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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.

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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: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran

Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.

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Sunless Shadows
Photo: Cinema Guild

Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.

Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.

In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.

At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.

The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.

It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”

Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization

The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.

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Song Without a Name
Photo: Film Movement

Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.

Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.

In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.

The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.

León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.

Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León, Michael J. White Screenwriter: Melina León Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beyoncé’s Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora

The visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity.

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Black Is King
Photo: Disney+

For Beyoncé, it’s no longer enough for us to listen to her music. We must witness and viscerally feel it. Which is why the visual album is increasingly becoming her preferred mode of expression. As she did with last year’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, the singer recruited heavyweights from West African dance music like Nigeria’s WizKid and Ghana’s Shatta Wale, as well as emerging artists like South Africa’s Busiswa, to star in Black Is King, which Beyoncé based on the music from The Gift. Out of a dazzling fusion of the hottest R&B and Afrobeat trends, this visual album proposes a pan-African vision of legacy, abundance, and unity, making it Beyoncé’s most wide-reaching and ambitious effort yet.

Black Is King is largely inseparable from Disney’s live-action remake of the The Lion King, and to a fault at times. The project follows the arc of the film’s plot, personifying the animal characters with human actors. A young prince (Folajomi Akinmurele), the human stand-in for young Simba, falls from grace and embarks on a coming-of-age odyssey that eventually leads him back home to reclaim the throne. Throughout, large-scale sets, wide shots of the Saharan desert, and eye-catching dance routines distract from this plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to catch when the young prince grows into a young man (Nyaniso Dzedze) as the two actors abruptly switch places between songs without warning, and the introduction of an underdeveloped subplot involving a mysterious artifact may leave viewers scratching their heads.

But Black Is King is no traditional cinematic experience, because it’s performance, symbolism, and music that are integral to it, not any narrative minutiae. To wit, unlike the original version of the album, the deluxe edition of The Gift, which was released alongside Black Is King, forgoes the intermissions lifted from The Lion King’s dialogue, as if to suggest that the songs speak for themselves, without strict adherence to the film it draws from as inspiration.

Beyoncé, who co-directed the visual album, interprets Simba’s reclaiming of the throne for her ends; his royal lineage is evocative of the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people, and his homecoming is representative of the Black diaspora’s turning to that heritage as a source of strength. The animated and live-action versions of the The Lion King are beloved, if not equally so, and they remain among the few Disney films to be set in Africa, but as they’re both devoid of Black bodies, there’s something galvanizing about witnessing the lavishness of The Lion King interpreted by Black actors, dancers, and musicians.

Black Is King will inevitably be criticized for its ostentatious display of wealth and ostensible failure to represent the day-to-day realities of African countries—which is to say, what the rest of the world hastily and egregiously presumes to be struggle and impoverishment. The visual album’s purpose isn’t to draft some documentary-style exegesis, but to illustrate an imaginative wonderland of possibility and celebration. Black Is King may well be steeped in the opulence of drifting, pimped-out cars (“Ja Ara E”), and a head-spinning wardrobe of designer clothing (“Water”), but this grandiosity is empowering and subversive in its own way. The “Mood 4 Eva” sequence boasts a splendor fit for a Baz Luhrmann film, complete with a breathtaking synchronized swimming routine. Generations of families, from regal grandparents to rambunctious five-year-olds, reside in a mansion and partake in elitist traditions brought to the African continent by European colonizers. All the while, white servants wait on them as they drink tea and play tennis in a verdant garden.

Although Black Is King preaches the moral that Black kingship amounts to responsible manhood, Black femininity is just as integral to Beyoncé’s conceptualization of the visual album. As an unidentified male speaker relates in one voiceover: “Many times, it’s the women that reassemble us. Men taught me some things, but women taught me a whole lot more.” Beyoncé embodies a maternal figure at several points, cradling a baby in “Bigger” and playing a handclap game with her daughter, Blue Ivy, in “Brown Skin Girl.”

It’s this last song that is the film’s most stirring dedication to Black women. Overhead shots of a ballroom depict a formation of debutante dancers, fanning in and out like a flower in bloom. Interspersed throughout are glamor shots of the dark-skinned women Beyoncé sings praise of: Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland. For all of its larger-than-life grandeur, Black Is King still succeeds in conveying the stark intimacy between two people in a scene in which Rowland and Beyoncé share an embrace and gaze at each other lovingly.

If The Gift is a love letter to Africa—as Beyoncé herself described the album—then Black Is King is a love letter to the Black diaspora. In her narration, Beyoncé remarks of “lost languages [that] spill out of our mouths,” and an American flag bearing the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism proudly waves during “Power.” Like the ‘90s hip-hop MCs who espoused Afrocentricity before her, Beyoncé turns to the African motherland to reconstruct a heritage and identity stolen by slavery and the erosion of time. At the film’s beginning, young Simba hurtles toward Earth from among the stars, leaving the streak of a comet’s tail behind him. No matter how far you stray from home, Beyoncé reminds viewers throughout Black is King that the great Black ancestors can immediately be felt in the stars they inhabit in the night skies.

Cast: Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odeje, Stephen Ojo, Mary Twala, Blue Ivy Carter Director: Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Beyoncé Screenwriter: Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope, Andrew Morrow Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 85 min Rating: NA Year: 2020

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Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen

Ciro Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

2.5

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Waiting for the Barbarians
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt,” intones the stone-faced Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) in Waiting for the Barbarians, explaining his interrogation methods. The line might as well be the slogan of both J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel and director Ciro Guerra’s film adaptation. An agent of an unnamed empire, Holl has arrived at a colonial outpost to essentially produce truth via pain. Horrifying the Magistrate (Mark Rylance) who oversees the remote outpost, Joll captures and tortures members of the local nomadic tribe, forcing them to articulate the “truth” that the Empire needs: that these so-called barbarians are planning an assault on the Empire’s frontier.

Coetzee’s novel, published at the height of South African apartheid, is written in an allegorical mode that, through its nonspecific frontier geography and generalized designation for its protagonists, broadens its scope to address colonialism as a whole. At the same time, though, Coetzee imbues the psychosomatic effects of colonial systems with an unnerving specificity, his clipped prose achieving a paradoxical expressionist realism in its descriptions of the bleak nonplace of the frontier and the depiction of the Magistrate’s inner life. But as true as the film stays to its source—Coetzee wrote the adaption himself—Guerra never quite finds an imagistic equivalent to the novel’s apocalyptic, subtly hallucinogenic atmosphere.

The film’s narration lacks that sense of interiority that makes Waiting for the Barbarians on the page more than a simple moral tale; the anguish of the Magistrate and the barbarian stragglers held captive in the outpost aren’t expressionistically reflected in the exterior world, and the adaptation excises the dream sequences and reveries that Coetzee intersperses throughout the book. The scorched-desert oranges of Chris Menges’s cinematography communicate a sense of the oppressive frontier environment, but the staging of the Magistrate’s moral awakening and fall from imperial favor tends toward the cold and distanced. A degree of alienation may be an intended effect—the titular gerund “waiting” already indicates the story’s Beckettian overtones—but Lucretia Martel’s Zama much more impressively, and hauntingly, blends listless existentialism and colonial brutality.

As a man who believes himself to be kindly and modest, even as he serves in a position of authority, Rylance crafts an instantly recognizable and sympathetic performance of naïve white guilt. Still, the Magistrate’s arc of moral awakening has a tidiness that belies the rough frontier setting. In an early scene, the middle-aged colonial functionary confesses that he has no ambitions toward imperial heroism—that, hopefully, posterity will remember merely that “with a nudge here, a touch there, I kept the world on its course.” Through a series of tribulations that force the reality of empire into visual and tactile perception, he will realize that he has been complicit in a “world course” of endless war and extermination—proving, in a sense different than he intended it, Joll’s thesis that pain leads to truth.

The Magistrate turns out to be virtually alone in his opposition to the regime of brutalization that Joll installs in the outpost. With his brusque disposition and strange accoutrements (his sunglasses are a novelty in the world of the story, and they have a peculiar, knotted design here), Joll is a Deppian villain if ever there was one. Thankfully, though, the actor doesn’t let his embodiment of faceless power slip into cartoonish mugging, as Joll mostly works as a Kafkaesque embodiment of cynical authoritarian severity. It may be simply that Joll doesn’t get enough screen time to cross the line between allegory and parody, as he’s briefly replaced by Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), a less outwardly “civilized” iteration of the imperial thug whom the Magistrate finds in Joll’s place after returning from an excursion to the desert.

Wracked with guilt over his complicity in the Empire’s campaign of torture and murder, the Magistrate takes in a native woman, identified only as the Girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan), whose ankles have been broken by Joll and Mandel’s uniformed goons. The Magistrate’s mostly chaste obsession with the Girl, whom he views as a means of soothing his white guilt, leads to his becoming a pariah in his own town, and the regime of torture he passively opposed is turned into a crucible for his new understanding of the barbarians’ plight.

There’s nothing particularly challenging or incisive about the notion that our main character must go through great pain to become a better person, and Guerra’s scenes of transmogrification through pain aren’t made to hit home in the way they do in the novel. However, it’s much to the film’s credit that it doesn’t see symbolic gestures on the part of oppressors—like the Magistrate’s Jesus-like washing of the Girl’s feet—as sufficient or effective acts of reparation. The story’s guilty conscience exceeds that of its protagonist, and the film, in the end, evinces the awareness that the unnamed but unambiguously European society at its center will be at the mercy of the “barbarians” that colonialism has invented.

Cast: Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Robert Pattinson, Sam Reid Director: Ciro Guerra Screenwriter: J.M. Coetzee Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterte’s Tyranny

The film uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media.

3

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A Thousand Cuts
Photo: Frontline

Centered on a heroic narrative that’s almost drowned out by the bleakness of its surrounding material, Ramona S. Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media. Fortunately, Diaz resists the urge felt by many artists to see all geopolitical matters through the lens of America’s decaying polity. Still, it’s impossible not to feel the shadow of Donald Trump in the documentary when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tells crusading journalist Maria Ressa that her lonely, besieged, and truth-telling outlet is “fake news.” What works for one would-be autocrat apparently works for another.

Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler, a buzzy Philippines news site fighting disinformation at the source by optimizing itself for maximum social media dissemination. A sprite of cheery efficiency who seems happiest when presenting people with horrific facts, Ressa delivers a dire, if unsurprising, message when she says that “lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest” on social media. She adds that her country is particularly fertile ground for such viral firestorms, given that the average Filipino spends approximately 10 hours a day online.

While A Thousand Cuts appears more engaged in the flesh-and-blood conflicts of cutthroat Filipino politics, it highlights one of Ressa’s more impactful data dives: of a self-amplifying network of 26 fake accounts effectively spreading false Duterte propaganda to over three million people. The result of such dissemination ranges from fast-spreading memes (calling Rappler’s many female reporters “presstitutes”) to mobs (angry Duterte fans live-streaming from Rappler’s lobby while supportive posts call for the journalists to be raped, murdered, and beheaded). As is the case with strongmen the world over, the animus behind all this virtual bile is the reporting of inconvenient truths. All throughout the film, which commences in 2018 and follows the government’s anti-Rappler campaign through a court decision in June 2020, Ressa and her reporters put out punchy stories about potential corruption in Duterte’s family and how his anti-drug vigilante campaign led to thousands of killings in shadowy circumstances.

A Thousand Cuts presents this as a lopsided battle. Rappler’s upright, mostly young colleagues try to discern the real story behind a smokescreen of spin. Meanwhile, Duterte mesmerizes crowds with his surreally rambling speeches, careening from claims that a bullet is the best way to stop drug abuse to talking about the size of his penis. At the same time, we see his surrogates barnstorming around the country like fascist carnival barkers whipping up crowds. The president’s head of police, Bato Dela Rosa, is a bald and clowning bruiser who mixes bloodthirsty declarations of his eagerness to kill for his boss with off-key ballads. While Rosa goes for WWE appeal, girl-group performer and pro-Duterte mean girl Mucho Uson seems more like what would happen if a Pussycat Doll were employed by Steve Bannon.

The film is most darkly enthralling when it’s showing this combat (albeit a mostly physically distanced one) between a cartoonish villain like Duterte and underdogs like Ressa. In addition to bringing a frisson of interpersonal drama to the narrative, the almost existential conflict shows in stark terms just how much the country has to lose. The conflict over press freedom ranges from legal harassment to a barrage of violent threats. Some of the film’s most wrenching moments are the testimonials from Rappler’s inspiring writers, who are as dedicated as Ressa but not as seemingly impervious to the atmosphere of constant menace created by the sense of impunity implied by Duterte’s bullying swagger. “I’m terrified every day,” says Patricia Evangelista, wiry with tension and fear. “Maria doesn’t scare easily. I do.”

A Thousand Cuts loses some steam when it departs the hot conflict of the Philippines for the cooler environs of Manhattan. There, on a couple occasions that we see later in the film, Ressa speaks at or is honored by a number of gala first-world events, from the Atlantic Festival to a shindig with Amal and George Clooney. While these moments are likely there to show Ressa in more relaxed settings, they seem far less necessary than what’s happening back in the Philippines. Ressa’s happy-warrior personality shines so brightly in this film that watching her fight the good fight is all the humanizing she requires. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” Ressa says about her battle for press freedom and the democratic rule of law in an environment increasingly choked off by vitriol and propaganda. “We are meant to make you afraid.” Sounding an alarm meant to be heard around the wired world, her film does just that.

Director: Ramona S. Diaz Distributor: PBS Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I Used to Go Here Mines Cringe Comedy from Collegiate Nostalgia

The film is almost sadistically driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

2

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I Used to Go Here
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Following the unceremonious cancellation of the book tour for her recently released debut novel, 35-year-old Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is suddenly afflicted with the existential angst that can result from taking stock of one’s life. Kris Rey’s lightly comedic I Used to Go Here proceeds to chart the aftermath of Kate’s personal and professional disappointments after she’s pulled in various directions by her desperate struggle for acceptance. And in doing so, the film initially taps into the insecurities that plague many a professional writer. But once Kate starts to cope with her subpar book sales by taking her old professor, David (Jemaine Clement), up on his offer for her to speak at her alma mater, I Used to Go Here begins to indulge all manner of collegiate nostalgia, trafficking in the clichés of so many works concerned with adults who struggle to recapture the hopefulness of their youth.

For her part, Jacobs is rather convincing at portraying the exhausting mental gymnastics that some artists do in order to appear confident and successful in public, while licking their wounds in private. Rey, however, grows increasingly disinterested in probing Kate’s state of emotional instability in any meaningful way, instead leaning into the sheer awkwardness of situations wherein Kate attempts to relive her glory days. Indeed, there’s an almost discomfiting sadism to the manner in which Rey has Kate grapple with one embarrassment after another as the young woman tries to regain some semblance of self-respect.

From the baby shower where Kate is forced to take a picture with three pregnant friends and hold up a book as her proxy child, to the uncomfortable revelation that David’s wife, Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars), doesn’t like Kate’s writing, I Used to Go Here relentlessly stacks the deck against Kate. In fact, her failings are laid on so thick that it becomes impossible to imagine how she ever managed to get a legitimate book deal in the first place. By the time she’s had her third blow-out with her bed-and-breakfast host (Cindy Gold), her ex-fiancé stops returning her calls, and her much awaited New York Times book review is revealed to be emphatically negative, it’s clear that the film primarily sees Kate as a mere avatar for every struggling artist, leading her through broadly comic stations of the writer’s cross as her dreams of fame and success crumble on the very same campus on which they were birthed.

This parade of humiliating experiences is given a brief respite as Kate’s bonds with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), a college student who admires her work and with whom she shares a real, albeit short-lived, connection. It’s the lone relationship in the film that feels truly authentic, and it’s when Kate is with Hugo that we begin to get a sense of who she is and what informed her personal life before her professional one fell apart. But soon Kate is being pitted against David’s new star pupil, April (Hannah Marks), who is, of course, revealed to be Hugo’s girlfriend. It’s a particularly trite way of highlighting the stark contrasts between who Kate was in her youth and who she’s become in the decade-plus since, and it’s par for the course in a film driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Kate Micucci, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Joan Taylor, Rammel Chan Director: Kris Rey Screenwriter: Kris Rey Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Like Its Characters, She Dies Tomorrow Stays in a Holding Pattern

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Amy Seimetz revels in vagueness.

2.5

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She Dies Tomorrow
Photo: Neon

For a while, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow seems like a chamber play about a single woman in a tailspin. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wanders her recently purchased, relatively empty house, drinking wine, playing opera on vinyl on repeat, and shopping for leather jackets online. Sheil, one of the rawest actors working in American cinema, informs these actions with wrenching agony, communicating the lost-ness, the emptiness of profound depression, which Seimetz complements with surrealist formalism. Lurid colors bleed into the film’s frames, suggesting that Amy is potentially hallucinating, and there are shards of barely contextualized incidents that suggest violent flashbacks or memories. And the subtlest touches are the most haunting, such as the casual emphasis that Seimetz places on Amy’s unpacked boxes, physicalizing a life in perpetual incompletion.

Seimetz and Sheil, who collaborated on the filmmaker’s feature-length debut, Sun Don’t Shine, and the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, are intensely intuitive artists, and Seimetz, an extraordinary actor in her own right, is almost preternaturally in tune with Sheil. The first act of She Dies Tomorrow is a cinematic mood ring in which Seimetz invites Sheil to explore the emotional spectrums of alienation. This stretch of the film is poignant and almost intangibly menacing, redolent of the final 30 minutes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which also bridged mental illness with surrealist fantasy and horror-film tropes.

Despite its undeserved reputation as an inscrutable riddle to be solved, Mulholland Drive ended on a note of devastating, cathartic clarity. In She Dies Tomorrow, however, Seimetz pointedly doesn’t give the audience closure, which is meant to communicate the endless work of mental health as well as the lingering aura of doom that seems to be a permanent part of modern life. These are laudable ambitions in theory, but as it expands on its high-concept premise, the film comes to feel more and more, well, theoretical, trapped as an idea in its author’s mind, rather than existing as a fully living and breathing work.

Amy is suffering from more than depression. She’s convinced that she’s going to die, which her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), attributes to Amy’s falling off the wagon. But this fatalistic sensation is revealed to be contagious, as Jane councils Amy and then returns to her own home to find that she also feels with utter conviction that her hours are numbered. Seimetz then springs a startling and resonant surprise: Jane, a totem of stability to Amy, visits the house of her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), where she’s seen as an alternately annoying and pitiable kook. Rarely has a filmmaker captured so delicately how we play different roles in different people’s lives, our identities shifting with an ease that’s scary when one gives it a moment of thought. The ease of this self-erasure, or self-modification, suggests instability, for which the film’s communicable death fear is in part a metaphor.

Eventually, though, She Dies Tomorrow goes into a holding pattern. We’re trapped with a half dozen people as they writhe in fear, proclaiming endlessly the approaching expiration of their lives. Seimetz doesn’t offer conventional horror thrills, but she stints on existential ruminations too. After Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), a friend of Jason and Susan, is driven by a death fear to commit a startling act, his girlfriend, Tilly (Jennifer Kim), says to him that she’s been waiting for Brian’s ailing father to die so she could break up with him after a certain waiting period with a clear conscience. And because this confession is delivered in offhanded and robotic fashion, you may wonder why Tilly wants to leave Brian.

We learn nothing else about their relationship, and so this confession feels like a conceit—an acknowledgment of the hypocrisies and evasions of grief—without the detail and immediacy of drama. Such scenes, commandingly acted and possessed of unrealized potential, are a disappointment after the film’s visceral first act. Later on in She Dies Tomorrow, there’s a moment with Jane and several other women laying by a poolside that has incredible visual power—bridging zoning out in the sun with complacent disenchantment with death with the power of taking control of female identity—but it’s similarly left hanging.

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Seimetz revels in vagueness. The notion of a communicable fear of death leads the characters to talk, minimally, of seizing the day, which is a cliché in itself. Seimetz is principally concerned with mood, with stylized dread that’s created by lingering on everyday objects and the use of slow motion and frenzied color schemes. Jane is a struggling artist who takes pictures of protozoa-like things blown up by a microscope, and Seimetz lingers on these to suggest that an explanation for life’s mysteries, or at least those of She Dies Tomorrow, are nearly within sight.

The apocalyptic atmosphere that Seimetz conjures here, especially among the privileged characters, is reminiscent of Karyn Kasuma’s The Invitation. That film’s ending was also disappointingly ordinary, but Kasuma gave her protagonists more room to breathe, revealing in their desperation, bitterness, and suffocating superficiality. In She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz only gets that close to Amy and Jane, before splintering her film into off into missed opportunities. And given the film’s ambitions, that sense of squandering may be intentional.

Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Kim, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Adam Wingard, Madison Calderon, Director: Amy Seimetz Screenwriter: Amy Seimetz Distributor: Neon Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Jessica Swale’s Summerland Revels in Recycling Tales As Old As Time

Throughout, the film’s characters exhibit little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connections.

1.5

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Summerland
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Jessica Swale’s Summerland does a maddening double Dutch between cliché-laden genre modes. It is, by turns, a melancholic reverie on England’s home-front struggles during World War II and the looming end of an empire, a melodrama about a child teaching a crotchety spinster how to love, and a remembrance of a lesbian love affair. Each of these kinds of stories are typically prone to treacly sentiment, and when thrown together here, the end result is a film whose characters only seem to exist as vessels of pathos, exhibiting little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connection.

We first meet Alice (Penelope Wilton), a reclusive author and scholar, in her dotage, bristling at unwanted visitors to her seaside cottage in Kent. The film then flashes back to the war, with a younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) writing in the same home. Though tormented by local youths and resented by townsfolk for her antisocial behavior, Alice is perfectly content with solitude, until she learns that she’s been placed in charge of Frank (Lucas Bond), a boy evacuated from London as the Blitz rages on. Alice is, of course, outraged, and struggles to fob the child off onto anyone else in the United Kingdom, insisting that she must live under self-imposed isolation in order to focus on her research into pagan myths.

From the moment Frank arrives on her doorstep, there’s never any doubt that Alice will warm up to the child, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t obsess over her emotional thawing. But the boy’s presence does reawaken Alice’s suppressed memories of a romance she once shared with a young writer, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), during their university days. Their relationship suffered from their shared fear of discovery, and as it flits between past and present, Summerland never takes the time to build its characters, only providing simplistic glimpses of Alice’s past that are restricted to such overplayed images as the accidental brushing of hands and tear-stricken admissions of the impossibility of her being with Vera.

The revelation of Alice’s romantic life is the first of a series of twists that drive the remainder of the story, frequently at the expense of giving the actors room to breathe. Swale comes from the world of theater, and it shows in her functional compositions, which often frame the characters against the English countryside, typically in long shot and static medium-close-ups of them stagily expounding upon their feelings, almost as if they were playing to the cheap seats. And the film’s dialogue is perennially on the nose, as when Alice abruptly goes on a rant about religion and its suppressiveness that’s so obvious that even young, naïve Frank appears to understand that she’s really talking about her sexuality. And as each new dramatic upheaval shoves the slightest hints of subtle character growth out of the frame, the actors are reduced to repeatedly shuffling through the same gestures of shock and grief.

By constantly darting between so many overlapping forms of misery and longing, Summerland never gives its characters any interiority, making them purely reactive agents to the hell to which Swale subjects them. Though the film, surprisingly, concludes on a hopeful note, it indulges every dour cliché along the way, which, when paired with Swale’s drab direction, effectively saps the energy out of its many demonstrative moments of sorrow.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond Director: Jessica Swale Screenwriter: Jessica Swale Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: The Fight Is a Humanizing Look at the ACLU’s Fight for Civil Rights

The film justly draws attention to the perpetual work that must go into preserving democratic institutions.

2.5

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The Fight

Wearing its allegiances on its sleeve, Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg’s snappy The Fight often succeeds at making the travails of civil rights lawyers in the Trump era visually and emotionally engaging. It follows five lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union as they shuttle between New York, Washington D.C., and the Southwest, spearheading efforts to counter numerous assaults on the rights of immigrants, women, and transgender people. The film might be described with equal accuracy as a humanizing look behind the headlines or as a particularly slick ACLU fundraising video.

After evoking American liberals’ most concentrated moment of collective trauma by playing audio from Trump’s inauguration over the production company logos, the film jumps into a prologue showing ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt obtaining a stay on Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” After this (later overturned) legal win, Gelernt becomes the lead on the ACLU’s lawsuits over child separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, while colleagues Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, and the team of Lee Block and Chase Strangio work on abortion rights for detained migrants, the notorious “citizenship question” proposed for the 2020 census, and trans rights in the military.

Lawyering and court proceedings become fast-paced and heroic in the filmmakers’ depiction of the crusading attorneys. Film crews follow them as they file briefs, struggle to balance family and work life, cope with surprising rulings, and—in a moment of unrehearsed farce—do battle with Microsoft Word’s imperfect dictation feature. Some behind-the-scenes moments have a rehearsed, reality-TV quality to them, like Block and Strangio’s stilted discussion of why Block should take the lead on the trans rights case, even though Strangio is the only trans lawyer at the organization—a decision that had clearly already been made before the cameras started rolling. On the whole, however, the documentary achieves the narrative flow it strives for, presenting its somewhat nerdy heroes rising to face the left’s most infamous bêtes noirs—like when Amiri presents a case before a pre-Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh.

A limitation on the film’s project is that the sexiest part of a civil rights attorney’s job—delivering soaring speeches about right and wrong to impassive figures dressed in the black robes of authority—isn’t accessible to cameras. Federal courts allow audio but not video recording, so for the latter the filmmakers substitute minimally animated illustrations, inspired by courtroom sketches but rendered in much more stylized fashion—expressively shaded and, for some reason, dominated by autumnal hues.

The animated sequences emblematize the film’s main fault: how it emphasizes easy visual appeal at the expense of a more interrogative approach. The title sequence is a fast-paced montage of news footage sliding in and out of shifting panels that subdivide the screen. It’s a motif that’s repeated throughout the film, and resembles the opening credits of Parks and Recreation, as if consciously channeling the Obama-era optimism of liberal millennials’ beloved sitcom. Following a theme, then, the first third of The Fight also introduces us to the ACLU’s New York offices as an energetic, offbeat space: Among the generally youthful staff, the middle-aged and out-of-the-loop Gelernt, his iPhone perpetually on the brink of battery death, comes off here as a more competent version of Parks and Rec’s Jerry Gergich.

Despite how often the film tries to be consumable at the expense of being thorough, at The Fight’s best moments, it both humanizes figures who only appear in the news stories as one-dimensional side notes and provides deeper context for viral footage that has defined the Trump era, like that of migrant children being reunited with their parents. And while the whole has been engineered to not overtax viewers with details of legal labor, it also contains illuminating tidbits of courtroom strategy—like when Block and Strangio page through candidates for the perfect plaintiff to represent in a class-action suit, or when Ho describes the oblique angle at which one must approach arguments around government officials’ racial bias. There’s a more complex documentary on the legal front in the struggle against authoritarianism waiting to be made, but The Fight’s lionization of the ACLU justly draws attention to the perpetual work that must go into preserving democratic institutions.

Director: Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 96 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Film

Flesh and Blood at 35: Medieval Ironies

By all accounts, this should have been Paul Verhoeven’s Vera Cruz.

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Flesh and Blood
Photo: Orion Pictures

Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood is styled on screen as Flesh + Blood, as though the filmmaker were consciously working out an algorithm to account for his artistic sensibilities. By all accounts, this should have been his Vera Cruz: a down-and-dirty medieval romp that adumbrates the fallout of former partners in carnage parting ways and turning on each other. But the burdens of helming a logistically convoluted international co-production, wrangling a diverse and opinionated cast, and running the gauntlet of studio interference in the central storyline inevitably took their toll. What resulted is a solid actioner with flashes of brilliance. Outrageous in its unabashed blend of ultraviolence and profanation, Flesh and Blood stands as another testament to its director’s determination not to push the envelope, but rather to fail to recognize the envelope’s very existence in the first place.

In other words, Flesh and Blood is the anti-Ladyhawke, that other Middle Ages-set epic starring Rutger Hauer to come out in 1985. In place of the latter’s lush romanticism, complete with tortured shape-shifting lovers separated by a churchman’s curse, and a helpful little burglar played by Ferris Bueller, we’re treated over the course of the film to the more dubious spectacle of a gang rape and a catapult flinging plague-ridden dog carcass into a besieged stronghold. “Pretty strong meat there,” as the sniffling film critic in “Sam Peckinpah’s ’Salad Days,’” one of Monty Python’s funniest sketches, would have observed. However compromised the central conceit, moments of brazen effrontery help Flesh and Blood effectively shatter the staid sheen of chivalry studiously cultivated by many a medieval film.

Then, too, there’s Verhoeven’s cheeky appropriation of religious iconography for more sanguinary martial purposes. Early on, the sword-for-hire Martin (Hauer) unearths a statue of St. Martin of Tours, a saint with a sword, which the mercenary band of brothers’ resident cardinal (Ronald Lacey) promptly declares a sign from God above. Throughout Flesh and Blood, they will use this relic as a tool for divination to guide their way (with questionable results). Late in the film, Verhoeven brilliantly frames a shot with the saint in the background and Martin, a veritable double in the flesh, whetting his sword in the foreground. Needless to say, Martin’s proclivities are far from sanctified (witness the aforementioned sexual assault).

Beyond the portentous irony contained in these saintly invocations, Verhoeven doubtless has a larger point: Throughout history, relics and iconography have been used as armaments in battles between cultures and religions. They have a double meaning, seemingly proclaiming: “Not only is your god my devil, but my god has sanctioned, through martial figures like Martin of Tours, the deployment of all-too-earthly means by which to prove it.” In the end, the film’s greatest irony, and the often-pedestrian narrative’s most brilliant stroke, isn’t to decide in favor or against Martin. He’s of a piece with his nature, and he leaves the story as he entered it: unchanged and unbowed by the carnage he’s both witness to and agent of.

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