainly adult, and to the extent that it serves as a wakeup call for ecological waste and environmental destruction, WALL-E is an admirable “message movie.” At the same time, in its efforts to mingle such high-concept ideas with cutesy entertainment, the film gets itself tied up in knots and does, as you say, wind up equating (or conflating) global warming, obesity, technological dependency and consumerist mania. Its mean-spirited portrayal of humanity as a race of isolated, idiotic, ludicrously obese slugs isn’t so much an intelligent commentary on “convenience and sloth” as a nasty jeremiad that ridicules fat people. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but jokes about people so obese they can’t even stand up aren’t really the height of satire in my opinion. Among other things, the film encourages kids to laugh when really fat people fall out of their chairs. Ha? This stuff is on the same level as Michael Moore’s manipulative swipes at conservatives—possibly amusing if you sympathize with the message, as I basically do in both cases, but not exactly sophisticated, either as art or as politics.

Anyway, yes, the film’s first half does present a vision of ecological devastation that’s very much at odds with the cuddly depiction of WALL-E himself. Picking up on your citation of all those ruined, non-functioning robots strewn around, one of my favorite moments is a little gag that the filmmakers chose to soft-pedal, perhaps because it would’ve been too morbid for the kiddies. There’s a quick scene early on where WALL-E notices that his treads are getting worn. He stops by a fallen robot and then there’s a jump cut to his newly replaced treads motoring along. It instantly reminded me of a ubiquitous scene that appears in many war movies or films about poverty, where a downtrodden man finds a corpse and takes the opportunity to strip off its boots, replacing his own with somewhat nicer ones. That’s basically what WALL-E does here, though it happens so fast and is glossed over so quickly that it’s easy to miss. And honestly, I can’t decide if I actually like the scene as-is or not. I feel like, because this is a “family-friendly” movie, any attempts to make sophisticated jokes like this are necessarily compromised, that the filmmakers held back from making this scene too explicit, from driving home the parallels to the movie convention they’re obliquely referencing. Because what’s actually happening is depressing, too depressing for the kiddies in the audience, certainly: WALL-E is scavenging bits and pieces from the dead “bodies” of his peers.

Watching this scene, I have this internal tension between just trying to watch and enjoy what is, essentially, a children’s movie, and simultaneously processing these ideas and scenes that clearly have no place in a traditional children’s movie. What does it mean that this cute, cuddly robot who is so deliberately sentimentalized in some scenes is in others portrayed, however indirectly, as a battlefield scavenger? I mean, I get it, the filmmakers are intentionally aiming over the heads of the kids, giving the parents (and the critics, not incidentally) something to appreciate. But at the same time, why can’t we just let a kids’ movie be light and entertaining? I’m a big advocate of not talking down to kids, of giving them some credit for intelligence and the capacity for independent thought, but Pixar’s approach is pretty much the opposite of that, balancing between mindless jokiness for the kids and hammering social commentary for the adults. Do we actually feel like our kids are learning something by sitting them in front of this? Does it make us feel better to get some finger-wagging polemical Brussels sprouts with our sugary entertainment? I submit—and I realize this will be a controversial opinion—that Pixar’s ambitions can be counterproductive to the things that they truly do well. WALL-E most closely approaches greatness when it’s channeling the silent comedy of Chaplin, or when it’s basking in the wonder of its digital beauty, and it’s at its nadir when it verges into preachy and condescending polemics aimed at the audience’s overweight parents rather than the kids who are supposedly the film’s audience.

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JB: Obviously I disagree, not with everything you said but with the larger idea that Pixar’s ambitiousness is counterproductive. I suppose that in defense of your argument one could aptly point to Ratatouille, which has the kind of lightweight moralizing that we expect from a family picture while remaining for the most part a simple story about friendship that’s made powerful by some tremendous animation. (It doesn’t get lost in allegory.) But I’d counter that argument with Finding Nemo, a picture so simplemindedly sweet that it’s only as interesting as its visuals and thus is often boring, and also The Incredibles. The critical acclaim for the latter movie, directed by Brad Bird, has perplexed me since it was released. Often I see The Incredibles hailed as some sort of potent meditation on the midlife identity crisis, which it is for about twenty minutes. After that, faster than WALL-E leaves Earth for the Axiom, The Incredibles trades in its moody office interiors for the squeaky polish of a superhero yarn that’s lackluster thematically, dramatically and visually. Indeed, as its fans readily suggest, The Incredibles might have been a step in the right direction in terms of the thematic maturation of the Pixar franchise, but it was a very small step. By comparison WALL-E is a leap.

And so I contend that the second half of WALL-E wouldn’t feel nearly so “uninspired” or “disastrous” if it were true that Pixar is better off avoiding “hammering social commentary” in favor of settling for “mindless jokiness” and digital wonder. Sure enough, though its vision of American obesity is satirically biting, over its second half WALL-E too frequently becomes the thing it preaches against—a display of empty, hyperactive flash. For each minute of divine beauty, like those of the dancing sequence between WALL-E and EVE, there are two minutes filled up by hyperactive robots zipping to and fro, with lots of cutaways to ogle the Axiom’s Vegas-like interior. If this fails to thrill, part of the reason is because there’s no gravity to it, no heft. Indeed, I’d rather that Pixar try to teach me something, try to make me think, because that’s what separates WALL-E from the mind-numbing spectacle that is Michael Bay’s Transformers, for one.

On top of that, I wonder if the best way to bring about change in adults isn’t to circumvent their defenses by appealing to their softer side. As Jim Henson understood, a moralizing message is difficult to dismiss when it is delivered by a character whose naked earnestness disarms us. I don’t know if kids are learning anything from the finger-wagging polemics, but the adults should be. I see WALL-E as akin to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree in that its truly haunting power is reserved for those who are old enough not to need the lesson.

EH: See, I think The Incredibles is quite possibly an even better example of what I’m talking about than WALL-E—polemical sloganeering in the guise of a family entertainment, though in this case I’m much more suspicious of the message than I am of the ecological awareness cheerleading of WALL-E. This simple superhero tale, which borrowed liberally from Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Marvelman before the former was adapted to film by Zack Snyder, has a not-so-buried Randian/Nietzschean subtext, one I’m hardly the only person to pick up on. It’s a blunt critique of modern education and child-rearing and the liberal emphasis on equality. It’s a parody of the “everyone is special” ethos, mocking modern society for suppressing difference in favor of uniformity. As speedster Dash says, “everyone is special” is just “another way of saying no one is.” The film is driven by the idea that exceptional individuals shouldn’t be forced to “fit in,” which is the Objectivist idea at the core of Ayn Rand novels like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. (Indeed, visual references to Atlas himself abound, from Mr. Incredible’s battle with a globe-shaped robot to the Art Deco statue, a relative of the Atlas standing in Rockefeller Center, that appears in the background of an Olympian home.) Rand’s particular brand of individualism is of course a natural fit for superhero stories, which is probably why everyone from Moore to Spider-Man creator Steve Ditko (who created two Objectivist superheroes, The Question and Mr. A) has dealt with her ideas in their comics.

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The Incredibles, in nodding to this lineage, winds up falling in line with the withering contempt displayed for ordinary humanity in WALL-E as well. The villain, Syndrome, is a sniveling “mediocrity,” that über-Randian word, an object of pity and hatred for the super-powered characters. Syndrome, unfortunate enough to have been born without powers, is forced to make himself superior by inventing tons of incredible technology—and this makes him pathetic, I guess, because he’s not simply naturally gifted like the Incredible family. The film’s ultimate message winds up being almost fascist, an endorsement of inherent (genetic?) superiority. Of course, this idea comes wrapped up in the phrasing that you should accept what you are, which is a totally ordinary message for a kids’ movie like this. But when you really think about it, what the film is actually saying is that some people are naturally better than others, that there’s this caste system of human prowess, and that those who are born less gifted should also accept what they are, should not strive to be any better, to lift themselves above their “natural” station. Syndrome is a villain because he dared to want to be better than his birthright. Okay, so on the surface it’s just an animated adventure—and you’re right, not an especially great one—but it also doubles as this weird apologia for right-wing philosophies.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Pixar should concentrate on making more movies like Finding Nemo, and I’m certainly not advocating for more “mindless jokiness.” I just think that the studio’s recent films have been over-praised for having “ideas” without anybody really bothering to examine what those ideas are, or how they’re integrated into the films. The answer, in my opinion, is that the ideas in these films are blunt and overly broad and in some ways rather contemptuous towards human possibility, and that they’re awkwardly grafted onto films that remain lighthearted entertainments at heart. When I think about the scenes I like in WALL-E’s uneven second half, the standouts are the dance sequence, the scene where WALL-E playfully fucks with that little cleaner robot by deliberately leaving grease spots on the ground, and the diagrammatic from-above shots that recall the formalism of Richard McGuire’s McSweeney’s comic strip “ctrl,” an obvious visual and thematic reference point for the Axiom scenes. There’s heart and energy to spare in these films, but I really don’t think any of the Pixar directors have yet figured out a way to harness their ambition to wholly satisfying films, films that don’t sacrifice the lighter qualities of Pixar’s approach.

JB: I see your point. To double back to the Randness of The Incredibles for a moment: I’ve always found its philosophies easy to ignore—blunt though they are—because I just don’t buy them. Not as presented here, I mean. Indeed, as your description suggests, the presentation of the Incredible family as contrasted with Syndrome would suggest that we should know our place and stick to it. But the movie twists this logic by populating its film with gifted characters, from the solemn Violet to the gopher-like superhero-suit designer Edna Mole, which has the effect of conning the audience into believing that Dash is wrong—that everyone is special (not mediocre) and that the crime is when we settle for less than our innate best. Innate would be the key word there, and that would explain Syndrome’s sins. But this deconstruction is never wholly satisfying even when it works on paper. Bird’s movie is inconsistent as to whether the Incredibles are us or instead are shining examples of what we should aspire to be—not that we should aspire too hard, because then we make Syndrome’s mistake and, oh, never mind.

I can’t disagree with the notion that Pixar has yet to make a film that is wholly satisfying and also thematically challenging. As I suggested earlier, Ratatouille is the former but not the latter, and perhaps that proves your point. Except I still contend that the Pixar films are at their best when they attempt to provoke adults and not just kids. I do find the images of Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) squished into his cell of a cubicle labyrinth to be genuinely poignant. I do find the dystopia of WALL-E’s opening half to be more disturbing than that of, say, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. This is subjective, of course, but all of this leads me to believe that Pixar needs to become more daring, not less. Maybe over time what we’ll discover is that WALL-E falls into a transitional period when Pixar was testing its limits on its way to being something more. But I have doubts. The purchase of Pixar by notoriously conservative Disney in 2006, several years after Stanton began work on WALL-E, makes me doubt that a more provocative movie will be released by Pixar anytime soon. I hope I’m wrong.

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But for now that’s boring industry talk. Let’s get back to the art. In fact, let’s talk about the artwork. Personally, it took until Ratatouille before I came to believe that digital animation was being used in such a way that it actually exceeded the traditional cel animation (2D) of classics ranging from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to 1994’s The Lion King. But I assume you’ll agree with me that over the past decade-plus the animation of these pictures has significantly improved—and I’m not just talking about the amount of information packed into each pixel—so that now these worlds don’t just look more three-dimensional but actually exist more three-dimensionally. Or am I wrong?

EH: No, I think you’re right. The quality of 3D animation has been steadily improving, and this has been very apparent in the environment design of Pixar’s recent features. The Incredibles looks good, but even Bird’s next film, Ratatouille, made just three years later, is a big leap ahead of it in terms of the level of detail and nuance this animation is capable of. Check out the storybook opening of Ratatouille, that tracking shot in on a country house on a rainy evening. That one simple shot is packed with detail, from the blended colors on the leaves in the foreground to the texture of the rain to the uneven tiling on the house’s roof, which looks almost startlingly real. There are shots in this film where I forget I’m even watching an animated film, which is certainly a compliment to the technical skill behind the animation. True, there are still moments when the animation isn’t quite as convincing—the restaurant’s kitchen is a bit too slick and smooth for my tastes—but for the most part this film looks stunning, as does Stanton’s WALL-E of course.

At least, the environment design does. I have to admit I’m less enamored of Pixar’s design of human characters, which are very plastic: the people in Pixar’s films inevitably look like they’ve been sculpted from the same raw materials as the backgrounds, which of course they have. For that reason, I don’t agree with you that Pixar’s animation has surpassed traditional cel animation quite yet, if it ever will. The people in The Incredibles and Ratatouille have some personality and style—not so much in WALL-E, with its blob-like piles of flesh—but there’s something disconcertingly artificial about them, like watching action figures move around. They lack the cartoony style of the classic cartoons, like the Looney Tunes shorts, but they’re also not quite realistic either; they’re in this netherworld where they’re not really stylized enough to be satisfying as cartoons, and not realistic enough to truly mimic reality.

Little Remy the Rat, on the other hand, is a satisfying cartoon, with a rubbery versatility that gives him some style and personality that’s not always as apparent in the human characters. This is why Ratatouille, which I consider Pixar’s best (or at least most consistently good) film so far, is itself best in the scenes that take place from a rat’s perspective. These scenes have a certain ground-level intimacy and energy, with the camera frequently hovering behind the head of a rat, looking up at a human-proportioned world. There’s a frenzied pace to the near-slapstick chase sequences in this film, like Tom & Jerry or the Looney Tunes mice cartoons. I also appreciate the rat’s tour of Paris interiors that Remy gives us towards the beginning of the film, scurrying through walls and catching just glimpses of human activity below, like the couple who go from a gun standoff to an embrace or the silhouetted girl putting on makeup for an evening out. I admire the way scenes like this blend verisimilitude and stylization.

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JB: Me too. And before I move forward I want to point out that I’m still a huge fan of traditional cel animation, and I wish it hadn’t taken Disney so long to get back to it. (The Princess and the Frog is set to hit theaters this December.) That said, I’ve never confused old-school cel animation with live action, and Pixar is reaching that level of sophistication in shots if not always full scenes. In Ratatouille this is true in those opening cottage exteriors or in the brilliant nightscapes of Paris, but it’s also true in smaller, more nuanced scenes. One of my favorite moments in Ratatouille—heck, in the whole Pixar canon—comes when Linguini is looking for a place to stash his new rodent friend and momentarily considers dropping the rat in his pants. This leads to an absolutely priceless reaction shot from Remy that screams “God, please, no!” even though Remy does no more than plead silently with his eyes. I look at that shot and I’m dazzled. I’m dazzled that an animated character would ever be this subdued when most human actors would convey the same emotion by being, well, animated. I’m dazzled that Pixar could create this subtle expression so successfully. And I’m dazzled to remember that Remy isn’t a real four-legged actor in that scene; he sure seems like one.

And then there’s WALL-E, a robot with binoculars for a head and camera lenses for eyes. They say eyes are windows to the soul, and that remains true here. What strikes me about WALL-E is how tangible he seems, especially in his scenes on Earth. I feel like I could reach out my hand and touch him. He pops off the screen the way human actors stand out in one of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels when they are surrounded by so much computer-generated unreality. It’s extraordinary! Of all the places that cinema has taken me, few places are so knowingly fabricated and yet emotionally real as that little storage unit that WALL-E calls home, filled top to bottom with his trash-heap treasures. I’m tempted to say that those images—including, of course, the signature moment with EVE and the cigarette lighter—feel painstakingly rendered, but that’s not true at all. In actuality they feel effortless, as if the camera is pointed at something real, tangible.

That latter sensation isn’t a mistake, of course. In fact, for all the Pixar images that couldn’t be achieved on a live film set (like, say, following a scurrying rat up a drainpipe), much of the animation remains rooted in traditional filmmaking techniques. WALL-E includes lens flares when the “camera” is pointed toward the sun, for example. And in the scene in which WALL-E is trampled by the runaway shopping carts the image goes out of focus ever so briefly, as if the result of a cameraman’s error while shooting a scene that’s too expensive to restage for a second take. Through these gimmicks, Pixar attempts to seduce us into regarding its action as “Real,” and I’d argue that these little tricks have a greater effect than most of us realize.

However, I agree with you that Pixar’s animation of human characters leaves much to be desired. Ratatouille has perhaps the most creatively rendered human cast, while WALL-E has the least inspired human characters. In WALL-E, I understand what Stanton was going for in making the lethargic passengers of the Axiom look similar to fleshy infants, but that doesn’t eliminate the letdown one feels when transitioning from the detail-rich robots-only opening. It’s as if the animation team tired themselves out working on WALL-E and phoned it in on the other characters. A similar sensation is delivered by this year’s Up, in which three gorgeously wrinkled older characters stand in stark contrast to a younger supporting cast with rounded edges like Weeble Wobbles. I don’t have much doubt that Pixar has the ability to create realistic human characters, but it hasn’t quite happened yet, for whatever reason.

Pixar

EH: You pick out a lot of great scenes and details there. But while we’ve both been impressed by the realism Pixar often achieves in their most recent features, I do wonder if realism is even what animators should be aspiring to. You say you’ve “never confused old-school cel animation with live action,” and I certainly haven’t either, but is that really such a bad thing? Sure, there’s no mistaking a Disney feature or a Chuck Jones short for reality, but that’s because they’re interested in creating their own stylized cartoon realities, especially in Jones’ more out-there later cartoons like Now Hear This. Maybe it’s my interest in comics and cartooning that makes me feel this way, but I tend to think the best animation is not necessarily that which imitates reality. It’s the same thing in comics. Look at the way, say, Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez and Kim Deitch draw people: None of them treat the human form in quite the same way, and even Hernandez, the most realistic of the three, is heavily stylized. Good cartooning conveys recognizable emotions and behaviors without actually mimicking reality itself, without trying to fool the eye into thinking it’s seeing a photograph. As animation gets closer and closer to live action, it loses its specifically cartoony virtues, and I think that’s something to mourn, even as I also gape at the meticulously rendered Paris of Ratatouille or the detailed dystopia of WALL-E.

So I’ll ask you, do you think realism is, in itself, a noble goal for animation to work towards? What’s so great about being realistic?

JB: Nothing in and of itself. But several Pixar films suffer from a sort of fashion clash when pseudo-realism shares the screen with those old cartoony virtues. In WALL-E, for example, that cigarette lighter looks like the genuine article while the Axiom’s captain has only slightly more detail and three-dimensionality than a Peanuts character. The result is a stylistic disconnect. One shot suggests actual reality, the other suggests cartoon fantasy. I don’t want to make it sound like these different approaches could never be part of the same film, but often Pixar creates certain expectations in one shot that it isn’t ready to live up to in the next. In fact, sometimes even individual shots clash. In Up, for instance, there’s a scene in which Carl Frederickson has a conversation with a construction foreman voiced by John Ratzenberger. Neither of these characters looks so “real” that these men could be mistaken for live actors, but Carl—whose light bulb nose and square jaw make his cartoon ancestry impossible to miss—possesses a 5 o’clock shadow so bristly that it looks as if it could scratch the screen. By comparison the foreman is a blank, an initial sketch still waiting to be filled in. One character inspires us to look closer, to take pleasure in every digital hair follicle. The other is better off regarded from a distance.

I don’t think Pixar should strive to increase the realism of its artistry from picture to picture, but I do think it benefits Pixar to remain consistently realistic (or not) within each movie. Visually speaking, The Incredibles and Ratatouille do a pretty good job of this. WALL-E and Up, less so. Though I don’t think there would be anything inherently wrong with striving for greater realism here and there, the last thing I want to do is lose the cartoon splendor of, say, the diminutive Chef Skinner and lanky Anton Ego. Ratatouille proves that cartoon virtues and photorealism can be cohesive parts of the same whole. At the same time, there are moments in the Pixar collection when it’s as if Charlie Brown has walked into a Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd adventure. At issue isn’t really if one style is better than the other, just that the two styles don’t always match.

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EH: Well said. There are ways to make the cartoon/realism dichotomy work—a lot of manga and anime set off cartoony characters against hyper-realistic backgrounds, as does Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin and Jeff Smith’s Bone—but I don’t think Pixar has managed to achieve this balance. The different styles at work in their films don’t seem like an attempt at creating contrast so much as a failure of inconsistency. These films have huge budgets and utilize state-of-the-art tech: we shouldn’t be seeing images that seem half-finished, as though the details haven’t been sketched in yet. After all, at their best these films display prodigious imagination and visual style, even in stretches that are otherwise lackluster: the second half of WALL-E gives the impression that the animators poured all their energy into the Axiom’s coldly beautiful interiors, often displayed with the patterned formalism of Richard McGuire, while the humans are, as you say, sketches.

Of course, when Pixar’s animators give a sequence or a setting their all, the results are jaw-dropping. We’ve already stressed how visually exciting Pixar’s animation can be at its peak, but probably the pinnacle of their visual splendor, for me, is the sequence in Ratatouille when Linguini takes Remy to the river to drown him. The young man rides his bicycle down the foggy streets of Paris, passing by a cathedral whose stained glass windows shine through the thin white haze, casting a diffuse rainbow glow into the air. It’s realistic, in one sense, but also almost too beautiful to be real. The whole sequence is ethereal and melancholy, and that one image stands out as possibly the loveliest Pixar has crafted to date. It’s especially affecting because it’s not just empty spectacle, but enhances the mood and emotions at the heart of the scene.

It’s because of scenes like this that Ratatouille, with its simple, formulaic storyline and its earnest emotional core, is the one Pixar film I can really get behind, at least as an example of the studio’s capacity for charming, well-crafted family entertainment. On the other hand, even this rather light film contains a faint echo of the Randian, anti-human Incredibles: Note that Linguini never does learn to cook, and instead eventually accepts his natural calling as a waiter. What’s striking about Pixar’s recent films (though I haven’t seen Up) is how little faith they really put in human accomplishment; beneath all the cutesy flourishes and gorgeous imagery, they’re very cynical films, especially for children’s fare. Ratatouille is about being driven to succeed, about doing what one is best at, but as in The Incredibles the film is really about one naturally gifted being and the mediocrities surrounding him. Talent is viewed as innate; Remy doesn’t even really need to work very hard to be a good chef, he just seems to know what to do because he has a superior sensibility. It’s merely a subdued undercurrent in this film, but it’s still troubling as an indication of Pixar’s larger ideas.

JB: Indeed, the moral messaging in Pixar films doesn’t always add up, which just goes to show how much Pixar assumes that audiences will identify with its main characters, coming away from The Incredibles and Ratatouille with the urge to be all that we can be and ignoring the suggestion that all that some of us can be is mediocre. In that way WALL-E is a little different. We might identify with WALL-E’s desire for companionship, but mostly the trash-compacting robot serves as an escort to view our future selves. He’s a mechanical Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and we are overweight, nature-killing Scrooges. The images of this future are haunting right out of the gate—those wind turbines, erected far too late, now buried in junk—and are bluntly critical of our current level of conservational (in)activity.

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Some of WALL-E’s detractors suggested that this vision of the future is too bleak for a movie aimed at kids, but what that criticism ignores is how tame and non-threatening Pixar movies tend to be in terms of their presentations of villainy. Just look at their recent pictures: The Incredibles has Syndrome, who seems more misguided than dangerous, in part because we only see the results of his robot-based assassinations. Ratatouille has Chef Skinner and Anton Ego, who are mean more than monstrous. WALL-E has AUTO, just a spaceship mainframe trying to do its job. And Up has Charles Muntz, who is a brave hero turned silver-haired lunatic after years of exile. (Omitted from that list is Cars, in which the only “villain” is the hero McQueen when he doesn’t have his priorities straight.) All those aforementioned characters fill the “bad guy” role, and sometimes deservingly so. But in terms of evil and ferocity none of them match up with the Witch of Snow White, Cruella De Vil of 101 Dalmatians or Scar of The Lion King, just to hand-pick three cartoon baddies. Nor do Pixar movies revel in terrifying darkness as other cartoons do—Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty or (to go with a non-Disney movie) The Secret of NIMH.

My point is that Pixar has found another way of creating moralizing tales of good triumphing over evil without needing to resort to the old formula in which teaching kids a lesson meant scaring the bejeezus out of them along the way. Whether Pixar’s brand of moralizing is more profound is up for debate, but the studio certainly turns out movies with a lighter spirit than the still-revered Disney classics I was raised on. Yet having said all that I don’t want to pigeonhole Pixar, because if these movies are ever to transcend the “family entertainment” label we need to allow it to happen. Part of that process requires us to demand more of animated films than many of us have in the past. Part of the process requires us to demand less: If David Lynch can be allowed to create films lacking in moral and thematic symmetry, then Pixar’s crew of filmmakers should be allowed to do the same.

One of the best ways to evaluate a film (though certainly not the only way) is to quiet the cynical or hypercritical voices in our head and ask ourselves this simple question: “Am I moved (emotionally, spiritually, cerebrally—however)?” With most Pixar films, my answer would be “No,” or at least “Not much.” But when it comes to Ratatouille and WALL-E, my answer changes. I am moved.

EH: I think this is a great criterion for evaluating a film, or any other work of art for that matter: “Am I moved (emotionally, spiritually, cerebrally—however)?” Yes, there’s more to it than that, but that’s a central question, and criticism is in part the act of exploring those subjective reactions. My own answer, as I’m sure I’ve made clear already, is that Pixar’s output thus far has only moved and affected me in isolated moments, not as a whole experience. Its corporate merger with Disney notwithstanding, Pixar may yet have the capacity to craft a great movie—rather than just a great “family” movie—but so far I agree with you that their films have been variations on typical kids’ movie moralizing, with their own twists on the formula.

Of course, in suggesting that Pixar’s achievements so far are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, I don’t want to sound like Armond White, who has been notoriously dismissive of Pixar. In his review of Henry Selick’s Coraline, White took the opportunity to trash WALL-E by comparison with the Selick film. It’s a typically cantankerous White piece: I frankly have no idea what he’s even saying with some of his arguments, and I’m not sure why he doesn’t talk more about the film he’s ostensibly reviewing, instead of using Coraline’s supposed greatness as a club with which to beat WALL-E. Even so, he does have a few points worth making buried in there somewhere.

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His most salient point, as far as I’m concerned, is his observation that Pixar’s films and others like them “keep animation infantile.” He identifies the accepted wisdom that animated films are for kids as little more than an “industry convention.” There are few times when I’m really comfortable agreeing with the willfully contrarian White, but this is definitely one of them. There’s no reason that we should have to accept that cartoons are just for kids, not with films like Persepolis and the anthology Peur(s) du noir (which boasts a gorgeous short by the multi-talented Richard McGuire, whose comics I’ve referenced a couple of times in relation to WALL-E) demonstrating what can be done with the form when it’s aimed at more sophisticated audiences. It’s been a long time since comics won this particular fight, with artists branching out into telling stories not meant only for children, and I hope that animated films will eventually get to a similar place. It’s about time we stop holding animated films to a lower standard than any other type of film.

JB: That’s exactly right. And yet here’s where I disagree with both you and White: Persepolis didn’t move me as much as WALL-E, nor did Waltz with Bashir, another animated “for-adults” movie that White mentions in his dismissal of the “atrocious” WALL-E. Make no mistake, I was moved (if less so) by both Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir. Both movies are proud tributes to the idea that animation needn’t be reserved for “family cartoons.” At the same time, though, celebrating those films as genre-busting trailblazers reveals an unfortunate truth: We tend to think that “family friendly” and “adult-friendly” are mutually exclusive concepts, even though the terms suggest harmony. And so I ask the Pixar doubters: Must the child-friendly elements of WALL-E—all that sentimental sweetness—be stripped away in order for the film’s more intellectual themes to affect me? Why? Why have we, as cinephiles, created this idea that animated films can’t thoroughly thrill kids and adults simultaneously? Jim Henson managed to do that with regularity using puppets on The Muppet Show, and in my opinion WALL-E achieves a similar balance, if not in every scene.

That said, I concede that WALL-E’s generally ecstatic critical response must have been boosted by the modest expectations of critics who were stunned to be so genuinely entertained. As White suggests, it’s probably true that critics pigeonholed WALL-E as infantile fare, rather than approaching digital animation as a “legitimate art form,” and then “illogically praised the film for transcending” those modest boundaries. But if that’s true, couldn’t it also be true that adult skepticism for family-friendly pictures is so engrained that WALL-E will never get its just due? Ed, you’re an open-minded movie lover, but could you give WALL-E or the next Pixar release the benefit of the doubt that you might afford a problematic first viewing of a film by Lynch or Werner Herzog? The easy answer, I know, is to say that Lynch and Herzog have gained your trust in a way that Pixar hasn’t. And that’s fair. But at the same time I’m wondering if the notion that “family friendly” really means “infantile” is so engrained that Pixar would have to do the extraordinary to win over its nonbelievers.

Admiring WALL-E like I do, I admit that I consider White’s desperate trashing of the film to be a badge of honor. Despite a few cogent points here and there, the underlying theme of his review is, as usual, “Other critics said it’s good, so it can’t be.” (White even takes a detour in his assassination of WALL-E via Coraline to slam Pan’s Labyrinth.) My favorite moment of the review is when White, who routinely propagates the notion that we are all mediocrities who should be cowering in the presence of his Mr. Incredibleness, decides that the same savvy consumers who would go on to make WALL-E the fifth-highest grossing movie of 2008 had “pegged WALL-E as no fun” in just three days “despite critical hosannas” to the contrary. White’s proof? Going to a matinee on a no-school Monday after WALL-E’s opening weekend and being one of only three in the crowd. (Apparently White thinks that the pre-teen target audience of WALL-E’s marketing campaign can drive itself to the theater.)

My own theatrical encounters with WALL-E were quite different. About a month after the movie was released I saw it twice within a week. What I noticed the second time around, when I could let my attention shift away from the screen, is that during the climactic moment when EVE waits to find out if she has successfully repaired and rebooted WALL-E, no one in the audience moved. The packed crowd, split evenly between kids and adults, seemed to hold its breath. The result was an exhilarating pure silence like I hadn’t experienced at the theater since making multiple trips to enjoy No Country for Old Men the year before. It was magical. And so as I left the theater, with most of the audience still in their seats, I asked myself, “What reason do I have to doubt or defile the power of this experience?” I couldn’t come up with a reason then and I can’t come up with one now. WALL-E is hardly perfect, I am the first to admit, but it is a masterpiece. I believe that.

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Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.

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Review: The Death of Dick Long Reckons with Male Fragility in Madcap Fashion

Daniel Scheinert’s film finds a very human vulnerability lurking beneath the strange and oafish behaviors of its male characters.

3

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The Death of Dick Long
Photo: A24

For a film populated almost completely by utter morons, Daniel Scheinert’s The Death of Dick Long is shot through with a surprising emotional complexity. While its characters may appear to be, and often behave as, stereotypical rednecks and bumbling small-town cops, the film approaches them not with contempt, but with a bemused kind of empathy, finding a very human vulnerability lurking beneath their strange and oafish behaviors.

Make no mistake, the people in the film do some pretty bizarre things. “Hey, y’all mother fuckers wanna get weird?” the soon-to-be-deceased title character (Daniel Scheinert) asks his ne’er-do-well pals, Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland), after they’ve just wrapped up band practice and Zeke’s wife (Virginia Newcomb) has put their little girl (Poppy Cunningham) to bed. And so they do, shotgunning beers, smoking tons of weed, shooting off fireworks, and firing rifles in a raucous intoxicated haze, all of which is captured in elegiac slow motion, and lit with chiaroscuro beauty. But The Death of Dick Long withholds the truly freaky stuff these guys get up to that night until nearly an hour into its running time. All we know is that somehow this evening of country-fried debauchery results in a fatal injury to Dick, whose near-dead body Zeke and Earl unceremoniously dump at the local hospital.

The film proceeds as a Deep South riff on the Coen brothers’ Fargo, with Zeke and Earl desperately, and very stupidly, attempting to cover their tracks. At one point, after dumping Zeke’s blood-soaked station wagon in a pond (shades of Hitchcock’s Psycho), the two men find that the water is so shallow that it only covers half the car. Meanwhile, Officer Dudley (Sarah Baker), who feels like Marge Gunderson’s supremely incompetent cousin, is, well, cold on their trail. She’s excited to be on such a big case, but her natural sunniness and trusting nature consistently blind her to the painfully obvious clues sitting right in front of her face.

When the cause of Dick’s death is finally revealed, it’s shocking, horrifying, and brutally funny, a hugely satisfying answer to the film’s central mystery. But it’s also weirdly moving, a tragicomic peek inside the fragile, fucked-up heart of the disaffected white American male. Like John Cassavetes’s Husbands or Todd Phillips’s Hangover films, The Death of Dick Long recognizes the potential for both humor and horror in a certain kind of toxic male homo-social relationship that’s based primarily around getting utterly hammered.

Scheinert approaches this tricky material with the same tone of wry pseudo-sincerity that he and Daniel Kwan brought to their 2016 film Swiss Army Man, keeping the audience at a slight remove from the characters’ outlandish travails while still investing us, on some level, in their emotional journey. Scheinert’s careful foreshadowing of the reason for Dick’s death is so subtle and clever that one is likely to identify the hints only in retrospect. If The Death of Dick Long’s Coenesque tone of ironic distance often encourages us to laugh at this collection of buffoonish weirdos, Scheinert never loses sight of their fundamental humanity.

Billy Chew’s screenplay sharply explores the bizarre and shame-filled byways that result from straight men shutting out the women in their lives in order “get weird” together. And the impact of the film’s plot revelations derives in no small part from the reactions of its female characters, who discover how little they truly know about what the men in their lives get up to when they’re not around. For Zeke, Earl, and Dick, getting drugs and going wild is their haphazard, self-destructive means of fleeing from the demands of their lives, which they’re ill-equipped to deal with responsibly. While the film never lets them off the hook, dropping countless hints about how indolent, pathetic, and dependent on the women in their lives they are, it also recognizes the loneliness and despair that lies deep in their hearts.

Cast: Michael Abbott Jr., Virginia Newcomb, Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler, Poppy Cunningham, Roy Wood Jr., Sunita Mani, Janelle Cochrane, Daniel Scheinert Director: Daniel Scheinert Screenwriter: Billy Chew Distributor: A24 Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Abominable Is Both Poignant Tale of Grief and Commodity Fetish

The second half’s series of hollow visual spectacles foreground the film as a corporate product.

2.5

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Abominable
Photo: Universal Pictures

Writer-director Jill Culton’s Abominable is, by and large, a gene splice of How to Train Your Dragon and Ice Age, with its nefarious corporate-military villain drawing comparison to Incredibles 2 and its quirky background animal characters recalling the Madagascar series. By replicating proven formulas, some of them originally its own, DreamWorks Animation is no doubt counting on at least subliminally calling these other films to mind, but for the first half or so of Abominable, Culter’s screenplay effectively deflects the sense that the film is driven by marketing calculations. Yes, one of its protagonists resembles nothing more than a very cute plush doll, but a fine first act lays down a groundwork of emotional realism that elevates what might otherwise be taken as just another kid’s movie.

Abominable opens promisingly, with Yi (Chloe Bennet), a teenage girl living in a Shanghai apartment with her mother (Michelle Wong) and grandmother, Nai Nai (Tsai Chin), closed off from the world in the wake of her father’s death. Nai Nai, a diminutive Chinese-grandmother type who’s critical and loving in equal measure, worries that Yi finds any excuse she can to be out of the home. Even inside the apartment, she’s found ways to be elsewhere, having built a secluded fort on the roof of their building, where she continues to play violin, despite professing to her mother that she has given up the hobby she shared with her father.

Yi’s inner conflict, the inability she feels to cope with and fully grieve her father’s death, is vividly drawn and immediately recognizable, and despite being presented in simplified terms that the film’s intended young audience can comprehend, it doesn’t lack for poignancy. Culter finds in Yi’s violin playing an expressive device for conveying the girl’s unspoken pain, and there’s a beautiful sequence of Yi playing in the solitude of her rooftop hideout, framed against the Shanghai night sky. It’s there that she discovers the yeti she will eventually dub Everest, who’s hiding out from the forces of the nefarious Burnish Industries, whose aged head honcho—identified only by the mononym Burnish, and voiced by Eddie Izzard—is hunting the snow monster as a way of recapturing his ice-climbing youth.

Ultimately, Culton’s film lives and dies by Everest. Suggesting a cross between a polar bear and dog, he’s covered in meticulously rendered white fur, and his oversized blue eyes and gap-toothed underbite are guaranteed to activate the cuteness-receptor neurons in your brain. He doesn’t speak, but growls rather intelligently and, more remarkably, hums with the deep, resonant voice of an upright bass. When he does so, he magically affects natural objects: Initially, Everest makes things grow (a flower blooms, blueberries sprout), but as Abominable goes on, his powers become essentially boundless, morphing to suit the situation or, quite overtly, to realize some spectacular concept art, as when Everest, Yi, and her friends Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and Peng (Albert Tsai) take a ride on some dolphin-shaped clouds.

Yi, Jin, and Peng shepherd Everest all the way across China and toward the Himalayas, the home from which the young abominable snowman was taken. And they’re pursued the whole way by Burnish and his company’s resident zoologist, Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), who professes to believe that capturing the animal will help protect him. As the three children and the yeti make escape after escape, each set in iconic Chinese landscapes and always enabled at the last minute by Everest’s ever-changing powers—the most fun effect of which is a giant dandelion they use to waft away on the wind—Abominable grows repetitive, and the second half’s series of hollow visual spectacles foreground the film as a corporate product.

The film’s outcast-teen-meets-outcast-creature formula serves to motivate a journey that includes beautifully rendered depictions of well-known Chinese locations: the Yangtze Valley, the Gobi Desert, the Leshan Giant Buddha. Touristic photographs even play an important role in the plot, as Yi comes to understand through one photo that her adventure has realized her father’s trans-China dream trip. The film promises that the real places are even more magical than they appear in such mementos, though the sense of wonder conveyed by its images have less to do with the majesty of nature than they do with the mystic power of the commodity fetish. Something rings false about Burnish’s eventual reformation, the humility before nature that he professes while standing before the film’s depiction of a beautiful and untouched Mount Everest—an image that, these days, only exists in the fantasies of the tourism industry.

Cast: Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong Director: Jill Culton Screenwriter: Jill Culton Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: First Love Is a Well-Oiled Genre Machine, As Bloody As It Is Haunting

First Love reveals itself to be an elegant and haunting Takashi Miike film in throwaway clothing.

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First Love
Photo: Well Go USA

Takashi Miike’s First Love shuffles between slapstick and disturbing violence with fluid ease. The film’s plot suggests an unpromising blend of a ‘50s noir and a ‘90s-era Quentin Tarantino joint, as it involves a variety of derivative genre types who’re sent on a collision course via a requisite drug scam gone wrong. For a while, Miike and screenwriter Masa Nakamura occupy themselves with setting up the film’s elaborate domino-effect-like structure, crisscrossing between half a dozen nearly self-contained stories of yakuza warfare, Chinese criminals, crooked Japanese cops, and wronged women on a warpath. Pointedly missing here is the gleefully unhinged sense of humor that typically marks Miike’s yakuza films, but as the plot coalesces, the filmmaker’s long game grows increasingly rewarding, and First Love reveals itself to be an elegant and haunting Miike film in throwaway clothing.

Leo (Masataka Kubota) is First Love’s most sentimental and least interesting hero, a gifted boxer who’s often lectured by his trainer for lacking a competitive edge. This notion of a man of promise who’s unable to fulfill his potential is amusingly rhymed with the plight of a coterie of yakuza killers, who bemoan their dwindling power and necessary collaboration with other gangs. The rhyming structure is bluntly asserted when Miike cuts from Leo punching an opponent to a head as it’s sliced off on a random street via a sword. This beheading is staged in Miike’s customarily flippant comic style, as if to say “murder’s a boring and tedious matter of business.” For a filmmaker who so often gets off on violence, Miike has a wonderful, nearly unparalleled ability to throw away a violent bit for the sake of a punchline.

For reasons that require less explication than the film offers, Leo gets entangled in a conspiracy engineered by Kase, a midlevel Japanese criminal who serves as a link between the yakuza and drug dealers, and who’s played by Shota Sometani in a performance of deranged and freewheeling grace. Sometani renders Kase a kind of criminal yuppie, betraying dangerous people in a blasé manner. The joke, one of First Love’s best, is that Kase’s slimy, white-collar-feeling betrayals often involve brutal murders born of unexpected complications, which he orchestrates with a matter-of-fact self-absorption that grows funnier and funnier as the film’s fuse becomes shorter. In one of the most hilarious sight gags in Miike’s vast canon, Kase attempts arson with a trap that involves a little plastic dog that’s been rigged to stroll into and ignite a pool of gas. Once again, Miike doesn’t emphasize the humor in all caps, staging it with a casualness that suggests the inherent insanity of mercenary life.

First Love is a one-thing-after-another, night-in-the-life crime comedy that gradually becomes ineffably serious and haunting. This sort of transition, a specialty of Miike’s, is signaled early on with sequences that disrupt the film’s tone of chaotic revelry. Leo meets Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a prostitute enslaved by a drug dealer connected to the yakuza, and who’s haunted by hallucinations of the corrupt father who abandoned her. When we first meet Monica, she’s trying to escape the drug dealer’s apartment, and the bed sheet she’s left on the floor rises off the ground, chillingly assuming human form. The film’s bringing together of a young man and a prostitute with a heart of gold may be an ancient, indestructible cliché, but such sequences revitalize First Love’s tropes and give them urgency. And this urgency grows as the yakuza carnage continues, its senseless endlessness becoming less absurd than tragic.

Unlike many practitioners of this sort of pulp narrative, Miike and Nakamura understand that the film’s McGuffin—in this case the bag of drugs—doesn’t matter. Kase and the yakuza and the Chinese gangsters may be chasing the booty, but the latter is an excuse for frustrated people to do what they wanted to do anyway: kill one another. Killers keep pouring into the film, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell them all apart, but Miike frames the most important characters in stylish poses that give them, and First Love at large, a comic-book grandeur—an association that’s literalized when the director audaciously segues into animation in order to realize a huge stunt that was almost certainly beyond his budget if it were to be staged for real. First Love climaxes in a department store with two men, one Japanese, one Chinese, beating and cutting each other senseless, which Miike allows to unfold at brutal length, effectively suggesting that all these genre mechanics, all the romantic window dressing, come down to this: the bloodlust shared by characters and audience alike.

Cast: Masataka Kubota, Shôta Sometani, Sakurako Konishi, Becky, Sansei Shiomi, Seiyô Uchino, Takahiro Miura, Cheng Kuo-Yen, Chun-hao Tuan Director: Takashi Miike Screenwriter: Masa Nakamura Distributor: Well Go USA Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Rambo: Last Blood Wears Its Muddled Ethos Like a Purple Heart

The Looney Tunes nature of Rambo’s murder spree tempers much of the script’s ideological offense.

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Rambo: Last Blood
Photo: Lionsgate

When we last saw battle-scarred Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), he was walking toward the dusty homestead of the father, and the metaphorical American fatherland, that he left behind several decades prior. That was at the end of 2008’s Rambo, a film released early in the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency. Dubya’s war-mongering doctrine was well-complemented by this tale of a steroidal white savior getting savage with big bad Burmese rebels. Body-disintegrating bullets and longing bro-ish gazes said everything words couldn’t. Mission fuckin’ accomplished! It was completely offensive and totally awesome—as long as you could key in to the undercurrent of virile camp.

Give credit to Rambo: Last Blood, capably helmed by Adrian Grunberg, for tapping that gleefully repellent vein one (apparently) final time. Rambo is still on his dad’s ranch, though the old man has departed this mortal coil, leaving behind Maria (Adriana Barraza), who has worked the farm for decades, and Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), a college-bound 17-year-old who Rambo treats like his own flesh and blood. Gabrielle has hopeful dreams of the future and loves riding horses with her “Uncle John.” But before she heads off to school, she wants to face the abusive father (Marco de la O), now living in Mexico, who abandoned her many years ago.

Mexico, full of what our current commander in chief might term “bad hombres,” is portrayed here as a cesspool of drug addicts, sex traffickers, and violent hedonists, in addition to a single crusading journalist, Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega), because some Mexicans, we assume, are good people. Before we’ve hit the 15-minute mark (the film itself runs an exploitation-flick-friendly 89 minutes), Gabrielle finds herself in the clutches of two evil pimps, brothers Victor and Hugo Martinez (Óscar Jaenada and Sergio Peris-Mencheta), who oversee a back-alley prostitution empire. Time, then, for John Rambo to go all Taken on these mofos.

That he does, though you may be surprised to learn that the kidnapping plot is resolved by the halfway point, after which Last Blood becomes a hilariously gore-splattered variant on Home Alone, with Rambo using all of his survivalist skills to exact revenge on the brothers and their innumerable disposable henchmen. You better believe his iconic compound bow is an integral part of the plan, though his even more characteristic red headband and greasy/stringy Fabio mullet are, sadly, lost to time. In a film filled with all manner of elating kills (sawed-off shots to the head, razor-sharp machetes to the ankles and throat), nothing is more exuberantly cold-blooded than Rambo blasting the Doors’s “Five to One” as a diversionary tactic.

The Looney Tunes nature of the murder spree tempers much of the ideological offense of the screenplay, though the Rambo films have always been incoherent texts—propagandistically gung-ho in some moments, peculiarly upstart and rebellious in others. There’s a scene here in which Rambo drives up to a border fence on the Mexican side, briefly glances at the English sign warning him off, then floors the accelerator and crashes through the barbed wire. Boundaries mean nothing to Rambo; after this scene, he shuttles between the U.S. and Mexico as if he were popping down to the local grocery store. Though it’s only right to ponder whether lone-wolf actions such as this are more on the side of righteous or regressive fury.

The latter seems more likely, in no small part because of how often Rambo has been co-opted by hawkish powers-that-be. After seeing 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, the second film in the series in which Rambo rescues American POWs in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan was heard to remark, “I know what to do the next time this happens.” And Reagan is alluded to in both the fourth and fifth film via the initials of the name on the family farm mailbox: R. Rambo.

Yet there’s still the matter of Stallone himself, who at 72-years-old has become even more of a gloriously sinewy sight gag, one that tends to cut against any serious ambitions or ideas that these films, this one in particular, might harbor. The degree to which he’s aware of his own absurdity is debatable; never forget that he boasts a 160 Mensa I.Q., so the joke could very well be on us. Intentional or not, he consistently courts the ridiculous to touch the sublime, and that’s certainly true in Last Blood, which he stalks through like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s a lizard-brain thrill to his single-mindedness, and a stab, such as it is, at emotional complexity when Rambo’s killing spree culminates in a literally heartrending gesture. This is followed by a scene set on a sun-dappled country porch that draws equally on the multifaceted mytho-poeticism of John Ford and the jingoistic stupidity of John Wayne circa The Green Berets. That neither sensibility fully overwhelms the other is testament to the Rambo series’s consistently wandering convictions—a muddled ethos worn as proudly as a Purple Heart.

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Adriana Barraza, Yvette Monreal, Genie Kim aka Yenah Han, Joaquin Cosio, Oscar Jaenada Director: Adrian Grunberg Screenwriter: Matthew Cirulnick, Sylvester Stallone Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

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The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on November 28, 2016.

Finding the crux of a Pedro Almodóvar film is not unlike asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. In each case, the supposed science of the issue at hand is often short-circuited by impatience. Lest the comparison seem too glib, Almodóvar’s entire filmography is, to varying degrees, about the performance of taste, where characters often relate to one another not through their minds, but through their fingers, eyes, and teeth. Sweet tooths are more than a matter of dental hygiene; they’re a means of defining personal placement within the broader spectrum of vivid characters and self-serving interests. The bright color scheme of Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène redoubles these matters by problematizing realism as a dissenting faction amid otherwise psychologically defined characters, whose motivations are typically for sustenance of a rather short-order sort. On that note, Almodóvar’s oeuvre, and the characters that comprise it, can perhaps be best summarized by Carmen Maura’s character in Matador, who says near the film’s end: “Some things are beyond reason. This is one of them.” Clayton Dillard

On the occasion of the release of Almodóvar’s latest, Pain and Glory, we ranked the Spanish auteur’s films from worst to best.


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

21. I’m So Excited! (2013)

The broad comedy of I’m So Excited! stays too comfortably on airplane mode throughout the film’s brisk runtime. It’s a deliberately frivolous, tossed-off effort, with middling jokes about barbiturates and musical numbers that pander, and too nakedly appeal, to camp impulses. These shortcomings are partially assuaged by the film’s sheer pep, especially as it becomes evident that actors like Javier Cámara and Carlos Areces are having a great deal of fun in their roles as unperturbed flight attendants. Still, these fairly meager pleasures are unsatisfying consolation prizes when stacked against Almodóvar’s finest films, where there’s no evidence of an in-flight creative nap. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

20. Julieta (2016)

Arguably the most conventional film of Almodóvar’s career, Julieta consistently renders its titular character’s recollections in explicit terms as those of a conflicted woman whose life has been spent in the throes of filial grief. Lacking an exuberant production design, the film settles for a predictably varied visual palette that, at this point, operates only as a commercial selling point for Almodóvar’s directorial style. The screenplay’s unimaginative frame narrative isn’t helping matters either; instead of reconfiguring memory into emotionally resonant bursts or revelations of desire as in All About My Mother, Almodóvar opts for template melodrama, with cutaways to Julieta (Emma Suárez) literally scribing her recollections in the present tense. In a career defined by inventive methods of access to his characters’ lingering duress, Julieta is an unfortunately flat-footed step toward complacency. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

19. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

More compelling in theory than practice, What Have I Done to Deserve This? finds Almodóvar forgoing the punkish abandon of his earlier work for a calmer, if still rambunctious, domestic drama starring Carmen Maura as Gloria, a housewife whose husband and children have little respect for her. Almodóvar regular Chus Lampreave stands out as Gloria’s cupcake-hoarding mother-in-law, whose mitigating presence within the patriarchal family recalls a similar figure in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House, but several of the gags, whether a lizard being the only witness to a murder or a man’s demand for “elegant, sophisticated sadism…like in French films,” don’t resound with the same resourcefulness of those from Almodóvar’s sharpest farces. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

18. Broken Embraces (2009)

After the popular and critical success of Talk to Her and Volver, Almodóvar opted for a decidedly reflexive opus (Broken Embraces boasts the longest runtime in his oeuvre at 127 minutes) of self-indulgence, guided through time by the memories of Mateo (Lluís Homar), a blind filmmaker whose newfound creative partnership with the much younger Diego (Tamar Novas) breeds a series of episodes detailing past love affairs. Unwieldy by nature, Broken Embraces is in some sense the most sprawling presentation of Almodóvar’s telenovella revisionism, but the narrative net is cast so wide, and with such a decided but superficial emphasis on the tortured process of an artist, that few of the passages, let alone characters, are given the necessary affective space to blossom. Dillard


The Films of Pedro Almodóvar Ranked

17. Kika (1993)

By the early 1990s, the stakes of both Almodóvar’s perceptions on contemporary sexuality and intertextual play with film history had necessarily reached a point of no return. If the director’s films were still going to be capable of shocking or at least surprising audiences, they would require a refreshed template, one informed by but not beholden to his films of the past decade. The first of those three efforts was Kika, a wholly postmodern experiment that collages bits and pieces of classical Hollywood with Almodóvar’s fearless bid to fuse rape, cunnilingus, and the music of Bernard Herrmann into a whirligig of excesses. While there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the film’s sheer energy, there’s also a fundamental hole at its emotional core, with flattened characters and meandering visual motifs. Dillard

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Review: James Gray’s Ad Astra Is a Deeply Felt Existential Space Odyssey

Balancing humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, the film is inextricably of its moment.

3.5

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Ad Astra
Photo: 20th Century Fox

James Gray’s Ad Astra envisions what human civilization might look like when our notion of a globalized capitalist order turns into something more galaxy-sized. Set in the near future, this bleakly premonitory film imagines the moon and Mars as mere arms of the same techno-corporate nightmare-scape we’ve concocted here on Earth. And Gray immediately homes in on an esteemed astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s a beleaguered functionary of this newly expansive human flow, his regular trips to and from planetary pit stops haunted by contemplations of the same old “fighting over resources” he’s accustomed to from our terrestrial origin point, or even grimmer summations like “we go to work, we do our jobs and then it’s over.” As an unspecified enemy’s lunar rovers mount a hostile attack on Roy’s fleet during an outing on the moon, puncturing the wheels of his AAA-sponsored rover, killing a crew member, and wounding his sage envoy, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), there’s a distinct sense that nothing ever changes for the better.

Ad Astra’s sobering prophecy of a future where Subway still peddles foot-long subs in the far reaches of outer space is casually and succinctly expressed through the subjectivity of Pitt’s cerebral hero, who’s tasked with his great assignment—locating the remnants of an aborted deep-space mission—in an early dialogue scene that represents one of Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross’s few concessions to sci-fi movie cliché. Roy’s higher-ups intimate to him that his famed father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), long thought dead after pioneering the Lima Project to Neptune, may still be alive, tinkering with dark matter and unknowingly setting off destructive power surges throughout the universe. Identified as one of the few astronauts physically fit and emotionally stable enough to execute such a tremendous undertaking, Roy—fixed in his belief that his father is long gone and uninterested in dredging up painful old memories without good reason—accepts his duty ambivalently.

For the first time in his body of work, Gray renders the innermost thoughts of his protagonist as an ongoing narration track that will garner comparisons to the whispery monologues in Terrence Malick’s films, though the thoughts expressed here are less poetic than functional. Coloring in Roy’s personal backstory (his floundering marriage, recollections of growing up with a domineering father) and telegraphing his emotional state (“I’m looking forward to the day my solitude ends”), the occasionally on-the-nose voiceover might seem at first like a studio-mandated device to bring clarity and sympathy to an otherwise opaque central figure.

But Pitt’s utterances quickly become a jet stream of anxiety that throws into relief the image of the strong, stoic masculinity that Gray presents in Ad Astra, and it’s this dichotomy of ambition and self-doubt that the filmmaker thrives on. As a requirement of his daredevil occupation, Roy is subject to frequent automated therapy sessions designed to monitor his psychological fitness to perform his space work, and it’s telling that a rare emotional response on his part, triggered by a high-security session on Mars where he attempts to communicate by radio with his father, is what costs him his job and sets the film into full swing.

The Lost City of Z similarly treated personal passion as a virtue nonetheless seen by the wider society as a disqualifying liability to professionalism, and Ad Astra’s narrative again charts a leap into the unknown precipitated by an almost foolhardy display of initiative. When Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a native of Mars and fellow descendant of Lima Project royalty, gets wind of Roy’s dismissal, she personally sees to it that he finds his way onto the Neptune-bound shuttle, a code breach that sparks panic and ultimately a string of casualties.

Soon the mission is Roy’s alone, at which point the film’s portrait of a consummate professional ambivalently going through the motions of his job yields to something more soul-searching, with the reverberations of Roy’s past gradually superseding the hassles of his present. It all leads to a father-son confrontation near the rocky rings of Neptune—one that swiftly sidesteps the expected tone of reconciliation in favor of a startlingly bitter reunion performed by Pitt and Jones as a dance between casual hostility and repressed longing, and imaginatively staged by Gray so that Roy must literally ascend to his father’s level.

It’s here, in the anguished lack of catharsis, that Ad Astra is unmistakably revealed as James Gray’s creation. In a film that has all the hallmarks of epic science-fiction filmmaking (state-of-the-art special effects, elegant world-building, an A-list cast), yet feels distinctly small-scale in its emotional spectrum, Gray’s reckoning with the burden of a father on his son carries with it the subtext of a contemporary Hollywood auteur contemplating the legacy of those that came before him. Alongside Roy’s insecurity, Clifford represents pure, unbridled ambition, the kind that defined a director like Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey is unavoidably in conversation with Ad Astra. As an astronaut, Roy commands respect and admiration but nonetheless feels a gaping disconnect from his father’s era of interstellar exploration, a time when, he imagines, there was a greater sense of danger and a higher capacity for discovery, given that modern man’s technological reach has managed to turn outer space into little more than an elaborate highway system.

Ad Astra is a beautiful, lovingly wrought film, from Hoyt Van Hoytema’s impeccably unfussy cinematography (much of it centered around Pitt’s restrained visage) to Max Richter’s ethereal score, but it seems fair to say that the film doesn’t possess, and arguably isn’t reaching for, the moments of jaw-dropping spectacle that epitomized 2001 or, more recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. What it does have is a palpable honesty and humility, not only with regard to the genre it’s occupying, but also in relation to the cosmos and the future of humanity. In a future where the plagues of civilization have only evolved into new shapes and sizes, it asks, in a roundabout way, if there’s anything worthier of exploration than our own relationships. Balancing this humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, Ad Astra is a film inextricably of its moment.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Natasha Lyonne Director: James Gray Screenwriter: James Gray, Ethan Gross Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: PG-13 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 122

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Review: Judy Finds a Paint-by-Numbers Drag Revue at the End of the Rainbow

Renée Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting eludes her.

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Judy
Photo: Roadside Attractions

“Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland?” said Judy Davis when she played the supremely talented and tragedy-prone actress-singer in the 2001 miniseries Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Difficult, indeed. The woman born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922 is damn near inimitable. Davis’s natural neuroticism suited her high-strung, unsentimental interpretation of Garland; even the scenes in which she lip-synced to original recordings had an energy that came close to capturing the Old Hollywood starlet’s raw-nerve essence. No such vigor exists in director Rupert Goold’s Judy, a declining-years biopic that details the on- and off-stage drama during the London residency of Garland’s sold-out 1968 concert tour of Britain (less than a year before she died of a drug overdose at age 47) and mainly serves as a meager star vehicle for Renée Zellweger.

That’s not to say that Judy, adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s fanciful, to put it kindly, stage play End of the Rainbow, is entirely without merit. Of course, it takes some time for the single point of admittedly meta interest to emerge: A prologue and several subsequent flashbacks set during her prolific MGM years situate the young Garland (Darci Shaw) as both a wide-eyed innocent in Edenic Tinseltown and, via several sinister interactions with imposing studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a sacrificial forbear of the #MeToo era. Yet none of these scenes jibe with the mawkish main narrative in which Zellweger, leaning hard into tic-laden mimicry, plays the broke and barbiturate-addicted 46-year-old Garland.

Zellweger’s performance is all-surface—uncanny at a glance (the close-cropped wig and the anxious gestures, especially), though rarely evocative or lived in. This is acting that seems contrived to impress and to garner cheap sympathy even when the character is at her most difficult. In the early going, Garland has a belligerent blow-up with her ex-husband and manager, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), over the well-being of their two children, as well as a swooning first meeting with eventual fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a musician and entrepreneur whose big-picture promises are mostly hollow. Money, however, proves the biggest issue. So, with financial security nonexistent, and the custody of her kids at stake, Garland accepts an offer to do a headlining season at the Talk of Town nightclub in London.

There’s a tense lead-up to opening night, since Garland fails to show up at call time and her handlers have to bend over backward to right a seemingly sinking ship; unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only time this occurs. Then, when Garland finally takes the stage, a film going through all the expected motions suddenly becomes a shade more intriguing.

This isn’t because of Zellweger’s singing, all of which she does herself, every note of course failing to emulate or equal Garland’s uninhibited authority. Compare Zellweger’s technically accomplished performance of Garland staple “By Myself,” which she croons here in full, with the real deal’s Kabuki-maniacal rendition of the same song in her final film role in Ronald Neame’s great musical melodrama I Could Go On Singing from 1963. The contrast is damning, and not just because the actual Garland, in I Could Go On Singing, has the added background benefit of a ceiling-to-floor-length crimson curtain straight out of Twin Peaks’s Red Room.

Zellweger can reach all the notes and hit all the marks, but Garland’s intense emoting—the sense that, at every moment, she’s drawing on some deep, dark recess of feeling and experience raggedly shaped by a life in the spotlight—eludes her. Yet there’s still something to her efforts that goes beyond simple awards-baiting or audience ingratiation. Like a drag queen doing a desperately full-on deconstruction of an idol that she knows she can never touch, she’s so committed to trying to be Garland that her failure to do so becomes the main allure.

Is that conceit a bit too Borgesian for a film that’s otherwise cloyingly paint-by-numbers? Take your interest where you can because you won’t find it elsewhere. Not in Garland’s many doomed or thwarted attempts at a normal romantic or social life. Not in Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux) tossing some in-jokey, exasperated shade Mom’s way during a swinging-‘60s shindig. And certainly not in the extended scene in which Garland goes home with a fannish gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) for some teary talk, amid copious Judy memorabilia, about homosexual persecution. The latter sequence is particularly egregious, a feint toward pop-cultural-cum-sociopolitical significance that plays like the ultimate in blinkered wish fulfillment. That is, until an even more shameless finale in which the same two queer acolytes lead the anguished Garland’s last-ever audience in a serenade of “Over the Rainbow.” Friends of Dorothy represent and all, but this is ridiculous.

Cast: Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Darci Shaw, Royce Pierreson, Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Cordery Director: Rupert Goold Screenwriter: Tom Edge Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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New York Film Festival 2019

If cinema is, indeed, the domain of freedom, then the festival doesn’t see Netflix as the villain in that struggle.

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Varda by Agnès
Photo: Netflix

“Cinema is the domain of freedom, and it’s an ongoing struggle to maintain that freedom,” said New York Film Festival director and selection committee chair Kent Jones in a statement last month accompanying the announcement of the films that will screen as part of the main slate of the 57th edition of the festival. And depending on who you ask, Netflix is either the hero or villain in that struggle.

More than half of the 29 titles in the main slate enjoyed their world premiere earlier this year at Cannes, where Netflix had no film in competition, as its battle with festival director Thierry Frémaux, who requires a theatrical run for any Cannes entrant, continues unabated. (The streaming giant did walk away from the festival with acquisition rights to Jérémy Clapin’s I Lost My Body and Mati Diop’s Grand Prix winner Atlantics.) There’s no right or wrong here per se, though it’s clear that Frémaux’s edict is an extension of his nostalgia for the golden age of cinema, which he sees as sacrosanct as the length of the theatrical window, and just how steadfastly he sticks to his guns may determine the fate of the world’s most important film festival.

The New York Film Festival opens on Friday, September 27 with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated The Irishman, almost one month to the day that it was announced that Netflix could not reach a distribution deal with major theater chains, including AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. The film will drop on Netflix less than a month after opening in some theaters across the country—a non-traditional distribution strategy that will continue to be seen as short-circuiting a Netflix film’s best picture chances at the Academy Awards, at least until one comes along and does what Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma couldn’t last year.

It remains to be seen if The Irishman will be that film. But this much is also clear, and the New York Film Festival is making no bones about it: This streamable movie is very much a movie, and to be able to see a new Scorsese film that might not have run three hours and 30 minutes had it been released by a traditional distributor is very much a win for freedom—or, at least, a certain stripe of cinephile’s idea of freedom.

In addition to The Irishman and Atlantics, Netflix also has Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, at the festival (the centerpiece selection no less). Baumbach’s divorce drama bowed last month at the Venice Film Festival, alongside Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s first feature since Lost and Beautiful, and The Wasp Network, which marks Olivier Assayas’s 10th appearance at the New York Film Festival. Among the returning auteurs are Kleber Mendonça Filho (Bacurau, co-directed with Juliano Dornelles), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), Albert Serra (Liberté), Arnaud Desplechin (Oh Mercy!), Pedro Almodóvar (Pain and Glory), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Young Ahmed), and the greatest of the great, Agnès Varda, whose Varda by Agnès premiered earlier this year at Berlinale alongside Nadav Lapid’s Golden Bear winner Synonyms and Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…

Among the festival’s noteworthy sidebars are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Tim Robbins (45 Seconds of Laughter, about inmates at the Calipatria State maximum-security facility taking part in acting exercises), Michael Apted (63 Up, the latest entry in the filmmaker’s iconic, one-of-a-kind British film series), and Alla Kovgan (Cunningham, a 3D portrait of the artistic evolution of choreographer Merce Cunningham); the MUBI-sponsored Projections, which features the latest films from Éric Baudelaire (Un Film Dramatique) and Thomas Heise (Heimat Is a Space in Time); and a Special Events section that includes Todd Phillips’s surprise Golden Lion winner Joker and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club Encore, which brings the 1984 period film back to its original length and luster. Ed Gonzalez

For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center. And check back in the upcoming weeks for reviews of First Cow, The Irishman, Saturday Fiction, and Wasp Network.


Atlantics

Atlantics (Mati Diop)

Starved for work after the depletion of Senegal’s local fishing industry, thousands of young men take to the sea every year aboard pirogues, or small boats, fleeing their country for Spain. Those who have emigrated, died, or been incarcerated as part of the “pirogue phenomenon”—referred to colloquially as “Barcelona or death” in Senegalese communities—are the ghosts that haunt Atlantics. The forms those spirits take in the film represent just some of what’s so extraordinary about Mati Diop’s first feature as a director, a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength. Atlantics transitions into oblique genre fare in a manner reminiscent of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, with electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri’s multifaceted score adding ghostly strings and pop guitar riffs over spiritual, syncopated Middle Eastern arrangements. Despite its wild narrative leaps, the film is undergirded with a holistic mix of serenity and trauma that recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour. Christopher Gray


Bacurau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)

Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac



Beanpole

Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole



Fire Will Come

Fire Will Come (Olivier Laxe)

Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape. This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. Diego Semerene



A Girl Missing

A Girl Missing (Kôji Fukada)

Throughout his 2016 film Harmonium, Kôji Fukada favored ambiguous, emotionally charged tableaux over narrative mechanics, and he continues that emphasis in A Girl Missing to ambitious, evocative, and troubling effect. The film is a story driven by kidnapping that’s almost entirely disinterested in the motivations of the kidnapper and the pain of the victim and her family. Instead, the film is attached, to a consciously insular degree, to a nurse, Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), whose life is ruined peripherally by the kidnapping due to one peculiarly bad choice on her part. As austere as Harmonium could be, the characters were in their way dynamic and made sense. With A Girl Missing, Fukada may believe that he’s transcended the melodramatic strictures of a regular crime film or of the kind of woman’s martyr vehicle in which Joan Crawford used to specialize. Instead, he’s fashioned an occasionally haunting art object with miserable stick figures. Chuck Bowen



I Was at Home, But…

I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)

Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… take a fairly simple premise and builds a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function. The film is at its in moments when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between the story of Hamlet and a troubled fortysomething mother’s (Maren Eggert) life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving a dog and a donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut. Carson Lund



Liberté

Liberté (Albert Serra)

As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund



Marriage Story

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. But as the initially amicable split between a playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come. But even at its most blistering, the film contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place. Cole



Martin Eden

Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)

Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marcello and Luca Marinelli, as the handsome, uneducated sailor of the film’s title, don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character’s transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that’s about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It’s an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-‘60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film’s themes. Greg Cwik



The Moneychanger

The Moneychanger (Federico Veiroj)

Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger charts the prosperous, morally rotten career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Handler), a prominent money changer for all manner of ne’er-do-wells. Much is made of gestures like hand-tailoring suits to transport money, but the movement of cash—from client to Humberto to various far-flung locations around the globe—is by and large curtly presented. The film eventually verges on the farcical, with Humberto engaging in a Force Majeure-esque act of cowardice during a shooting while driving with his wife (Dolores Fonzi) in Argentina and a rushed scheme to steal from a dead man before he’s interred, among other indiscretions. While these scenarios are somewhat absurd and funny, they feel calculated in their attempts to stress just how pitiful Humberto has become that he has to turn to such pathetic ploys to stay afloat. It’s apparent that Veiroj disdains no one so much as Humberto, but the film makes little of the man’s undoubtedly twisted psyche. Throughout, The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity. Peter Goldberg



Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)

Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films. Throughout, Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of his film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre. Cole



Oh Mercy!

Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)

Based on a 2008 documentary, Oh Mercy! follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases. Throughout, director Arnaud Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There’s a sense here of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels. Before the authorities in Oh Mercy! can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Presiding over the madness is a police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), who’s a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level. Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Bowen



Pain and Glory

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined Law of Desire and Bad Education. Still, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever. Mac



Parasite

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Parasite finds Bong Joon-ho scaling back the high-concept ambitions of Snowpiercer and Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people. Parasite is an excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture, mounted by Bong with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. The film is also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent. Mac



Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes that’s also a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Sciamma isn’t out to question the gazes exchanged between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), but to point out that one gaze is always met by another, and what’s most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma’s script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. Where her prior films have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away. Gray



Sibyl

Sibyl (Justine Triet)

Justine Triet uses the relationship between the creative process and the work of psychoanalysis, or its simplified cinematic version, as raw material for her latest dramedy. Sibyl follows the madcap efforts and subterfuges that the eponymous alcoholic therapist (Virginie Efira) deploys in order to finally write a novel. And the first step she takes is to get rid of most of her patients—most, not all, so that there’s always a lifeline connecting the new Sibyl to the old one. That is, so Sibyl never has to truly let go of anything at all. This tactic, beyond mere plot device, is the first crucial clue, or symptom, that Triet discloses about Sibyl as the filmmaker smartly humanizes the figure of the therapist as someone in desperate need of a therapist herself. The initial line in Sibyl’s (non-)emancipatory equation, to start anew by keeping her old life handy, is one of the film’s many instances of mirroring, as some viewers will easily recognize in Sibyl’s pursuits their own tendency to make half-decisions. Which is to say, the way we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re pursuing something whereas we’re secretly pursuing something else—something less avowable. Semerene



Synonyms

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms doesn’t hew to a steadily progressing plot. The attraction Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) feel to Yoav (Tom Mercier), and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after the film takes a circuitous route through Yoav’s brief employment in security at the Israeli embassy; his friendship with a militant Zionist who tries to provoke fights he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. A certain calculated inconsistency in style and pacing also makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but that’s most likely the point. Certainly one concern of Synonyms is the irrational sickness that’s nationalism: At times it appears that Israeli nationalism has driven Yoav mad, given him his detached affect and his habit of obsessively reciting synonyms in the street. Funny, frustrating, and stealthily sad, Synonyms is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another. Pat Brown



To the Ends of the Earth

To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest is a radical departure for the auteur, as it isn’t beholden to a taut narrative. Instead, it’s squarely focused on character—a strategy that results in his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrives in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and becomes increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior. Mac



The Traitor

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

Though Pierfrancesco Favino plays Sicilian mob boss turned informant Tommaso Buscetta with the stern poise of a criminal boss, the gangster easily, almost comically buckles under the slightest pressure from the state. But it’s in director Marco Bellocchio’s depiction of the “Maxi Trial” in a heavily fortified courtroom in Palermo that The Traitor completes its metamorphosis from a grisly, stone-faced drama about mob violence into an almost farcical satire of Italy’s justice system. Unfortunately, as is often the case with contemporary Italian genre pieces, the film is too brutish by half, as well as 40 minutes too long. The comic brio of Bellocchio’s staging of the “Maxi Trial” invigorates The Traitor, but he surprisingly wraps up that arc with close to an hour left in the film’s running time. The extended final act, which follows Tommaso and his family as they enter into American witness protection before ultimately returning to Italy for a series of follow-up trials, drifts along without clear purpose, unevenly oscillating between the comedic and the somber. Cole



Varda by Agnès

Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda)

Agnès Varda’s final film is essentially a lecture, with the iconic filmmaker’s talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre. Throughout, she shares the underlying inspiration for films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and details her creative process. While her other documentaries (among them The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places) have often explored the intersection between art and life, Varda by Agnès finds the filmmaker far less able to extend her gaze beyond her own work. She allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the film’s main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights, should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Varda’s bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of “sharing” not borrowed from her previous work. Brown



Vitalina Varela

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects writer-director Pedro Costa wishes to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters. Yet the film is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Cole



Zombi Child

The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is nested with twists that place corrupt Bucharest policeman, corrupt Bucharest policeman, further and further from discovering who’s manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within on La Gomera, the “pearl” of the Canary Islands. Cristi’s inability to make sense of his place in the very case he’s investigating is just one of the film’s cruel, quite funny jokes. Another is Silbo, a whistled register of the Spanish language that inspires the film’s title. Composed of a half dozen notes that each represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet, the ancient language has been used by natives of La Gomera for generations. Throughout, Porumboiu largely handles The Whistlers’s persistent strain of artifice masterfully, hurtling his narrative ahead even as he’s jumbling timeframes and lingering in moments of ironic menace. Though the film is sometimes too liberal in its arsenal of references, Porumboiu executes his plot with a persistently low-key swagger, coaxing his actors into memorable but perfectly blank performances. Gray



The Wild Goose Lake

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)

Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but it’s up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn’t otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn’t be acceptable from a “realistic” drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what’s essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac



Young Ahmed

Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

In many of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people’s lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. But in Young Ahmed, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine an aspiring radical’s inner life. Initially, the Dardennes don’t exactly engender pity for Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. They maintain a distance from the Belgian teen as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to a signifier of their virtue. Yet Ahmed’s seduction by a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), is still fleetingly “explained” with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don’t dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they’ve applied to this subject matter. Bowen



Zombi Child

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Mac

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Film

Review: Loro Mostly Signals Paolo Sorrentino’s Fealty to Wealth Porn

Like most of Sorrentino’s films, Loro is closer to a stylistic orgy than an existential rumination on Italy’s heritage.

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Loro
Photo: Sundance Selects

Paolo Sorrentino’s films are closer to stylistic orgies than existential ruminations on Italy’s heritage. Most of his productions are consumed in debauchery for the better part of their running times, and capped by obligatory lambasts against said behavior, which is meant to inform the narratives with “deeper” meaning. Sorrentino is so devoted to tracking shots of beautiful female bodies, to montages of drug abuse, to brief explosions of loveless, commercialized sex, that the particulars of his characters, settings, and plots are essentially interchangeable. In Loro, Sorrentino’s regular leading man, Toni Servillo, may be playing the controversial Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but the actor could just as easily be reprising his fictional writer from The Great Beauty for all that actually matters.

If Sorrentino were to confront the fact that he’s essentially a sensationalist, his films might achieve a kind of nihilistic purity. Loro initially promises such an about face, as its opening 45 minutes have a hard and lurid pull. At first, its protagonist appears to be Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a hustler who moves to Rome and builds a harem with promises of TV roles and mountains of cocaine. Sergio is a handsome and charismatic wild man, and Sorrentino characteristically fetishizes the character’s life of anonymous sex and endless partying. The point of Sergio’s networking is vague, as he references wanting to get in the same room as “him.” This desire is realized by the beautiful and mysterious Kira (Kasia Smutniak), who urges Sergio to set his act up within eyeshot of Silvio’s sprawling property. Dramatizing these negotiations, Sorrentino stages the film’s one legitimately erotic sequence: Kira dry-humping Sergio as she talks with a power broker on her phone. This moment elegantly underscores Sorrentino’s initial interest in the intersection of power, sex, and money.

One is primed, then, for a battle of the charismatic crooks, in which Sergio falls in with Silvio—a melodramatic hook that Sorrentino leaves dangling as the film devolves into a series of disconnected sketches. (It bears mentioning that this 158-minute cut was edited down from a much longer one.) Instead, Loro switches protagonists, homing in on Silvio as he attempts to become prime minister again after the leftist party has ousted him. We learn virtually nothing about Silvio’s politics or business machinations, as Sorrentino turns the figure into another of his tortured symbols of the decadence of classist culture. At a certain point in the film, Silvio decides to flip six leftist senators over to his side so that he can regain power, a potentially fascinating process that Sorrentino reduces to one (vivid) scene and a montage. What Sorrentino doesn’t skimp on, however, is the endless pillow shots and self-conscious bids for Fellini-esque surreality. The film’s title is Italian for “Them,” potentially referencing Silvio’s demonization of the liberal press, but the plot is hermetic and sentimental.

Servillo is magnetic as always, and he has a few startling moments in which he replicates Berlusconi’s smug and wax-like smile, but his kinship with Sorrentino leads the film astray. It’s distasteful and baffling to see a reactionary strongman utilized as a lonely romantic figure, which probably happens because Sorrentino’s love for his actor muddies his view of Berlusconi. The filmmaker turns the politico into a Gatsby who prowls his land fighting with his estranged wife, Veronica (Elena Sofia Ricci), who voices the film’s trite lessons on the shallowness of rich and horny old men—sentiments which ring hollow given the stature of Servillo’s presence and Sorrentino’s ongoing fealty to wealth porn.

Cast: Toni Servillo, Elena Sofia Ricci, Riccardo Scamarcio, Kasia Smutniak, Euridice Axen, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Roberto De Francesco, Dario Cantarelli, Anna Bonaiuto, Giovanni Esposito, Ugo Pagliai Director: Paolo Sorrentino Screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 158 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Film

Review: Promare Finds Studio Trigger Spinning its Anime Wheels

The film often feels like a maximalist season finale trimmed of any build-up.

2.5

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Promare
Photo: GKIDS

Loud, chaotic, and borderline nonsensical, Promare is the logical result of anime studio Trigger creating what amounts to a feature-length extension of its prior work. Set in a future where high-tech firefighters clash with pyrokinetic humans called the Burnish, the film pays explicit tribute to anime series like Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, and others in everything from names to character and robot designs to basic personality types. The film leaves you with the sense that director Hiroyuki Imaishi, writer Kazuki Nakashima, and their frequent collaborators could create it in their sleep, both because they’re clearly great at what they do and because their ultimate product scarcely departs from established formula.

The film’s bombast is present even in its individual character introductions, which use giant block letters to name everyone from the supporting cast up through pivotal players like protagonist Galo Thymos (Kenichi Matsuyama), a blue-haired firefighter with boundless energy and determination. His long-held truth, that the world is neatly divided into firefighters and Burnish terrorists, is shaken over the course of the film as he fights the slender, melon-green-haired Lio Fotia (Taichi Saotome), who leads the rebel Burnish.

Promare is immediately striking to look at, with a style that favors a cool color palette, minimalist backgrounds, and abstract geometric shapes; fire, for one, is frequently rendered as purple triangles. The characters are drawn in pleasantly smooth lines, and they pilot chunky, ice-shooting robots whose siren lights send out solid beams of red and blue. The camera tracks each action scene, every zoom through the scenery and every collision of a fist with a face, in roving close-ups with thrilling precision. Everyone screams their feelings aloud over and over again (“Only your soul should burn!” cries Galo as he crosses swords with Lio at one point), albeit against a typically regrettable score from Hiroyuki Sawano, who leans so heavily on songs with cheesy vocals that they swiftly become a distraction.

Mixed metaphors and baffling plot twists ensure the film doesn’t totally hold up to scrutiny, but its escalating weirdness is part of the fun. All the same, its loudly repeated message remains clear: Rather than douse a fire, sometimes you need to let it burn as bright as possible. Promare is a mix of themes from Nakashima and Imaishi’s prior collaborations, wrapped up in a pat “the Other is a person, too” premise used for a familiar inspirational conceit. Galo, in looks and personality, is a clear analog for Gurren Lagann’s Kamina, who perishes early in the series so that other, less static characters may wrestle with his ideals. Leaving such a character as the hero in Promare exemplifies its rather straightforward trajectory.

While the film’s propulsive, slapdash plotting provides no shortage of frantic action, it leaves little room for the personalities, actions, and philosophies of its peripheral characters to sink in through gradual escalation. Promare often feels like a maximalist season finale trimmed of any build-up, a climax that’s outstanding to watch yet empty beyond its pure spectacle. And in this context, the fact that so many designs echo Studio Trigger’s prior work feels less like a fun reference than a concession that Imaishi and company are spinning their wheels.

Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Taichi Saotome, Masato Sakai, Ayane Sakura Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi Screenwriter: Kazuki Nakashima Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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