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Review: The Eclipse

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The Eclipse
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

A much duller tale than its Irish literary festival setting would suggest, The Eclipse is the third feature film directed by award-winning playwright Conor McPherson, who has further damaged the proceedings by clumsily inserting jump-in-your-seat ghost-story thrills into a wan character study. In a picturesque seaport town, woodworking teacher Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds, imposing and largely wasted) operates on several levels of denial, burdened by his unresolved grief for his recently deceased wife, demonstrations of authoritarian bluster to his two tween kids, longings to resurrect collegiate writing ambitions, and horror-movie visions of his institutionalized father-in-law. Michael pauses in furtively adapting his spectral encounters at his icy attic’s desk long enough to work as driver and gofer at the annual lit shindig for both a supernatural-fiction hottie (Iben Hjejle) and a loutish American drunk who pens bestsellers (Aidan Quinn, hamming like a sitcom Hemingway). Hinds and Hjejle do a coy mating dance, he predictably ends up in a knockdown ball-squeezing brawl with jealous Quinn, and has his zombie nightmares interrupted by a slip on a real pool of blood—though a suicide in this context is just a plot point to facilitate the tearful, healing embrace of a spouse’s apparition. The dialogue and situations all tend to the generic and mechanical, shaken up far too infrequently by Hjejle’s tipsy smile or Hinds’s slapstick tumble into a lakeside hilltop’s man-sized pothole. The types played by the three leads never bridge their insurmountable distance from reality, and Hjejle’s familiarity with the spirit world implies a survivor’s trauma equal to Hinds’s, but one is never revealed. Attempting to darken its touristy middlebrow sensibility with shocks and farce, this Eclipse characteristically doesn’t illuminate anything.

Cast: Ciarán Hinds, Iben Hjejle, Aidan Quinn, Jim Norton, Eanna Hardwicke, Hannah Lynch Director: Conor McPherson Screenwriter: Conor McPherson, Billy Roche Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2009 Buy: Video

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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now

These films show us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed.

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The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Universal Pictures

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by some of the imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles below (all presently streaming on Netflix) have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson


The Endless

10. The Endless (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2017)

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless first shows the appeal of commune living—everyone eats healthy, follows their blisses, and drinks copious craft beer—so that it’s all the more unnerving when the amiable façade falls away. Throughout, there are plenty of hints that something’s up, and the filmmakers excel at crafting an unsettling atmosphere through images of multiple moons in the sky, the daylight that flickers to full-on night and back again, the flocks of birds flying in ring formations, and the fired bullets that are flattened as if by a force field of invisible brick. The Sacrament recalls Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novel The Invention of Morel (and the Emidio Greco’s 1974 film adaptation starring Anna Karina), in which a scientist records what’s meant to be a perfect weekend on a remote island, then projects it three-dimensionally on an infinite loop atop the locations where it unfolded—a vision of what cinema (and home movies) could be if untethered from the screen. But here, the characters aren’t recordings, and they’re at least partially conscious of their imprisonment, consigned to live out the same events in perpetuity. As such, knotty, unlikely philosophical issues are raised, and if there’s any disappointment here, it’s that the film settles into Spielbergian Hollywood clichés about how divided families come back together. Henry Stewart


Snowpiercer

9. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-hoo, 2014)

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an angry and bleak film, as well as an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes genre entry concerned with passé niceties such as atmosphere and spatial coherence. The premise also has an inviting bluntness: A few years into the future, global warming slips out of control, and humankind inadvertently initiates an ice age in its attempt to correct it. Soon after, all that remains of humanity are the passengers of an ultra-equipped, self-sustaining train that suggests Noah’s Arc as a speeding elevated bullet. Having predictably learned nothing from their travails, the train’s passengers quickly assume the flawed social structure of the first world that’s recently ended, with the entitled haves exploiting the enraged have-nots. The film is most notable for its evolving visual concept: Each car takes one closer to a representation of the world as it presently works. The first few cars are rendered in the distancing apocalyptic hobo ax-and-sword aesthetic that’s been a cinema standard since at least the Mad Max films. But the latter cars are lit in expressionistically beautiful club-rave rainbow colors that reflect the escalating social privilege of a lost generation. Chuck Bowen


Elizabeth Harvest

8. Elizabeth Harvest (Sebastian Gutierrez, 2018)

The plot convolutions of Elizabeth Harvest conjoin with director Sebastian Gutierrez’s stylistic bravura—blasts of red and blue in Cale Finot’s cinematography that connote a spiritual as well as physical sense of ultraviolence—to create an incestuous atmosphere that’s reminiscent of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Henry is a memorable monster, played by Ciarán Hinds with a bravura mixture of smug entitlement and oily needfulness that’s weirdly and unexpectedly poignant. In one of the greatest mad-scientist speeches ever delivered by a character in a horror film, Henry explains that his cloned wife (Abbey Lee) is only real to him when he destroys her. This admission chillingly crystallizes the thin line, within the male gaze, between adoration and contempt. Bowen


Safety Not Guaranteed

7. Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012)

More focused on emotion than adventure, Safety Not Guaranteed teases out the possibilities and perils of time travel without embroiling itself in the confusion inherent to the subject. It also avoids most of the usual sci-fi clichés, with a suburban mad scientist who’s part man child, part Morel, using his invention as a means to heal adolescent scars. Played by Mark Duplass with just the right mixture of oblivious eccentricity and simmering hurt, the deft handling of this potentially ridiculous character is one of the many nice touches in this surprisingly poignant comedy. The film’s ending does seem to conflict sharply with its “you can’t go back” message, with the sudden appearance of special effects signaling an abandonment of the emotional and narrative verisimilitude exhibited so far. But it’s easy to excuse the film for going for the happy ending, considering how balanced it’s been up to this point, crafting characters that aren’t defined solely by silliness or sentimentality. Jesse Cataldo


Hardcore Henry

6. Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2015)

The film’s first-person perspective is so ingeniously sustained throughout the lean 96-minute running time that you’re liable to swat at your face when a man covered in steel and wielding a flamethrower sets Henry (Andrey Dementyev) on fire, or hold on to the edge of your seat when he battles the telekinetic warlord Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) atop a skyscraper from which a free fall seems inevitable. The film’s singular ambition is to immerse the viewer in the thick of a frenzied drive toward the promise of a lover’s touch and a few more minutes of life. Our aesthetic perception is linked to our perception of Henry himself, so that the film becomes a study of empathy through aesthetics. It’s not for nothing that Henry is made to have no voice, as Hardcore Henry’s unbelievably precise choreography of action seeks to tap into a universal feeling of powerlessness. Ed Gonzalez


Midnight Special

5. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)

With Mud and Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols has already used withholding narratives to weave distinctly Southern tales about fringe believers, survivalists who could also be seen as evangelists. Nichols was forthright about the motives of his protagonists, but cagey about whether their causes were worth believing in. Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is another in Nichols’s lineage of would-be prophets, but no one here doubts the world-changing potential of the child’s visions. If in Midnight Special is, at its heart, a work of science fiction, it rolls out like a chase film. With the help of his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon), has kidnapped the child from captivity at a compound run by a Branch Davidian-like cult that once counted Roy as a member. Given its twilit suburban adventures and encroaching security forces, the story exudes a superficially classical sensibility, recalling Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nichols has an easy mastery of pacing and tension, employing a churning sound design (and a pulsing score by David Wingo) that allows moments of occasionally bloody action to arrive with a frightening blast or a deep, quaking rumble of bass, and the film moves with purpose to its final destination. Christopher Gray


Mad Max

4. Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

The Mad Max trilogy is the work of a talented virtuoso who blended seemingly every trope of every movie genre into a series of punk-rock action films. The plots, which are nearly irrelevant, are always similarly primitive even by the standards of low-budget genre films: In a bombed-out future version of the outback, a vicious gang pisses off a brilliant highway daredevil, Max (Mel Gibson), and stunning vehicular mayhem ensues. Though the second film, most commonly known in America as The Road Warrior, is often cited as the masterpiece of the series, the original Mad Max is still the most ferocious and subversive. The 1979 film most explicitly riffs on delinquent racing movies and the kinds of crudely effective 1970s horror movies that would sometimes show a family being violated in a prolonged fashion, and there are sequences in Mad Max that could be edited, probably with few seams, into, say, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Mad Max also has a distinctly Australian masculine tension that’s reminiscent of other outback-set classics such as Wake in Fright, as it’s concerned with the pronounced sexual repression and frustration of a predominantly male population that’s all dressed up in tight leather with little to do apart from mounting their bikes and revving up their big noisy engines. Bowen


The End of Evangelion

3. The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1997)

When Hideaki Anno ended Neon Genesis Evangelion, his elaborate analogy for his own untreated depression, with a moment of calming, redemptive group therapy, the backlash he received from fans who wanted a cataclysmic climax was overwhelming. In response, Anno crafted this theatrical alternate ending, in which he brutally and unsparingly gave fans all the nihilistic chaos they could ever want. If the anime series’s finale was a psychological breakthrough, End of Evangelion is the relapse, an implosion of self-annihilating revulsion and anger rendered in cosmic terms. Religious, sci-fi, and psychosexual imagery intersect in chaotic, kaleidoscopic visions of personal and global hell, all passing through the shattered mind of the show’s child soldier protagonist. Its finale is the most fully annihilative visualization of the Rapture ever put to screen, a mass death rendered as cathartic release from the hell of existence that, in a parting act of cruelty, leaves the broken, suicidal protagonist alive to bear witness to oblivion. Jake Cole


A Clockwork Orange

2. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is about uninspired moral negligence, and about its hero tuning into violence as entertainment and institutions using violence and brainwashing as a means of control. It’s Kubrick’s most prescient work, more astute and unsparing than any of his other films (and he had more where that came from) in putting the bleakest parts of human behavior under the microscope and laughing in disgust. It was made right after his other high watermark, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as he returns to Earth from his mind-blowing brush with the cosmic, it’s a sort of sequel about our planet rotting away from the inside. As a drunk says to Alex (Malcolm McDowell) right before taking a vicious beating: “I don’t want to live anyway! Not in a stinking world like this! Men on the moon and men spinning around the Earth, and no attention paid to earthly law and order no more!” One could say this was ripped straight from the headlines, only nowadays one could argue there’s no attention paid to anything, be it outer space or earthly matters, just an endless feeding to audiences who have developed a voracious taste for, as Alex would say, “the [good] old ultra-violence.” Jeremiah Kipp


Total Recall

1. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

An imaginative expansion of the brisk Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” this film about fake memories and a real interplanetary crisis now stands redolent with nostalgia, both for its time, as well as for itself. Beneath its show of smoke and mirrors, mercenary babes, and treacherous holograms, Total Recall is a story about a man who must choose between two possible, contradictory realities. In one timeline, he’s an earthbound schmuck; in the far less likely one, he’s a hero who must save an oppressed people on a faraway planet. He can’t afford to waver, but it’s our privilege to do so. As viewers, we’re welcome to consider the persistent motif of walls collapsing, subterfuges dissolving, and rugs being pulled out from still more rugs. The film now exists in a twilight of an era in which factory-produced entertainment could still serve as a keyhole into a dimension of weird, through which we might glimpse the otherworldly, and contemplate fondling the third breast. Jaime Christley

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Features

The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

Staff

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Universal Pictures

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins



Under the Shadow

10. Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016)

Like an Iranian take on The Babadook, writer-director Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow is an emotionally direct and realistic horror story centered around a socially isolated mother and child who are terrorized by eerie supernatural events. Living in Tehran under Ayatollah Khomeini’s reign and during Iran’s long war with Iraq, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) feels the world closing in on her, a suffocation that comes to feel almost tactile through the specificity with which Anvari details her day to day. The paranormal happenings are very likely a combination of the mother’s hallucinations and the child’s way of making sense of the violence the mother perpetrates as her sanity ebbs and flows, but Anvari keeps things creepy in part by leaving open the possibility that there really may be something supernatural gripping his milieu. Elise Nakhnikian



Cam

9. Cam (Daniel Goldhaber, 2018)

When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard



The Blackcoat’s Daughter

8. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Oz Perkins, 2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Chuck Bowen



His House

7. His House (Remi Weekes, 2020)

In writer-director Remi Weekes’s debut feature, His House, the unresolved trauma that strips away at an immigrant family’s defenses is horrifyingly manifested when they finally move into their designated low-income housing, and struggle to navigate a foreign culture that insists on assimilation. Bol (Sope Dirisu) is desperate to fit in, ensuring the immigration bureau that he and his family are good people and telling his wife that, in their new surroundings, they’re “born again.” But his wife, Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), doesn’t share his eagerness, as her experiences in England have been almost entirely unpleasant, from the indifference and condescension of their smarmy, burnt-out case worker, Mark (Matt Smith), to the outright xenophobic, such as when three black neighborhood kids mock her and tell her to go back to Africa. As Bol and Rial contend with their adversities, their home becomes an increasingly dangerous battleground in which they’re forced to wrestle with their inner demons and find ways to adapt without fundamentally changing who they are. This house, with its porous walls and ragged, peeling wallpaper, is eerily symbolic of its new inhabitants’ damaged psyches, their grief and guilt manifesting as ghosts—most chillingly in the form of zombified migrants who died during the perilous crossing to England that opens the film. Derek Smith



1922

6. 1922 (Zak Hilditch, 2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen



The Invitation

5. The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan



Unfriended

4. Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014)

The computer screen to which we’re exclusively moored throughout Unfriended belongs to Blaire (Shelly Hennig), a popular high school girl who likes to while away her evenings listening to Spotify while she Skypes with her oft-shirtless boyfriend. One night their video chat is intruded on by several of their classmates—along with a pictureless mystery caller. It soon transpires that the caller in question is Laura Barnes, a former friend of Blaire’s who committed suicide after an embarrassing video went viral, apparently back from the grave to take digital revenge. There’s a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to all of this, but the purpose isn’t merely to sensationalize; there are very real, very relevant contemporary anxieties coursing through this story, lending the horror a provocative charge. More impressive still is how effectively Levan Gabriadze illustrates Laura’s brutal reckoning: When the genre-film spectacle arrives, it’s in full force, and the strictures of the framing device manage to amplify, rather than suppress, the impact of the shocks and scares. The result is a staggering thing—that rare breed of horror film to invent a gimmick and perfect it all at once. Calum Marsh



Before I Wake

3. Before I Wake (Mike Flanagan, 2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen



The Guest

2. The Guest (Adam Wingard, 2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


The Blair Witch Project

1. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)

Before the flourishing digital age paved the way for social-media naval-gazing, YouTube, and selfies galore, The Blair Witch Project foreshadowed the narcissism of a generation, its success unsurprisingly paving the way for an army of imitators that failed to grasp the essence of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naïve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror that’s arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick

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Festivals

Berlinale 2021: I’m Your Man, Souad, and Ninjababy

Maria Schrader has a solution for the rom-com’s revitalization: embrace its constructs.

Pat Brown

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Berlinale 2021: I’m Your Man, Souad, and Ninjababy
Photo: Christine Fenzl/Berl

It has been widely remarked that the romantic comedy, perhaps at its peak in the 1990s, has more or less evaporated as a popular mainstream genre over the course of the last two decades. The rom-com is at least in part a casualty of studios’ devaluing of mid-budget films, but perhaps its decline, as with any genre, has to do with its formula, after generations of repetition, finally becoming recognized for their inherent artificiality.

If true, filmmaker Maria Schrader has a solution for the rom-com’s revitalization: embrace its constructs. I’m Your Man presents us with the same outline as any number of rom-coms, in that two will-be lovers must overcome some inner flaw that prevents them from being together. For Alma (Maren Eggert), that would be the restraint that she shows in all things emotional, spurred by recent heartbreak and a resulting identity crisis. For Tom (Dan Stevens), it’s that he’s literally an artificial man, a robot programmed to respond to and fulfill Alma’s every desire—which, if you think about it, would be rather aggravating with or without Alma’s ingrained self-defense mechanism of revolting at the slightest sign of happiness.

Schrader gives her high-concept comedy a light touch that Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder would appreciate, embedding most of the story’s humor in variations on the Turing test, where conversations between Tom and real people throw that whole human-machine divide into question. I’m Your Man might reasonably be described as a gender-flipped version of familiar cinematic explorations of the question of the artificial being as a projection of male desire—think Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Spike Jonze’s Her, Andrew Niccol’s S1m0ne, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and its sequel—though its foregrounding of the complex contours of a woman’s desire makes Schrader’s film more than a simple inversion.

I’m Your Man more closely resembles “In Theory,” the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Brent Spiner’s Data begins dating a fellow crewmember. Akin to Data, Tom is an ever-so-slightly too perfect human-like being who’s risible at first for his divergence from the real deal, eventually demanding, from both Alma and the viewer, recognition as a form of life. Schrader’s camera, along with Alma, likes to linger on Tom’s face, not (only) in an erotic sense, but also in the philosophical sense—for the way she ponders the invisible difference between electronic algorithm and neurotransmitter charges. At once a wry romantic comedy about the complications of sexual desire and a science-fiction allegory about the confusions that singularity may be leading us toward, I’m Your Man assembles familiar ideas into something no less pleasurable for being a plainly artificial construct.

Ayten Amin’s Souad, screening in Berlinale’s Panorama section, could hardly strike more of a contrast with Schrader’s precisely executed and polished film. Set within a conservative Muslim community in Egypt, and shot in a verité, handheld style that seems to be reacting to the story rather than making space for it. But there’s a connection between the films in that Souad, too, is about the role of technology in women’s sexuality, from the very specific standpoint of young women coming of age amid the manifold contradictions produced by the injection of smart technologies and social media into traditional societies.

When we meet Souad (played with an elusive sullenness by Bassant Ahmed), she’s telling an old woman on the bus about her fiancé, who’s stationed in Sinai with the army, and his lovely sister; a smash cut later and she’s talking to a younger woman, telling her an entirely different story about her doctor boyfriend and his disapproving sister. Both stories are fabrications. Souad turns out to be living two lives, but not in the sense that she’s actually got boys in different area codes: While in person she appears to be one of the more conservative ones among her friends, she has a long-distance lover, a budding social media star named Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem)—though she might not be his only squeeze, virtual or otherwise.

Without positioning smartphones one-dimensionally as seducers of virginal youths, Amin’s film imagines the potentially tragic results of the confluence of the expectations that conservative Islam places on women’s sexuality, young people’s intensely erotic investment in social media, and the patriarchal privileges afforded by both religious doctrine and secular, technological society. While Souad’s second half drags after a shocking turn of events, and the film’s realist, Dardenne-esque aesthetic can feel forced—occasionally the camera is abruptly shoved into actors’ faces to underline significant moments—it offers a moving examination of the sometimes-unbearable splitting of the self in our socially mediated world.

A young woman, Rakel (Kristine Kujath Thorg), also finds herself caught between worlds in the Ninjababy. However, here it’s between the world in which she has discovered to her distress that she’s pregnant with the child of a fuck buddy that she and her roommate, Ingrid (Tora Dietrichson), non-affectionately call “Dick Jesus” (Arthur Berning), and that of her idly drawn cartoons, in which the fetus has been personified as the titular masked figure.

Uncharitably, one could call Yngvild Sve Filkke’s film a Norwegian mashup of Jason Reitman’s Juno and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, as its story of accidental pregnancy (and failed trip to the abortion clinic) sets itself among a familiar-seeming set of off-kilter young hipsters, and it frequently augments its comedy with pseudo-amateur animation and effects. The latter are visible only to Rakel, the indie pregnancy’s requisite slacker with an active imagination and even more active (and sarcastic) unconscious mind.

But more charitably, Ninjababy, whatever its similarities to aughts-era films indebted to indie comics, is refreshing for its less puritanical look at women’s sexuality. It also yields plenty of yuks. The jokes spewed by the cartoon fetus who’s inserted into scenes as Rakel’s castigating super-ego don’t always land, but the chaotic love triangle that forms between Rakel, the oblivious male narcissist Dick Jesus, and Mos (Nader Kademi), the diminutive and exceedingly sweet local Aikido coach, makes for some cringe-humor gold.

Berlinale runs from March 1—5.

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Review: Chaos Walking Only Scratches the Surface of Its Fascinating Premise

Beneath its perfectly entertaining surface, the film is a mess of contradictions that fails to live up to its own potential.

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Chaos Walking
Photo: Lionsgate

Where does one draw the line between an original idea and a gimmick? It’s a question that haunts Chaos Walking, Doug Liman’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’s 2008 YA novel The Knife of Never Letting Go. On a recently colonized dystopian planet pointedly dubbed New World, men’s thoughts are (for the most part) involuntarily audible and to some extent visible to others. The film does an adequate job of translating this mental “Noise,” as it’s called, to an audio-visual medium, but for the first 10 minutes or so, the barrage of thoughts, accompanied by prismatic wisps of imagery that flash around characters’ heads before dissipating, can feel like a stimulus overload, as the viewer is tasked with triangulating the characters’ thoughts from the actors’ dialogue and body language. And yet, the film is committed enough to the device that we quickly learn to accept it.

Sadly, Chaos Walking only scratches the surface of the implications of its premise. A faithful transcript of a New Worlder’s stream of consciousness should be, as the film’s title implies, chaotic: a jumble of half-formed associations bouncing between the mundane and the bizarre, but everyone’s “Noise” here is pretty straightforward, even utilitarian. In one scene where Todd (Tom Holland) is digging beets out of his father’s field, we get a tantalizing glimpse of an alternate version of the film when he wonders if it’s possible to die from boredom, but the film doesn’t push further than that. It feels like a missed opportunity to explore how thoughts can become free-floating in the midst of New World’s repetitive drudgery.

Chaos Walking also doesn’t explain why, exactly, women’s thoughts aren’t similarly manifested, since, after all, there’s more than a whiff of gender essentialism to the “Noise.” For that matter, given that the main female character’s (Daisy Ridley) thoughts are hidden by design, the film struggles to find another way of imbuing her with as nuanced a personality as Todd’s. True, this isn’t Mrs. Dalloway, but it’s still unfortunate how most characters’ thoughts end up as plot vehicles, rather than insights into inner turmoil or the nature of mental activity.

The plot itself is bog-standard. An advance scout of the second wave of colonists, Ridley’s Viola crash-lands on the seemingly all-male New World near Prentistown. Todd happens to be the one to find her, and he can’t keep the discovery secret because his thoughts are public. Looking to hold onto what power he has, Prentis (Mads Mikkelsen), the town’s sinister yet charismatic mayor, aims to prevent Viola from contacting her spacecraft and initiating the next wave of colonization. Todd and Viola, chased by Prentis and his henchmen, journey to another settlement, where she hopes to find means of contacting her ship. On the way, they learn more about each other and the word as Todd has been indoctrinated to know it unravels.

Chaos Walking is at its strongest when dramatizing how characters control their thoughts, using them as tools, even weapons, in a world familiar from such sci-fi/western mash-ups as Firefly and Cowboy Bebop. The source of Prentis’s power is his ability to keep his thoughts hidden from others, except when he allows them to manifest in the form of convincing illusions. The film also effectively shows how an edifice of lies and secrets can become a reality to those who live and breathe them, especially in insular communities bent on survival. Further, it hints toward the insidious ideology of “man” as an agent of domestication, dominating both inner and outer “chaos,” as it operated in the colonization of the Americas. In one scene, Viola reminds Todd that they, the colonizers, are the aliens from the perspective of the indigenous Spackle, whom the colonists are halfway through exterminating.

Any truly barbed indictment of colonialism, though, is sabotaged by the fact that the Spackle scarcely make an appearance, to the point that they come to feel like an afterthought. Worse, the film’s ending offers some vague, less patriarchal version of colonialism as the only way forward for humanity, having long since trashed Earth. While there are flashes of sympathy for those at the receiving end of manliness, Chaos Walking remains at its core a film about men and masculinity, toxic or otherwise. The film’s most imaginative ideas end up as little more than set dressing for a rather conventional story, as opposed to seeds that might have structured it in some radically new way. Beneath its perfectly entertaining surface, Chaos Walking is a mess of contradictions that fails to live up to its own potential.

Cast: Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, Kurt Sutter, Óscar Jaenada Director: Doug Liman Screenwriter: Patrick Ness, Christopher Ford Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 109 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2021

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Review: Petite Máman Wistfully, Powerfully Attests to the Pull of Familial Bonds

The film evinces Céline Sciamma’s profound knack for visual economy, communicating much with silent looks and structured absences.

3.5
Pat Brown

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Petite Máman
Photo: Neon

Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman departs from the filmmaker’s last two feature-length directorial efforts in its comparative modesty. With none of the overt social messaging of Girlhood or the grand romance of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma’s precisely composed images and muted dialogue serve a more intimate story about the longing to connect with one’s mother outside the bounds of the parent-offspring relationship.

Petite Maman indulges the same kind of fantasy as Back to the Future, answering the question of what it would be like to meet our parents at our own age—though it’s not overly concerned with temporal paradoxes or a high-stakes race to ensure one’s genesis. Rather, contemplative and cool almost to a fault, the film emphasizes the simple acts of connecting with and parting from people, and the rueful inevitability of time’s passing.

The film’s defiance of the linear temporal continuum facilitates a connection between two lonely eight-year-olds, each an only child living with a single parent in an isolated home in the woods. The main character, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), is helping her father (Stéphane Varupenne) clean out her maternal grandmother’s home after the woman’s passing. Meanwhile, her grieving mother (Nina Meurisse) has absconded; Nelly woke up one morning, after they’d snuggled up to each other on the couch in the stripped-bare living room, to find her gone. The same day, playing in the woods behind her departed grandmother’s house, Nelly encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl her age who uncannily resembles her (the actresses are sisters), who shares a first name with her mother, and who happens to be building a makeshift hut out of branches around the same place that Nelly’s mother did when she was young.

The film evinces Sciamma’s profound knack for visual economy, communicating much with silent looks and structured absences. The opening shot follows Nelly in a nursing home as she bids au revoir to elderly women. It’s when she comes to a fourth room, which contains an empty bed, that we understand what she’s doing here, and why she’s making sure to say goodbye to each resident. Throughout, Sciamma uses ambivalent visions to raise silent questions that will hopefully be resolved. As in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the journey to the past—in the earlier film, in the more conventional form of a flashback—seems to be activated by an unexpectedly uncovered sight. Here, the tacky lime-green wallpaper revealed behind the refrigerator in Nelly’s grandmother’s kitchen not only symbolizes the partial obscurity of the past, but also, more nebulously, her journey into her absent mother’s history.

When the two girls get caught in the rain, Marion leads Nelly back to her house, which turns out to be the exact same one that she’s staying in with her father—except that her father is gone and it’s a younger version of her grandmother (Margot Abascal) who’s quietly managing things. For obvious reasons, Nelly keeps the secret that she’s actually Marion’s future daughter close to the vest, and she and her child-mother become fast friends with the typical alacrity of prepubescent children. Soon, Nelly and Marion stage a play for an audience of none, each of them playing multiple roles, taking on the tasks of the siblings neither of them have.

But all their fun plays out in the loneliest of spaces, as both the house that’s been emptied in the wake of the grandmother’s death and the one that Marion lives in exude an almost unreal stillness that colors the girls’ interactions. The lack of a score—there’s no music until a sudden needle-drop that kicks off a sequence that serves as an evocatively indirect culmination of the story—and the hushed atmosphere means that we hear every rustle of clothing as the girls play and talk, emphasizing their mutual isolation even as they grow closer together.

The formal expressivity of Sciamma’s film stands in a certain contrast to its characters, whose outward emotions are pointedly deadened. In Marion’s case, particularly as an adult, this reads as the numbness of grief and depression. But the children’s matter-of-fact demeanor and condensed manner of speech, while endearing at first, can sometimes seem over-calibrated (“You didn’t invent my sadness,” Marion poetically says to Nelly at a crucial point, trying to comfort her). Whittling down the dialogue and conveying emotion largely through formal technique, Sciamma takes perhaps too much of the burden off of her child-actors’ shoulders. The more difficult-to-process emotions remain suspended in the air, manifest in the images, like the panther that Marion imagines she sees in the shadows cast on her bedroom wall.

The youthful inquisitiveness and mature sobriety that defines Nelly positions her as a version of a child that an adult might imagine themselves to have been. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t incredible power to the way that Sciamma has us view the world of childhood from a grown-up remove. Petite Máman’s look at an impossible connection between a young girl, her mother, and her grandmother captures with wistful clarity the asynchrony that keeps us from getting to fully know our parents as people—fantasizing a scenario in which its main character can achieve an understanding that for many of us comes too late.

Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne, Margot Abascal Director: Céline Sciamma Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma Distributor: Neon Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Berlinale 2021: Memory Box, Any Day Now, and Brother’s Keeper

Adolescence is a fertile metaphor for the strangeness and insecurity inherent in the transition from one world to another.

Pat Brown

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Berlinale 2021: Memory Box, Any Day Now, and Brother’s Keeper
Photo: Abbout Productions

Two noteworthy films at this year’s Berlinale examine the lives of migrants from the Near East living in the West from the perspective of young people. In Memory Box, among the films competing for the Golden Bear, and Any Day Now, included with other films from new filmmakers in the Generations lineup, adolescence proves a fertile metaphor for the strangeness and insecurity inherent in the transition from one world to another.

Teens who live between two cultures turns out to be a recurring theme at this year’s festival. Also superimposing political strife onto the fading innocence of childhood is Kurdish director Ferit Karahan’s Brother’s Keeper, from the festival’s Panorama section. While set entirely in Turkey (in fact, the action never leaves a snowed-in boarding school in Eastern Anatolia), the film concerns, in part, the paradox of a country’s internal national differences—namely, that between a Kurdish rural class and the Turk-dominated state apparatus.

In its use of an all-male boarding school milieu as a synecdoche for social discipline more broadly, Karahan’s film partakes in a distinct cinematic lineage. Even the prominent part played by the school’s reaction to a snowfall recalls Jean Vigo’s 1933 featurette Zero for Conduct. But while snow in Vigo’s landmark film provides an opportunity for boys to stray from their rigidly ordered lives, here a snowstorm presents a crisis with which a state-run institution proves unable to cope. And while other films set at boarding schools tend to see such institutions simply as an oppressive other in relation to the individual students, Brother’s Keeper puts more emphasis on the way the students have internalized the ethics of surveillance and punishment under which they live, exercising the same arbitrary aggressions against each other that their wardens exercise upon them.

A student, Yusuf (Samet Yildiz), wakes up to find his best friend, Mehmet (Nurullah Alaca), so ill that he’s nearly unresponsive. As the boy attempts to convince an intransigent and endemically distrustful institution that his friend needs immediate medical help (and not just an aspirin and some time in the makeshift sick room), we observe how a system of corporal punishment and authoritarian power structure has produced nothing but disorder. The teachers and administration devolve into mutual recriminations and opportunistic scapegoating as soon as a crisis arises that can’t be solved with a swift slap to the face.

If the situation weren’t so dire, the film could almost be a satire of systemic petty corruption, like Milos Foreman’s The Fireman’s Ball: Every authority figure who enters the sick room, feeling Mehmet’s head as he lies in the glorified shed that serves as an infirmary, articulates the same unhelpful phrase (“But he doesn’t have a fever”), and those who enter said shed repeatedly slip on an icy patch in front of the threshold, which nobody thinks to address until somebody is injured off screen. But such touches aren’t merely comic, as they become signifiers of the administration’s stasis as a child’s life hangs in the balance. It’s not hard to find resonances with any number of current socio-political crisis in this portrait of a crudely hierarchal institution failing to adequately address an emergency situation.

The oppressive effects of even a relatively competent bureaucracy come under focus in Hamy Ramezan’s Any Day Now, in which we meet an Iranian family living in a state facility in Finland while they await a decision on their asylum application. It’s unclear how long they’ve been waiting, but it’s long enough that their oldest child, the preteen Ramin (Aran-Sina Keshvari), has become proficient in Finnish and made friends at the local school. We perceive his family’s agonizingly slow-burn crisis mostly through his eyes, as he simultaneously moves from the more childish world of primary school into junior high school.

Aspects of Ramin’s coming-of-age story are a bit flavorless, from the girl who he admires from afar not being given any real defining characteristics, to cinematographer Arsen Sarkisiants’s sober camerawork, which isn’t always in lockstep with the giddiness that one senses that Ramin’s hijinks with his Finnish friend, Jigi (Vilho Rónkkónnen), are meant to convey. Instead, what Any Day Now captures with stirring detail are the routines that arise from a family’s single-room life in a refugee center. Every morning, Ramin’s mother, Mahtab (Shabnam Ghorbani), shakes the family awake, one by one, and starts the kettle, while his father, Bahman (Shahab Hosseini), takes Ramin’s little sister, Donya (Kimiya Eskandari), into his arms and they rapidly brush their teeth in a “race” against each other. The family’s unspoken dedication to maintaining regularity and domesticity in the most uncomfortable scenarios—making their confined family cell into a home—is Any Day Now’s most affecting attribute.

Memory Box compounds the generational experience of migration by framing its story of a young woman’s final year in Lebanon through the eyes of her daughter in present-day Montreal. In the year before fleeing her native country’s civil war in 1988, the teenaged Maia (played by Rim Turki as a middle-aged woman and Manal Issa as a teen), daughter of a secular- and apolitical-minded teacher, has her first serious romance with a member of a leftist militia, Raja (Hassan Akil). Directed by Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, whose own journals from 1982 to 1988 served as the basis for the screenplay, Memory Box takes the arrival of a package at Maia’s house in 2020s Montreal that contains letters, scrapbooks, and audio tapes she sent to a friend living in France as the catalyst for the exploration of this personal history.

Maia’s own teen daughter, Alex (Paloma Vauthier), answers the door when the box is delivered, and begins going through its contents, eventually growing resentful about how much her mother seems to have withheld from her. While this framing drama has a sketchiness that deadens its emotional impact (an over-earnest coda involving the sun rising symbolically over Beirut is also cringingly ironic in the wake of the city’s 2020 Beirut explosion), but the flashbacks are piercing evocations of fleeting time and the hidden worlds of the past.

We’re transported back to 1980s Beirut by Alex’s archivist-like attempts to reconstruct her mother’s previous life, the collation of words, images, and even a “mood graph” that her teenaged mother kept bringing us with Alex into a tenuous identification with her mother. When placed side by side, photos, frozen moments excised from their context, begin to resemble fully embodied moments—cinematic segments—and Joreige and Hadjithomas use digital animation and compositing to reanimate a lost moment in time. These graphic reconstructions cede space to more conventional flashbacks, but the problem of memory and perspective returns in artificial, poetic imagery and problematized points of view. In its best passages, Memory Box reminds us that history and even memory itself are always subject to a medium—whether that’s a journal, a Polaroid, or a mother’s voice.

Berlinale runs from March 1—5.

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Review: Keep an Eye Out Frustratingly Gives Up on Narrative Convention

Quentin Dupieux imbues a trite genre scenario with a Kafkaesque brand of comic existentialism.

2
Chuck Bowen

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Keep an Eye Out
Photo: Dekanalog

Quentin Dupieux’s films abound in hauntingly lonely compositions, boasting painstakingly structured narratives that pivot on dreams, flashbacks, absurdisms, and colliding and collapsing realities. Yet his craftmanship often seems to be utilized in the service of telling slight shaggy-dog stories that could be sketched out in their entirety on a cocktail napkin. With certain exceptions, most notably Deerskin, Dupieux’s films strenuously avoid arriving at a digestible theme or even a discernable point, which might be their reason for being. There’s almost always a sense of him taking the piss—exploiting or parodying our need to be hip enough to “get” the jokey futility and alienation of his work.

Such thoughts are certainly encouraged, perhaps merely as means of self-entertainment, during Keep an Eye Out’s many purposefully tedious and repetitive sequences. The film takes off from a straightforward and amusing idea: A detective named Buron (Benoît Poelvoorde) interrogates a suspect named Fugain (Grégoire Ludig) about a murder that happened near the latter’s apartment. The twist here is that Dupieux stretches this scene, familiar from so many cop thrillers, out to entail the whole of the film’s running time. Like the dinner party at the center of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, Buron’s interrogation of Fugain appears unable to reach a conclusion, as it’s prolonged by the rules of Keep an Eye Out’s game, which keep changing with an arbitrariness that’s alternately startling and studious.

As in many of Dupieux’s films, it’s the small, casual bits that really land. Early in the narrative, such as it is, Buron talks at length on the phone about trivial family matters while Fugain sits across his desk from him, waiting for the detective to get the hell on with the interrogation. Buron’s blithe self-absorption, reminiscent of a few of George C. Scott’s characters and expertly played by Poelvoorde, is often funny and keeps the film going during its many dry stretches, as the more involved jokes are extremely variable in payoff. Given Dupieux’s general storytelling perversity—this is a man after all who made a film about a vengeful car tire—it should be no surprise that this variability also feels intentional, even pointed.

For instance, there’s a long, nonsensical setup for a preordained punchline involving an inept one-eyed cop (Marc Fraize), a sharp mathematical instrument, and a debate about stupidity and guilt that recalls a “who’s on first” routine. Typical of Dupieux, the laboriousness of this moment becomes the joke, and your escalating impatience with the obviousness of it all may be gratified by the unexpectedly swift and brutal final flourish. No need to spell things out, but the film’s title is assigned several meanings, some so intensely literal-minded that they do a loop-de-loop into the realm of the figurative. Less successful is a long anecdote about the seven trips that Fugain took on the night of the victim’s murder. Having characters routinely talk of the dullness of this story doesn’t relieve the fact that it’s all, well, so punishingly dull.

Aesthetically, Keep an Eye Out may be Dupieux’s most confident film to date. Boasting gorgeously lived-in, amber-hued cinematography, it very much looks the part of a “real” provincial French police procedural, and the sharp editing makes every line reading crackle. But to indulge what Dupieux would probably see as the most conventional and bourgeoisie of observations, the film doesn’t seem to be about anything, apart from the desire to imbue a trite genre scenario with a Kafkaesque brand of comic existentialism.

Keep an Eye Out lacks the emotional intensity of Dupieux’s Wrong and Deerskin, as well as, to put it lightly, Kafka’s own ferociously personal neuroticism. And its late-inning dive into alternate realities is a cheat of sorts, scanning less as a challenge to convention than as the act of an artist smugly painting himself out of several narrative corners. Yes, such maneuvers are of course intentional on Dupieux’s part and, again, part of the film’s no-exit infrastructure, but at a certain point one may be driven to frustratingly wonder, “So what?” Because there’s a fine line between mocking dramatic conventions and giving up on them.

Cast: Benoît Poelvoorde, Grégoire Ludig, Marc Fraize, Anaïs Demoustier, Orelsan, Philippe Duquesne, Jacky Lambert, Nahel Ange Director: Quentin Dupieux Screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux Distributor: Dekanalog Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mr. Bachmann and His Class Basks in the Wonder of Education As Collaboration

The documentary exists within the very restricted pantheon of films that successfully reap the cinematic potential of pedagogy.

4
Diego Semerene

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Mr. Bachmann and His Class
Photo: Madonnen Film/Films Boutique

Maria Speth’s 217-minute documentary Mr. Bachmann and His Class taps into the space where knowledge is collaboratively constructed, not transferred, and stays there, basking in its magic from start to finish. Speth contemplatively trains her camera on an elementary school class, composed of child immigrants, in the provincial German town of Stadtallendorf. Dieter Bachmann is their maestro, not master, conducting the quiet spectacle of progressive pedagogy with the most tender of grips.

Throughout the film, the students’ grades are discussed, one by one, among the entire class. The process makes it clear that students aren’t defined by the provisional result of their efforts. Clashes are resolved through listening. The rigidity of math is punctuated by music, cooking, and drawing once the teacher senses that boredom and crankiness have surfaced. And though Mr. Bachmann leaves no room for queerness when asking the kids about marriage, he at least treats them as perfectly able to develop empathy toward an otherness that’s presumed to only exist outside the classroom walls. As such, no issue seems to be off the table, including homosexuality, which isn’t the topic of an aside but that of extensive conversation and delicate confrontation (one of the girls finds it “disgusting”). Mr. Bachmann’s mastery is an effortless ballet, at once hypnotizing and heart-rending.

The documentary exists within the very restricted pantheon of films that successfully reap the cinematic potential of pedagogy. The obvious comparison is to Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch’s Miss Kiet’s Children, which turns its attention to a classroom in Holland inhabited by traumatized refugee children and their apparently gleeful Dutch peers. But Mr. Bachmann and His Class isn’t so much a portrait of a class, but a masterclass in portraiture.

Speth’s commitment to the multi-dimensionality of her subjects draws her project closer to Vittorio De Seta’s genre-bending 1973 Italian miniseries Diary of a School Teacher, itself inspired by the work of educational reformer Célestin Freinet, where the pedagogical process flows from abolishing both the authoritarian figure of the master and competition (tests, grades, rankings). Mr. Bachmann’s approach follows Freinet’s, as the German educator scorns the very concept of grading whilst explaining students’ grades. Rigid paradigms are replaced by conversations and collective actions, which necessarily involve the rearrangement of the furniture and bodies in the classroom. It’s not so much improvisation but a sensitive response to students’ needs and feelings at any given moment. It’s not a chaotic free-for-all either, but the denaturalization of violent forms of pedagogical theater in the name of the unaccounted for that can emerge from children and re-shape the classroom anew.

Mr. Bachmann’s pupils’ stifling difficulties with the German language (and foreignness more generally) are eased by their ability to move around, finding a comfortable corner in the room to do individual reading, playing with drums and electric guitars, wielding a sculpting hammer, juggling tennis balls, petting animals, grabbing a cup of tea or taking power naps. Mr. Bachmann’s most defining tool in his pedagogical symphony is his penchant for throwing out the script, discovering and surrendering to the porosity of disciplines with gusto, and purpose.

Speth recognizes this teacher as one big eardrum who absorbs everything, one that isn’t seeking proficiency or the self-serving evidence of knowledge transmission. The class, with all of its diversity, becomes the whole world. Kids from Morocco, Turkey, Bulgaria, Brazil, Italy, Russia, and Kazakhstan savor the luxury of resolving their differences through play and collective action. Even a probability lesson involves the intimacy of their little bodies coming together to draw marked and unmarked golf balls from a brown lunch bag.

In a particularly poignant scene, Jamie, a green-eyed Romanian boy, refuses to help Ilknur, a veil-donning Turkish peer, who’s having a hard time with German because, he claims, it’s her fault that she didn’t learn it like others did. Instead of reprimanding the student, Mr. Bachmann stops the lesson to debrief the situation. In this moment, the lesson becomes this situation, as the teacher walks the children through the reasons why it’s unfair to deny help to the girl because her difficulties are in fact not hers. They’re ours.

Director: Maria Speth, Reinhold Vorschneider Screenwriter: Maria Speth Running Time: 217 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Review: Introduction Takes Hong Sang-Soo’s Narrative Minimalism to the Brink

The film is a modern melodrama of grit, beauty, jagged edges, and resonant dead ends and false starts.

3.5
Chuck Bowen

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Introduction
Photo: Cinema Guild

It would be easy but shortsighted to dismiss Introduction as another collection of sketches by the prolific Hong Sang-soo. Like Yosujirô Ozu, Hong obsessively circles familiar themes embedded in plots pertaining to characters who talk at length about seemingly very little as psychic wounds gradually crystallize. But Hong’s films are easier to underestimate than Ozu’s, as they’re so piercingly minute in scale, sometimes seemingly to the point of nonexistence, though if one cares to look below their deceptively placid surfaces, the personal reverberations are often extraordinary. Each one uncovers new emotional contours as Hong continues to mercilessly hone his aesthetic, and Introduction is no exception.

With Introduction, Hong pushes his signature brand of narrative minimalism to a breaking point, even by his lofty standards. Divided into three parts, the film is literally about introductions, and Hong takes a nearly obstinate amount of time revealing his endgame, especially for a feature that only runs 66 minutes. In the first part, a doctor (Kim Young-ho) sits at his office desk, his face anguished. Admirers of Hong’s other films may assume that the doctor is the protagonist, and that he’s perhaps enraptured with a woman played by Hong muse Kim Min-hee. Instead, Hong follows the doctor as he goes about his day treating patients. A young man, Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho), arrives in the waiting room, though the doctor is distracted by the arrival of a friend, a famous theater actor (Ki Joo-Bong).

Gradually, we learn that Young-ho is the doctor’s son, a reveal that retroactively informs seemingly trivial events with a casual agony that’s characteristic of Hong’s work. We thought we were watching a story of older men reconnecting, which we were, but it’s a reunion that’s revealed to be haunted by a father’s estrangement from his son. The vignette isn’t without catharsis, but it’s symbolic and surrogated: A nurse (Ye Ji-won), who clearly has ties to Young-ho and his father, gives him the affection that his father denied him. The second part pivots on a similar misdirection, following a young woman, Ju-won (Park Mi-so), as her mother (Seo Young-hwa) introduces her to a painter (Kim) in Berlin who can hook her up with an apartment while she studies fashion. As the characters prattle on about seemingly minor things—their ages, the apartment’s view, the difficulty of breaking into the fashion industry—Hong gracefully establishes their insecurities and surrounding social frissons. Much is made in this film of the formal Korean language reserved for elders, which suggests here a bridge separating the uncertain young adults from their successful yet quietly miserable parents.

In this second part, it’s revealed that Young-ho is Ju-won’s girlfriend, and in this role he’s destined to once again be sidelined. Young-ho is at the center of Introduction’s structural perversity: He’s the protagonist of the film, yet he’s often forgotten by others, his absence gradually becoming an ironic and poignant presence in its own right. Here, Hong dispenses with one of the significant pleasures of many of his films: vicarious identification with a male artist with several lovers and all the time in the world to drink, who may be tortured but who lives a life of notable luxury. Such figures are in Introduction (the doctor, the actor), but they’re seen through the scrim of Young-ho’s pain. They’re un-sentimentalized, their selfishness and aloofness (as well as their own pain) compassionately excavated for all to see.

Even in the film’s third part, the one that most directly engages with Young-ho’s feelings of rejection, he’s effectively marginalized—pushed to the side of the screen, along with his close friend (Ha Seong-guk), while the aforementioned theater actor and Young-ho’s mother (Cho Yun-hee) lecture him over his indecisiveness about his own acting ambitions. The older man and woman are getting loaded on soku over a long lunch, and the former launches into a diatribe about acting and human passion that ranks among the most moving moments in Hong’s cinema. The actor is merciless with Young-ho, pompously yet earnestly castigating the younger man for his timidity and daring him to take the mantles of his own life and assume the center of the stage he’s been haunting over the course of this very film.

Introduction was shot by Hong in the same kind of ghostly black-and-white as many of his other recent productions, and it finds him continuing to refine a sense of negative space that communicates gracefulness and inner turmoil. When characters stand or walk alone here, looking into a pocket of bright white sunshine or stepping into a reflective rain puddle, they momentarily slip into their own skin after intricate, implicitly combative verbal jousting with family and friends. Here, Hong continues to compress the distance between himself and his actors, capturing moments of unforgettable behavioral acuity, which he fuses with his stark, expressionistic, nearly Bergman-esque compositions. The result is a modern melodrama of grit, beauty, jagged edges and resonant dead ends and false starts.

Cast: Shin Seok-ho, Park Mi-so, Kim Young-ho, Ki Joo-Bong, Ye Ji-won, Seo Young-hwa, Kim Min-hee, Cho Yun-hee, Ha Seong-guk Director: Hong Sang-soo Screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 66 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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Film

Review: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn Takes Satiric Aim at Romanian Society

After a while, it’s hard not to feel like Radu Jude is simply shooting fish in a barrel.

2.5
Keith Watson

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Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Photo: MicroFilm

Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is every bit as strange and overstuffed as its title. The film is a kind of fire sale of Jude’s observations on everything from life during the Covid-19 pandemic to Romania’s dark history of fascism. Its dominant theme is the socially constructed nature of obscenity, explored through the story of a school teacher, Emi (Katia Pascariu), dealing with the potentially career-ending fallout that ensues after a raunchy sex tape she filmed with her husband is leaked online. This premise might have served as the basis for a mainstream sex farce—a point that’s winkingly acknowledged by the film’s subtitle, “A Sketch for a Popular Film”—but Jude takes it primarily as a jumping-off point for some playful formal experimentation and bitterly satirical jabs at Romanian society.

Divided into three roughly equal parts—each executed in a completely different style—with a sexually explicit prologue and three so-called “possible endings,” Bad Luck Banging is an ever-shapeshifting beast of a film. It opens in medias coitus, with a lengthy excerpt from Emi’s grainy homemade porno. Shot from the POV of her husband, who remains unseen except for when his lower torso and erect penis enter the frame, the tape could easily be mistaken for any number of amateur videos on PornHub. Opening a festival-ready art film this way is no doubt startling, and it is that instant feeling of shock and surprise that Jude interrogates.

The nature of our discomfort will be confronted head-on in the third and final section, but first Jude takes us to the streets of pandemic-era Bucharest, where (nearly) everyone’s wearing a mask and Covid is the ubiquitous subject of overheard small talk. In the first section, we watch as Emi runs errands and evinces a subtle yet palpably increasing anxiety. It’s gradually revealed that her video has been uploaded to the internet, where it’s been passed around by students and faculty at the school where she teaches. Jude films these scenes as if Emi’s being surveilled, mounting his camera in a fixed position at a considerable distance and following her movements with ominous pans before drifting away to observe seemingly unrelated details of the city—a church, a billboard, some street art. Bad Luck Banging recalls other Romanian New Wave works like Cristi Puiu’s Aurora and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, turning the mundanities of everyday life into an kind of opaque, existential mystery.

Jude, however, is less of a philosopher or psychologist than either Puiu or Porumboiu and more of a historian and social critic. It’s not surprising, then, that Jude is, in the film’s first section, less interested in Emi’s predicament than he is in everyday Romanians navigating changing social mores in the face of the pandemic. We hear people discussing superstitious stories about Covid, like the idea that a Eucharist spoon can kill the virus. In one scene set in a pharmacy, an older woman pulls down her mask to start speaking, causing someone off screen to yell at her to keep it on. These now all-too-familiar scenes of etiquette and public health colliding in the streets are oddly cathartic to watch on screen, perhaps because they remind us that even in this purgatorial liminal zone of the pandemic, art can and will emerge.

Just as Emi’s storyline is heating up, Bad Luck Banging enters its wildly discursive second section, “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs and wonders,” which gives us what its title promises: a collection of ruminations on sex, Covid, Romanian history, feminism, literature, and numerous other topics arranged as a lexicon of terms, like “French Revolution,” “Change,” and “Robots.” This stretch of the film finds Jude continuing to excavate the submerged horrors of Romanian history as he’s done previously in films like Aferim! and I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, targeting, for example, the Romanian Orthodox Church’s close relationship with dictators and the slave labor that built the Palace of Parliament. While no single theme orders the reflections contained in this section, Jude returns again and again to the maltreatment of women, closing in a segment ironically titled “Zen,” which informs us that 55% of Romanians believe rape to be justified in some circumstances.

This horrifying statistic looms over the film’s final section, entitled “Praxis and Innuendos (sitcom),” a parent-teacher association meeting-cum-show trial that plays like a cross between Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” In contrast to the obliqueness of the film’s first section and the eclecticism of its second, this third movement is often bewilderingly blunt. Filmed in the open-air courtyard of a school in a deliberately stagy and exaggerated fashion, it pits moralistic parents and community members against Emi, who defends herself with exasperated conviction. This section is mostly an occasion for Jude to satirize, in surprisingly broad strokes, the moral hypocrisy of Romanian society. But while it’s often fun to see him take aim at anti-Semites, misogynists, and crypto-fascists, it’s hard not to feel like he’s shooting fish in a barrel. That sense is driven home by the trio of alternate endings, the last of which in particular offers a bizarrely outré moment of catharsis that underlines the smug sense of superiority that infects this section.

Jude is a filmmaker deeply engaged with the history of his homeland, its very essence, and his exasperation at Romania’s self-serving nationalistic myths practically radiates off the screen. But whereas I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians expressed that indignation with supremely controlled fury, Bad Luck Banging resorts to clownish caricatures. Jude’s willingness to experiment with form is exciting throughout, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film’s all-over-the-place structure is ultimately a product of his failure to fully work through his ideas, as if the sheer quantity of different things happening here would excuse the fact that they don’t fit together in any coherent way. A film with too many ideas is preferable to one with too few, but unfortunately, all of Bad Luck Banging’s stray thoughts, formal strategies, and satirical sideswipes never add up to more than, well, a “sketch.”

Cast: Katia Pascariu, Claudia Ieremia, Olimpia Malai, Andi Vasluianu, Nicodim Ungureanu, Alexandru Potocean, Kristina Cepraga, Tudorel Filimon, Ilinca Manolache, Daniela Ionita Marcu, Dana Voicu Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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