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Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy on Criterion

Alex Cox’s heartfelt take on the true-life relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen could easily have been just another rock biopic.

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Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy on Criterion

Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy, a heartfelt take on the true-life relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen—a love that ended when Sid stabbed Nancy to death in the Chelsea Hotel, then died of a drug overdose while awaiting trial—could easily have been just another rock biopic. Instead, through the use of fantasy-tinged reenactments (favoring the surreal in lieu of the straightforward), Cox transforms this gritty tabloid story into something deeper. It’s a perfect example of finding truth through fictionalization.

The film begins with the police interrogating a blood-covered Sid (eerily embodied by Gary Oldman) in his hotel room. “Who called 911? Did you call 911?” an officer asks to no response. He wants to know who the girl was, where he met her. “I met her at Linda’s,” Sid finally acknowledges after shakily taking a toke from a cigarette. Thus begins a flashback to better days, when lead singer Johnny Rotten and Sid were just a couple of boys causing chaos in 70s Britain, knocking in the front window of a Rolls, slurping baked beans at dominatrix Linda’s flat, throwing darts at drummer Paul in the local pub. Cox shoots in bright daylight (this is England?), emphasizing the purity of the blokes, the sweet innocence beneath the bravado nihilism. These aren’t ruthless delinquents out to hurt or even to impress. They’re just fuckin’ bored (a running theme in the dialogue, with punks constantly lamenting ennui, the core of teenage rebellion).

Things don’t go well at that first meeting when groupie Nancy (played by Chloe Webb, equal to Oldman in chameleon ability) announces she has “all” of the Sex Pistols albums back in New York before calling Sid by Johnny’s name. It’s only later when they end up two bodies on the sardine-packed floor of a flat that the dysfunctional relationship begins. Nancy literally wedges herself between Sid and Johnny, marking a turning point in the boys’ friendship. A girl has come between them. It’s time to grow up.

Unfortunately, growing up entails shooting up with junkie Nancy, who guides the naïve Sid. When he asks her to score him some smack and she leaves with his money, he actually thinks she’s going to come back. Cox frames Sid waiting in the doorway of the pub, huddled in the nighttime rain, stubbornly refusing to come inside. Instantly there’s a quick flash to sunny daytime, the bright orange of pal Wally’s hair and jacket contrasting with Sid’s jet black spikes and leather, followed by the many colors of the fruits and vegetables of the outdoor market they navigate, which borders on the surreal. Everyday events are no longer normal. A group of school kids run amuck, bashing parked cars with bats. Over-the-top perhaps, but then so were the 70s.

And this is another reason Sid & Nancy succeeds: Cox gives his story a larger context than two lovebirds in a punk-scene cocoon. Whether it’s the stunning long shots of London’s seedy streets or the highly stylized boat sequence in which the Sex Pistols’ concert on the Thames is ended by police billy clubs, the film never loses hold of the idea that the 70s were a time of larger economic and social turmoil. The Sex Pistols were a reaction to a hostile environment, not the cause of it, and they did not operate in a bubble. (Cox hints at the scene’s larger context by showing X-ray Spex opening for the Pistols with “Oh, Bondage, Up Yours!” before Sid and Johnny take the stage.) Only love enables Sid and Nancy to drift untouched through the police riot, their escape accompanied by acoustic music instead of screams.

Sid & Nancy is really a coming-of-age (first) love story at heart. The major characters all play at being something they’re not. Nancy name-drops, brags she’s “friends with Debbie Harry,” while Sid “plays” at being a junkie. Wally even plays with toy cars while Sid and Nancy have drugged-out sex nearby. They’re all children masquerading as grown-ups. Sid and Nancy fire toy guns at Johnny while dashing through the street, and fight while Sid vacuums his mum’s flat and Nancy jumps up and down on the bed (this ridiculous scene culminates in Sid chasing Nancy down the street in his leather jacket and jock strap until Nancy stops to strip off the hippie costume she’s tried on. Facing a store window, she exclaims, “I look like fucking Stevie Nicks!” Of course, this all occurs after Sid finds his lost G.I. Joe doll and Nancy laments, “I’ll never look like Barbie. Barbie doesn’t have bruises.”) Within the humor shines pathos born of knowing you’ll never live up to society’s expectations.

Cox is masterful at staging hilarious scenes that end with unexpected poignancy. Nancy calls her parents in the middle of the night to tell them she and Sid got married, and if they rush down to American Express “like, right now” they could send them a couple hundred bucks as a wedding gift. Then, when she doesn’t get what she wants, she smashes the window of the phone booth like an impulsive kid. It’s a scene at once silly and primal, the desperation of a junkie felt as much as seen. No matter how outlandish the set-ups—from the sleazy drug dealing Rock Head on his exercise bike as Sid and Nancy make out in the background to Johnny’s deadpan “You know you’ve got a man hanging from your ceiling?” at Linda’s dungeon/pad—the film is firmly grounded in a reality familiar to those living in hyperreality. When Sid performs “My Way” on an elaborate soundstage before an opera audience, then pulls a gun on them, it’s no more stylized than his actual life. (Life itself is a stage!) Cox jam-packs his film with off-kilter visuals that feel organic, not quirky or forced. In terms of sensibility he’s a lot like Terry Gilliam, who likewise chooses to push reality up a notch as a means of exposing what lies just beneath the surface. (When Sid pukes on a schmoozer who approaches him at a table in Paris, the guy’s girlfriend is wearing headgear attached to braces, a contraption recalling the hero’s face-lift-obsessed mother in Gilliam’s Brazil.)

Because Cox creates his own living, breathing world we’re not so concerned with historical accuracy, with “the facts.” So what if the guy playing Johnny Rotten doesn’t look much like the real John Lydon? His constant correcting of Sid’s singing, “We don’t fucking care!” with “No ’fucking’—just ’we don’t care’!” tells us more about the character than the right shade of Rotten red. The shot of Sid and Nancy sleeping, their heads of jet black and bottle blonde cuddled together like furry animals, and the scene in which Nancy, dressed in fetish gear, answers Linda’s phone and falls to her knees when she hears Sid’s voice calling from America, visualize their love better than any “true events” ever could. “You’re just gonna have to have sex with somebody else!” an irritated Nancy finally exclaims, hanging up as Linda calls for her—this is followed by a quick cut to a long shot of Sid at a phone booth, shit-kicker cowboys in the foreground. Their relationship goes from being so near to so desperately far away.

Cox’s ability to capture the subtleties of the relationship through lush cinematography (courtesy of Roger Deakins) and sharp editing is what humanizes Sid & Nancy, what makes the film a universal tale. Cox wastes no time—even when Sid accidentally walks through a plate-glass door and goes down in slo-mo, we don’t hear glass and people shrieking but disembodied voices arguing. The next scene reveals it’s the beginning of the end, the loud break-up of the band around a comatose Sid’s hospital bed. By the time we see Sid sitting up, raptly watching a monster movie as a Christmas-decorated shopping cart rolls into the room, we know Nancy is going to be standing in that doorway. Sappy and sentimental? Sure. Isn’t that what love is?

But the most touching scene is one that occurs halfway through, a wordless vision that signals the inevitable downfall. In slow motion under gorgeous, bluish lighting with music both powerful and lulling, the two junkie lovebirds make out against a dumpster as trash rains down from the unforgiving sky. This is the essence of Cox’s punk masterpiece, a subliminal foreshadowing of their deaths. From here Sid & Nancy turns unbearably heartbreaking. “All my friends are dead,” Nancy states as if she’s awakened to a revelation. “I hate this fucking life.” Sid tries to calm her, tells her things will get better when they get to America. “We’re in America!” she yells and the horror is visceral. Her words cut to the bone. There is simply no way out. Sid goes to the balcony, the Hotel Chelsea sign looming in the background. The sounds of NYC rise from below, overwhelm like life itself.

And yet the innocent humor persists. Nancy takes Sid to meet her family. Over dinner her grandpa asks about Sid’s “intentions” with his granddaughter. “Well, first we’ll go down to the methadone clinic,” Sid answers sincerely before the family retires to the rec room where the clueless couple entertain with Pistols tunes on an acoustic guitar. When they’re finally told they can’t stay, are better off at a hotel, Nancy’s face registers a crushing knowingness. “Why’d they throw us out?” Sid wonders later. “Because they know me,” Nancy quietly replies. Even when Sid goes back on their deal to not do any drugs until after his upcoming gigs, Nancy, through her howls of disappointment and seething anger, screams, “And you didn’t even save me any!” It’s this constant interweaving of hilarity and bleakness that keeps us off balance, makes us see this junkie tale through fresh and sober eyes.

This is also a hallmark of the film’s director. Both the guy dispensing the drugs at the methadone clinic who suddenly starts ranting about how the government uses heroin as a form of control or the creepy bellhop who begs for money after Sid and Nancy are moved to a new room could easily have slipped in from Cox’s Repo Man. Cox likes to disarm us with weirdness in the same way David Lynch does, using it as a tool to alter our expectations of what is or what should be. The hotel room at the Chelsea where the pair hole up is like a tomb, shot in that same deathly bluish light. When Sid takes the stage in a near-empty bar to sing Iggy’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” the scene is inter-cut with dollar bills floating in the air. When he runs into a group of kids bullying another he tells them to stop. “Who do you think you are?” one little guy challenges. “Sid Vicious,” he answers coolly. The children speed off in fast motion. Cox is forever altering our perception of the familiar.

To a longing soundtrack laced with haunting melodies by Joe Strummer and The Pogues, Cox forces us to witness something incredible—souls deteriorating, rotting away before bodies succumb. The music, melancholy guitars and drumbeats, is funereal. When a drugged-out Nancy accidentally sets fire to their room she watches mesmerized as the flames consume, sees the beauty in the disintegration. Even when the firefighters rush in to drag her out in slow motion the pained expression on Nancy’s face says it all. “At least you used to be something. I’ve never been anything,” she tells Sid when he tries to comfort her. What, in fact, were those firefighters saving her from?

And there’s the junkie rub. By the time the infamous murder scene occurs, Sid and Nancy are no longer living human beings. They’re zombies merely existing until the next fix. When Sid finally lunges at Nancy with the knife she herself bought, neither one is mentally present. What is reality anyway? I can’t think of another movie where a murder occurs without either party fully comprehending the finality of the event, Nancy splayed out on the bathroom’s white tiles, blood everywhere, light streaming out and into the darkened bedroom where Sid remains. Nancy has found the light in death, Sid only blackness in life. After his arrest we see Sid through the bars in the jail, lying on the floor convulsing. The Sex Pistols may have sung about “No Future,” but Sid was the only member who lived it. “Sidney is more than just a bass player—he’s a fabulous disaster!” Malcolm McLaren declares. That he was.

The Criterion Collection edition of Sid & Nancy is chock full of goodies, including commentary not just by co-screenwriter Abbe Wool and stars Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, but also by those who were there during punk’s heyday. Cultural historian Greil Marcus, who wrote two books about the Pistols, weighs in, as do musician Eliot Kidd and filmmakers Julien Temple and Lech Kowalski (whose doc D.O.A. is excerpted in the extras as well). This is a perfect melding of those who fictionalized Sid and Nancy with those who knew them, the stories oftentimes contradicting one another (Julien Temple wasn’t too happy about John Lydon being portrayed as a clown rather than the wit he is), but always bringing us to a deeper contextual understanding of the punk scene.

“England’s Glory” is a “making of” doc by Martin Turner, shot at a cost of $500. Perhaps the most surprising element of this behind-the-scenes peek is how happy and relaxed Alex Cox’s set is, more like a jam session than a costly movie. It’s a delight to behold the quiet and sweet Gary Oldman looking like a young Johnny Depp when out of his Sid Vicious character, or Alex Cox with his own spiked hair goofing off with the punk extras. Even the calliope music that substitutes for Pistols songs in four scenes (due to problems with music rights clearances) adds to the carnival atmosphere.

“D.O.A.: A Right of Passage” features interviews with the real Sid and Nancy, taken from D.O.A., Kowalski’s documentary on the Sex Pistols’ American tour. “They were incredibly pathetic and I felt like I was taking advantage of them just by being there,” Kowalski is quoted as saying. Listening to Nancy berate a nodding-off Sid in her New York whine you realize just how inseparably dysfunctional the two really were. She yells at him to try to stay awake for the interview, to stop dropping lit cigarettes on her, and she also notes that he’s constantly spilling coffee and orange juice on her—Sid is always the helpless, careless kid who wouldn’t be able to function without Nancy (she actually claims Sid would have died around fifteen deaths already if not for her!) .

“The Filth and the Fury!” is the actual December 1976 episode of Thames Television’s “Today” show with Bill Grundy, which featured the Sex Pistols (after Queen canceled). Though Sid and Nancy aren’t on it (original bassist Glen Matlock hadn’t yet had his feud with Johnny Rotten) Siouxsie Sioux is, hilariously flirting with old geezer Grundy. “Anarchy in the U.K.” is overdubbed (clearance issues again!), but it’s well worth viewing this historical moment when the Pistols went from local rebellious lads to a national embarrassment.

The “Phone interview with Sid Vicious” on July 20, 1978 occurred after Sid took a flight to London via NYC (three days after an overdose following the Pistols’ final San Francisco concert), fell into a drug-induced coma during the trip, and was promptly taken to Jamaica Hospital in Queens. Photographer Roberta Bayley, who shot the covers for the Ramones’ first album and Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ debut, conducted the “interview,” which is really a painful conversation between a caring friend and a lonely incoherent junkie who can’t get anyone to visit him in his darkest hour due to a blizzard. Listening to Sid gush about his big pile of Marvel comics is particularly heartbreaking.

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Cannes Film Festival 2019: Oh Mercy!, Les Misérables, Young Ahmed, & Atlantics

Many of the selections at this year’s festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements.

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Oh Mercy!
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Surprisingly, many of the selections at this year’s Cannes Film Festival were genre films, or, at least, exhibited notable genre-adjacent elements. By and large, audiences recognized the influence of genre on these works in the moment, as in a UFO randomly popping into frame during Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, or the eyes of a group of women rolling back in their heads during Mati Diop’s Atlantics.

Sometimes, though, a film turned out to be exactly as advertised, and that’s for the worse in the case of Oh Mercy!, Arnaud Desplechin’s follow-up to his prismatic, semi-autobiographical Ismael’s Ghosts. Set in the director’s hometown of Roubaix, this modest film about the work of maintaining order in a community stars Days of Glory actor Roschdy Zem as a level-headed police chief in charge of overseeing a number of investigations. Captain Daoud largely farms out his duties to a phalanx of hot-headed underlings, but he takes a determined interest in one case involving the murder of an old woman, possibly at the hands of her two neighbors, Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her girlfriend, Marie (Sara Forestier).

This case paves the way for the film’s most impressive sequence: two parallel interrogations depicting the methods used to meticulously weaken Claude and Marie’s resistance to being interrogated and draw out the truth. Otherwise, there isn’t much depth to this scenario to capture the viewer’s attention. At the margins of the plot, Desplechin’s attentiveness to local color is noticeable, which at least imparts a sense that he knows this community quite well and understands how social dynamics play out within it. But it isn’t too long into its running time that Oh Mercy!, in its generally abiding faith in the effectiveness and general well-meaning of police work, comes off as undiscerning in its pro-cop stance.

Still, Oh Mercy! somehow manages to seem a lot more empathetic and realistic than Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s police drama set in the Parisian commune of Montfermeil. Ly’s feature directorial debut pretentiously co-opts the cultural cache of its Victor Hugo-penned namesake as a means of bolstering its activist political message. A brief and promising montage opens the film, and depicts jubilant Parisians of all races in a state of revelry. (This is actually documentary footage from the aftermath of France’s 2018 World Cup victory, so not exactly the June Rebellion that closes Hugo’s opus.) From this point forward, Ly largely relies on gritty faux-doc aesthetics redolent of The Wire to maneuver through a narrative that splits its time between police on the job and embedding itself with the people they’re meant to serve.

Nonetheless, the focus remains largely on Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the newest recruit of the dubiously named Anti-Crime Squad that’s tasked with patrolling Montfermeil’s crime-ridden Les Bosquets social estate, and the way the soft-spoken man’s conscience is tested on his first day as he rides alongside two corrupt cops (Alexis Manenti and Djibril Zonga). Ly seems to give the cops too much latitude, or at least he muddles his condemnation of their behavior by lumping it in with a broader message about an untamable chaos in the suburbs of Paris. The film’s explosive finale, which sees the oppressed city kids rise up and start a war with law enforcement, could be interpreted as a call for revolution, but it could just as easily be read as a fortification of the idea that The Streets Aren’t Safe, and a film like this shouldn’t make the conflation of progressive and conservative politics that easy.

Les Misérables does, at the very least, lay bare the reality of an everyday form of violence and prejudice and makes some kind of attempt at responding to it, which is more than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bother to do with Young Ahmed. In the film, the eponymous Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) puts distance between himself and his family, deciding that his Arabic teacher is a heretic before, finally, turning to violence. The Dardennes’ signature observational cinema, one that’s shaped by lightly applied genre conventions and subjected to chain reactions of dramatic incident, comes to feel exploitative in this context, as Young Ahmed demonstrates little interest in understanding the psychology or pathology of the troubled youth at its center, or even in grasping the sociocultural conditions that affect him.

As is their wont, the Dardennes start their film in medias res, which proves to be their first big mistake: Ahmed has already been radicalized, and so from here on out we observe his actions in a kind of vacuum. The film, then, becomes just an exercise in redundancy for the Dardennes, hitting as it does the same narrative beats of sin and redemption that all their character studies do, albeit with a different cultural face. This isn’t a well written or conceived narrative either, especially in its contrived and manipulative finale. But what makes the film outright offensive is its flippancy toward the Muslim faith. At one point, we get a match cut between Ahmed being kissed by a non-Muslim girl and the young man vigorously washing out his mouth—a moment that elicited much laughter at the film’s gala premiere.

In the past, the veracity and realism of the Dardennes’ aesthetic mode has made for convincing portraits of life on the margins, but here there’s an uncomfortable friction between the way their technique engenders a feeling of truthfulness and the calculated and methodical depiction of Ahmed’s actions. The only party that benefits here are the Dardennes, who’ve brazenly attached themselves to a subject that grants their film an unearned political weight.

One film at Cannes this year that got its genre inflections, its social commentary, and its understanding of race generally right was the steely and quixotic Atlantics, Mati Diop’s first feature-length fiction film. Atlantics derives some of the broader strokes of its narrative from a short of the same name that Diop directed a decade ago, about Senegalese youths discussing the possibility of crossing the Atlantic toward Europe. The feature version of Atlantics is set in Dakar and follows Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a 17-year-old who’s in love with a boy named Souleimane (Ibrahim Traore) but who’s been arranged by her parents to marry a wealthy older business man. After this ostensible love triangle ends in tragedy, Diop’s film briefly morphs into something of a procedural, as a young detective (Amadou Mbow) is called on to investigate a mysterious act of arson committed on Ada’s wedding day.

It’s the way that Atlantics pivots into the realm of the supernatural, and even flirts with the horror genre, that makes it so unique. The blend of folklore spiritualism and commitment to social realism, paired with an ethereal visual sense that emphasizes the spectral experience of the subaltern, can be imprecise in terms of its political implications, but Atlantics nonetheless evokes the palpable feelings of its characters’ displacement through its shift into ghost-movie terrain. Even Diop’s balance between a more visually poetic register and a devotion to maintaining her narrative’s momentum seems less like a compromise than a reflection of this filmmaker’s confidence in her own ability to tell complicated and unusual stories in the guise of familiar narrative form. In fact, that’s a good way to frame a lot of Cannes’ competition films this year: Many are genre-adjacent, but it’s those from filmmakers that display a sense of confidence in their approach that have tended to leave the best impression.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.

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Review: Parasite Satirically Feeds on the Ills That Divide a Society

Bong Joon-ho’s excoriation of a dehumanizing social culture is mounted with dazzling formal invention.

3

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Parasite
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

The first film Bong Joon-ho has made in 10 years that’s set entirely in his native South Korea, Parasite finds the eccentric, genre-driven auteur scaling back the high-concept ambitions of his prior two films, the post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer and the globe-trotting ecological fable Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host, Bong’s 2007 breakout monster flick. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people.

In a cramped apartment, a family of four are sent into a panic when the WiFi network they’ve been pirating goes offline. Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and her brother, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), scurry about as their father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), instructs them to try holding their phones up to the ceiling, and to stand in every nook and cranny of their home until they find a new connection. All the while, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) bemoans her husband’s laziness and prods him to find work. But it’s Ki-woo who pulls his family out of their impoverished life, when he gets an opportunity to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ziso), daughter of the rich Park family.

Parasite essentially puts an absurdist spin on both the concept behind Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sentimental Shoplifters from last year and the bitter class commentary that underpins Nagisa Oshima’s 1969 film Boy. Bong positions Ki-taek and his family as grifters so adept at pulling off cons as a unit that they successfully convince the Parks to bring them all into their employ, in one capacity or another. Ki-jung becomes an “arts therapy” teacher for the Park clan’s precocious young son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), and, later, the rich family’s driver and nanny are pushed out of their jobs through elaborate scandals manufactured by the poor family, in order to install Ki-taek and Moon-gwang, respectively, into those roles.

Bong pulls off a neat trick by insinuating that the parasite of his film’s title must be Ki-taek’s family; after all, they certainly live off the “host” to which they’ve attached themselves. But in typical fashion, Bong starts to lace Parasite with all sorts of complications that begin to challenge the audience’s perceptions—left turns and big reveals that not only bring new layers to the film’s social commentary, but also develop the characters and their attendant psychologies, which encompass the psychic toll of shame, lack of empathy, and deception.

The twists in this narrative also activate some of Bong’s more inspired and sociopolitically loaded visual ideas. At one point in the film, the slum village where Ki-taek and his family live is devastated by a massive flood during a night of severe weather. Meanwhile, in the upper-class neighborhood where the Park clan lives, a backyard camping trip is ruined by rain. The particular layout of one unexpected setting, which sees members of the lower class literally occupying a space below the rich, doubles as an ingenious metaphor for class subjugation. Remarkably, Bong even finds room for a commentary on Korean peninsula relations.

The only thing that keeps Parasite just slightly below the tier of Bong’s best work, namely The Host and his underrated and similarly themed 2000 debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, is the overstuffed pile-up of incident that occurs toward the end. This is frequently an issue for Bong’s films (both Snowpiercer and Okja climax with busy and disorientating action set pieces that lose sight of their characters in the process), and here it manifests in a boldly gruesome scene of violence that’s undercut by a lengthy and rather contrived denouement.

Ultimately, Bong’s excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture isn’t far removed from that of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, but he mounts it with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. Parasite also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent.

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Lee Sun-kyun, Park So-dam, Cho Yeo-jeong, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin, Jung Ziso, Jung Hyeon-jun Director: Bong Joon-ho Screenwriter: Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Perfection Walks Impersonally Though a Labyrinth of Gimmicks

The crazier Richard Shepard’s film gets, the more routine and mechanical it comes to feel.

2.5

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The Perfection
Photo: Netflix

Richard Shepard’s The Perfection is, for better and worse, an ingenious toy. The plot is clever, but the film is all plot. Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder repeatedly paint themselves into corners, only to free themselves with twists that bring about increasingly diminishing returns. The first switchback is legitimately startling, but the fourth is exhausting and belabored even by the standards of self-consciously cheeky exploitation shockers. As The Perfection mutates from gothic-tinged lesbian romance to body-horror thriller to revenge film, its lack of atmosphere becomes apparent, and the characters begin to seem as if they exist only to move through a labyrinth of gimmicks.

The film opens, promisingly, in Black Swan mode, introducing us to women with potentially rickety senses of self who may come to eat one another alive for our delectation. Charlotte (Allison Williams) travels to Shanghai to reconnect with her mentor, Anton (Steven Weber), who nurtured her to become one of the world’s great cello players, before she retired to care for her ailing mother. (We also pointedly learn, via shock cuts, that Charlotte was institutionalized after her mother’s death.) Charlotte meets Anton’s new pet prodigy, Lizzie (Logan Browning), at a swanky party, and Shepard springs the first and subtlest of the narrative’s many surprises. Conditioned by films such as All About Eve, we expect Charlotte and Lizzie to resent one another and fall into a catty rivalry. However, Lizzie worships Charlotte, and Charlotte doesn’t seem to want to return to the industry, and so the women, free of envy, connect after a night of collaboration, drinking, dancing, and sex.

Shepard’s handling of Charlotte and Lizzie’s lovely, companionable night together is telling of his direction of the film at large. He rushes through it with a montage, collapsing Charlotte and Lizzie’s cello duet, their clubbing, and their coupling all together, reducing their union to a math equation: Meet Cute + Flirtation + Sex = Inciting Incident. For, say, Peter Strickland, this sequence might’ve taken up half the film, allowing him to celebrate and fetishize these gorgeous women while stylishly exploring their loneliness and alienation. And for Dario Argento in his prime, this scene might’ve been an opening aria of erotic terror.

For Shepard, though, it’s just business, and his disappointing haste squanders the heat that’s been worked up in one of The Perfection’s best scenes, when Lizzie observes an infidelity at a concert and whispers to Charlotte that it makes her wet. Even more egregiously, Shepard glosses over a significant bit of information, as Charlotte claims to have lost her virginity to Lizzie. What would it feel like to be sexually arrested and then to so suddenly fall into bed with someone as attractive, worldly, and confident as Lizzie? Shepard doesn’t care to know—and this confession is eventually revealed to be fodder for one of the film’s many twists.

Shepard’s mercenary pace at times serves the film well. When Charlotte and Lizzie awaken the morning after, the filmmaker sustains, for about 15 minutes, an expert tone of slow-dawning dread. Both women are hungover, but Lizzie is dramatically ill, and Shepard plunges us into her panic and helplessness, capping the scene with the perverse spectacle of Lizzie vomiting yellow maggots against a bus’s windows, clutching her head in pain. Several tensions merge at this point in The Perfection: the fear of being sick in another country, of having to grapple with a new lover’s biological eccentricities, and a basic tension wrought by the violation of narrative expectation, as we’re meant to wonder how we moved from a film in the vein of Black Swan to something in the key of a zombie-outbreak movie. Shepard merges these tonal disparities with a lurid reveal, at which point his film goes completely bonkers.

Funny thing, though: The crazier The Perfection gets, the more mechanical it becomes. Shepard appears to be so proud of the film’s first twist—which pivots on a spectacular gaslighting—that he can’t leave well enough alone. It’s then that the film’s narrative “rules” start changing every few minutes, with Charlotte, Lizzie, and Anton trading the batons of “hero,” “villain,” “victim,” and “avenger” back and forth between them. A film as impersonal and plot-centric as The Perfection needs at least some kind of warped logic to sustain a sense of there being stakes at play. In this case, if anything goes then nothing matters.

Cast: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber, Alaina Huffman, Milah Thompson, Molly Grace, Winnie Hung Director: Richard Shepard Screenwriter: Eric C. Charmelo, Richard Shepard, Nicole Snyder Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 90 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

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Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood Is an Elegy to an Era’s Sunset

The film is Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture.

4

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is presented, right down to the ellipses in its title, as a diptych. But instead of just being a way to structure a piece of entertainment for commercial reasons—like the Grindhouse double feature, the two-part Kill Bill, and the “roadshow” version of The Hateful Eight, which was broken up by an intermission—this demarcation separates two distinct periods: the beginning of the end (February 1969) and the end itself (the summer of ‘69). And it’s a juxtaposition that shows old Hollywood in a time of transition, from dog days to death throes.

While Tarantino’s films tend to provide audiences with much evidence of where the auteur’s love of Hollywood’s lurid lore finds root (in blaxploitation, World War II dramas, kung-fu movies, or spaghetti westerns), Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood gets the closest of any to giving us the complete picture. In this sense, the film is nothing less than Tarantino’s magnum opus—a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture and an almost expressionistic rendering of the counterculture forming at its margins, gradually growing in influence. It’s an uncharacteristically thoughtful and sobering film for Tarantino, while somehow also being his funniest, and most casually entertaining.

In the film’s first section, old Hollywood comes to life through montages of flashing neon signs, majestic old movie theater marquees on the Sunset Strip, and long-haired hippies hanging out on street corners, trying to bum rides from people who pass them by in their hot cars. Tarantino’s late-‘60s Hollywood is an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, and thanks to the many exhilarating driving sequences that dot the film, the Los Angeles neighborhood conjures the adrenalized sensation of velocity and acceleration.

Navigating through this fast-paced Hollywood is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Both characters are complete fabrications, as are most of the titles they’re associated with, like Kill Me Now Ringo, Said the Gringo and Three in an Attic. And as Tarantino detours his narrative through depictions of these fictional projects, subjecting us to many scenes of Dalton playing different characters, this at first just seems like an excuse to make spoofy versions of disposable Hollywood product, like the fake trailers that appear between Planet Terror and Death Proof in Grindhouse. But these scenes actually serve to sketch the shifting dynamics on film sets of the late-‘60s, like the emergence of Method acting, and they also position Dalton as a kind of Tarantino surrogate.

In one of the film’s most clever sequences, Dalton regales his eight-year-old co-star (Julia Butters), in between takes on the set of some low-budget western, with the story of the novel that he’s been reading. The character in the story is an aging cowboy who used to be the best but now is a shadow of his former self. As Dalton tells the story of the man’s misfortune, and all his aches and pains, he starts to well up, obviously recognizing how much this all applies to him. But the way the sequence plays out, with the young girl with the forceful feminist outlook putting Dalton in his place when he tries to call her by a cute nickname, effectively puts Tarantino in the hot seat, and for that matter DiCaprio, another artist whose aging career comes with the danger of obsolescence and of falling out of step with the times.

Progressing on a parallel track to Dalton and Booth’s narratives is another storyline, and the one that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has already become infamous for. The real-life Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) comes to feel like the flipside of Dalton and Booth, her next-door neighbors in the film. The “It” girl flits through parties with her celebrated Polish filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and good friend, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). If the changing times threaten to discard and ignore Dalton and Booth, they’re bringing Tate too much attention: At various points in Tarantino’s film, she’s watched and coveted from afar, as in a scene in which Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) gossips while ogling her at a party.

In the film’s finest scene, Tate even watches herself: at a matinee screening of Phil Karlson’s 1968 Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. The sequence is resonant in no small part for its layers, with Robbie, as Tate, watching the real Tate (Tarantino uses actual footage from The Wrecking Crew for the scene). The whole thing suggests a kind of eerie feedback loop of celebrity and its cycles of consumption, but it’s also a profoundly moving scene: Effortlessly nailing the moment, and without any dialogue, Robbie responds, in character, to the film on a diegetic level, watching her own performance, but at the same time, there’s also the added metatextual layer of Robbie watching the very actress whom she’s playing.

It’s the film’s commitment to fortifying its themes with such layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, that makes it one of Tarantino’s great films—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. It’s also that self-reflexive lens through which to read Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood that makes its finale harder to write off as the misstep that it would otherwise seem to be. Tarantino does, perhaps unsurprisingly, revert to some of his more vexing shock-jock tendencies, and even squanders some of his film’s emotional gravitas. But it’s difficult to deny how effectively he sets up what’s to come, when, in the midst of a tense debate between members of the Manson Family, one young woman (Mikey Madison) delivers an incendiary edict: “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder—my idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!”

This chilling sentiment becomes the nexus of the film’s significantly darker second half, which jumps six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, inching toward a post-Flower Generation comedown, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality. The shift facilitates one of Tarantino’s more brilliant needle drops to date: of the Rolling Stones’s wistful, wounded, and ominous “Out of Time” playing over a montage of Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Tate preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.

The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. It’s this sequence, and the Tarantino-branded ultraviolence that it ushers in, that puts the greatest strain on a film that had been setting itself up for tragedy but ends far afield from that. Still, this subversion points a path to our understanding of the broader intent of Tarantino’s commentary in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which is less about addressing the violence that people commit against each other than it is about lamenting the existential violence that sustains some and leaves others out of time.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Samantha Robinson, Lorenza Izzo, Costa Ronin, Perla Haney-Jardine, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Rumer Willis, Rafal Zawierucha Director: Quentin Tarantino Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 159 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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

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

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

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

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

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film

Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

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

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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