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Review: The Messengers

1.5

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The Messengers

Things go bump in the night in The Messengers, usually in the form of shadowy figures that flash across the screen for about 10 frames at a time (if you’re lucky, maybe a full second) while accompanied by unnecessarily loud noises. It’s a pity, because for as egregious as this gimmicky scare tactic becomes, it’s one that twin directors Danny and Oxide Pang know how to repeatedly pull off well; with the script at hand, it’s about the only thing keeping the film from sinking below a feature-length running time. Concerning a Chicago family who relocates to a North Dakota farm in order to start anew after struggling with unemployment, the film is ripe with potential post-9/11 examinations of the everyday ways in which economic instability and past traumas affect our collective behavior. Films like Final Destination 3 and Hostel manipulate these fears through their portrayals of visceral body carnage. Less offensive but more far more boring, The Messengers channels these notions (perhaps inadvertently) into the conventions of a wishy-washy soap opera, with nary a line of dialogue not sounding as if it were spit out of a screenwriting computer program. Angsty teenager Jess (Kristen Stewart) bears witness to the ghostly Grudge-like spirits that inhabit her families’ new farmhouse—former inhabitants who met untimely ends, as depicted in a pre-credits sequence—only to be expectedly ignored by her parents, who trivialize her ghost story claims in the face of a recent DUI tragedy. The Pangs might know how to knee-jerk shock an audience ad nauseam (although, admittedly, one sequence that features two characters facing opposite directions is almost brilliant in its juggling of perspective and oncoming dread), but the remainder of The Messengers suffers from shamelessly thudding banality. Now, think fast: is Jess’s sporting of a T-shirt with the number 23 on it a mere coincidence, or a subtle bout of advertisement for the Jim Carrey feature due in theaters later this month?

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, John Corbett, Evan Turner, Theodore Turner, William B. Davis, Brent Briscoe, Dustin Milligan Director: Oxide Pang, Danny Pang Screenwriter: Mark Wheaton Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 84 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2007 Buy: Video

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13 Obscure and Underrated Horror Movies to Watch This Halloween

At the very least, these 13 weird movies can hold your attention, and deliver decent chills, especially with a nice buzz and low expectations.

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13 Obscure Horror Films
Photo: Paramount Pictures
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 31, 2014.

Halloween is a time for horror, and if you’re no stranger to John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Val Lewton, George A. Romero, Alfred Hitchcock, the Italian giallo, or Universal Horror, then you may be hankering to unearth a few obscure sleepers made by directors and stars half-forgotten in the sludge of time. This list of 13 weird movies all seem to reflect fear of their own obscurity: aging actresses camping it up before the mirror with highballs and axes; younger actresses having Antonioni-esque meltdowns; and space ships following the Alien slime breadcrumb trail. They throw normal reality to the wind, yet never lapse into whimsy or sentiment. They explore collective human mythos with a stout heart of darkness, and with scant budgetary means. At the very least, they can hold your attention, and deliver decent chills, especially with a nice buzz and low expectations.


The Black Pit of Dr. M.

The Black Pit of Dr. M (1959)

The Black Pit of Dr. M’s plot unfolds like a whole season of The Twilight Zone collapsed into a single surrealist fever dream. Dr. Mazali (Rafael Bertrand) asks his dying colleague to arrange a means by which he can visit the realm beyond death and then return to tell the tale. A pretty difficult thing to ask, but after his death, his colleague’s spirit appears to assure him an elaborate chain of coincidence is in play that will fulfill the macabre request. A beautiful dancer, an dangerous female lunatic, an acid-scarred orderly all play parts in an experience that will answer all Dr. M’s questions. The bombastic plodding score is like an inexorable countdown to some horrific destiny, and some of the light and shadow patterns recall early Orson Welles. In sum, 71 minutes of unusually mature and poetic Mexican horror cinema, its rich minimalist dream ambience worthy of Edgar G. Ulmer or Val Letwon.


Tormented

Tormented (1960)

Juli Reding is a ‘50s pulp-novel cover come to life as Vi, a jealous jazz pianist’s ex-lover turned ghost, haunting the louche Tom (Richard Carlson) after he lets her fall from the top of a lighthouse so he can marry Meg (Lugene Sanders) and her money. The next morning there’s footprints in the sand following Tom home, and soon Vi’s disembodied head is taunting him and her hand scuttling after his. He has to keep killing to keep his shadiness a secret until after the wedding, and it’s up to Meg’s disillusioned younger sister (Susan Gordon) to convince the adults to call the whole thing off before she’s next on Tom’s kill list. Joe Turkel makes a rare early appearance as a hipster beatnik, dropping crazy slang no real beatnik probably ever said while still maintaining that Satanic stare as he shakes Tom down for a cut of the take. Carlson, the terminally sincere good guy scientist in so many ‘50s horror movies, is gamely playing against type too. Bert I. Gordon, the director behind The Amazing Colossal Man, gets a lot of flak for his chintzy special effects (his colossal man was see-through), but he usually brought some bizarre twists and humanity to his films, here the double-exposure effect fits the ghost material, and it works as a masculine character study as well as a streamlined all-American pulp-horror romance.


Vampire and the Ballerina

Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)

Tina Gloriani, who plays the gorgeous heroine in this atmospheric Italian horror film by Renato Polselli, looks a lot like Eva Marie Saint, and though the “busload of dancing girls stranded on tour near an old castle menaced by a vampire” plot was old-hat even in 1960, she’s so luminous, and the crumbling castle ruins so atmospheric in crisp black and white, that it feels fresh. The troupe’s improv vampire dance routines, and the natural rapport between Gloriani’s Francesca and her equally blond roommate, Luisa (Hélène Rémy), conjures weird echoes of Stage Door and Persona. The male vampire wears a goofy mask with ping-pong eyeballs when he needs blood, becoming younger and normal-looking after drinking some—an unusually smart touch that taps into the vanity at the dark heart of Italian masculinity (as soon as his lovely young victims come back, he stakes them, shouting “I’m master of my domain!” as he kicks their coffins shut). Most available versions of the film are in Italian with English subtitles, which is the ideal way to soak up the arty, weirdly neorealist vibe.


Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

With its child nursery rhyme-style title, naturalistic acting, eerie ambiguity, complex portrait of mental illness, and sense of America as a land of eternal limbo, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has a uniquely ‘70s approach to horror, one borne of encounter groups, Valium, women’s lib, LSD, and suburban swinging. Zohra Lampert stars as Jessica, a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown by moving with her husband and a Meathead-mustached buddy to a remote island apple orchard, where she soon learns that just because you’re delusional doesn’t mean the constant whispering you hear is an auditory hallucination or that the hippie chick (Gretchen Corbett) squatter you let stay over isn’t a vampire, or that she’s just trying to seduce you rather than drown you. Horror films from the ‘70s were steeped in such paralyzing self-doubt, and this is perhaps the subtlest, creepiest example.


Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye

Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973)

Jane Birkin—her long straight hair like gossamer gold in the candle light as her character, Corringa, investigates strange goings on in her aunt’s mansion—is just one reason to discover this European mod update to the dark-house horrors of the 1930s. Genre staples abound: secret passages, secret heirs, even a guy in an ape suit. The plot involves the usual ornate mansion full of scheming eccentrics, one of whom killed Corringa’s mother; the doctor says it was natural causes, but he’s sleeping with Corringa’s aunt, who’ll hold onto the mansion at any cost to those around her. At night, Corringa’s mother appears as a vampire, invoking her lineage’s birthright, declaring that Corringa must avenge her death. The killings are strangely observed by a big orange tabby cat, and the suspects include Doris Kunstman as a bisexual, self-diagnosed “slut” and Hiram Keller as a cloistered, Byronic pretty boy. (Birkin’s husband, Serge Gainsbourg, even appears as a drowsy constable.) It’s not particularly scary, but the Ennio Morricone-esque score by Riz Ortolani and the fairy-tale tableaux conveyed by Carlo Carlini’s beautiful cinematography make it ethereal.


Messiah of Evil

Messiah of Evil (1976)

This impressive debut feature from future Lucasfilm writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz stars Mariana Hill as Arletty, the emotionally vacant daughter of a disappeared artist (Royal Dano). There’s a hushed quality to Messiah of Evil, all the better to hear the waves crashing in the distance. Nobody shouts until they’re about to die, usually at the hands of cannibal mobs. A super-chill dandy, Thom (Michael Greer), and his two girlfriends, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), join Arletty in an attempt to unravel the mysteries afoot in this secluded, unfriendly location, and as Thom busts a move on Arletty, the girlfriends disappear into the ominous blackness. Among the film’s more haunting elements: photorealist faces peering through windows and a wall weirdly painted with a full-size escalator. At any moment, this empty house seems as if it could warp into a nightmarish shopping mall—one of many bizarre evocations of a film that cannily mixes Lovecraftian dread with Antonioni-esque alienation.

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Review: Frankie Struggles to Contain the Greatness of Isabelle Huppert

Only Marisa Tomei’s face can compete with Huppert’s ability to turn even the sappiest of scenarios into a nuanced tour de force.

2.5

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Frankie
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Unexpected rainfall. Aimless wandering in oak woodlands. The loss of an expensive bracelet. Strangers on a train headed to the beach. It’s ultimately these tangential moments, and them alone, that lead to something other than heartbreak in Ira Sachs’s Frankie. This despite the greatest efforts made by the eponymous character (Isabelle Huppert), a terminally ill actress with a sharp tongue and a magnetic personality, to carry out her death in the same controlled, self-serving fashion with which she’s lived her life up to this point.

Frankie brings her reconstituted family together in Sintra, Portgual, planning to code the future while she can still have a say in how those who are supposed to love her lead their lives. The trip is largely an excuse for Frankie to play cupid to her only son, Paul (Jérémie Renier), who’s about to move to New York City, and her friend and hairdresser, Irene (Marisa Tomei), who’s unfortunately about to leave it—and who pre-emptively botches the whole thing by bringing her suffocating cameraman boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear), to Portugal.

Frankie is a film about spoiled, or spoiling, encounters, and the ways in which so many fundamental encounters are actual mis-encounters, or non-consensual confrontations. From the most consequential of them all—death’s ill-timed knocking—to the most ordinary disaccords between lovers seemingly intent on proving that non-reciprocal love is the only kind of love there is. Here, love is precisely a question of dissonance: Irene doesn’t love Gary enough; Frankie’s stepdaughter, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), doesn’t love her husband anymore; Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), Frankie’s husband, loves a woman who’s almost no longer there; and Michel (Pascal Greggory), Frankie’s first husband, loved men but married a woman. Even self-love, and Frankie has plenty of it, is ultimately severed by the finitude of all things.

In the film’s most moving scene, Frankie is essentially coerced to join the 88th birthday celebration of one of her fans, who recognizes her one day at a park. The woman couldn’t think of a better gift than to have her favorite star by her side—to help her blow out the candles on her birthday cake. But Frankie is incapable of faking the acceptance of the elderly woman’s love, and so she raises her glass listlessly for a toast, her face frozen between mourning and refusing to mourn the fact that she will never make it to 88, or even to the new year.

Frankie’s attempt to control her narrative, or the post-mortem plot of her legacy, is a way of disavowing love’s ineptitude to save even the most adulated of bodies from vanishing, like it never breathed, until the very end. It’s a last-ditch effort to remedy that most unjust of existential truths, akin to the dead son’s epistolary request in Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love. In Nicloux’s film, the son’s desire to re-enact his parents’ meeting takes Huppert and Gérard Depardieu’s characters not to the medieval castles and romantic gardens of Sintra, but to the rugged terrain of California’s Death Valley. Right before taking his life, the son writes letters to each parent which are more like scripts, or maps, promising a treasure in the end—some kind of death-defying sign meant as evidence for death’s blind spots. Here, too, the dead, if not the dying, use the desperate naïveté of the living like playthings, unsettled by the mortality of the Other precisely because it reminds them of their own.

But Frankie also shares with Valley of Love the status of being too small of a film to fit Huppert’s greatness. Each time she appears, we’re reminded that every other element of the mise-en-scène or the narrative doesn’t matter. The insufficiency of language to do justice to Huppert’s magnitude recalls Meryl Streep’s presence in John Wells’s August: Osage County, another film about the family unit as a conglomeration of unaddressed dysfunctions, and whose superb acting consistently exposes the banality of everything else around it.

Only Marisa Tomei’s face can compete with Huppert’s ability to turn even the sappiest of scenarios into a nuanced tour de force, and the hokiest melodrama into purposeful camp. Sachs’s film is composed of a series of vignettes that feel awkwardly staged, especially when Huppert or Tomei aren’t on screen. The fact that many of the actors don’t speak in their mother tongue for a lot of the scenes only highlights the gracelessness of the dialogue. Frankie is full of instances of characters over-explaining themselves (from “I’m from Porto, a few hours to the north” to “We are a very Catholic country”), whereas Huppert and Tomei’s faces testify, precisely, to the futility of words in the face of all meaningful things.

In the film’s final sequence, it isn’t even Huppert’s face that steals the show. She manages to do it with her back. The camera tracks her walking up a mountaintop where all of Frankie’s guests are supposed to congregate at the woman’s request. It’s a strange scene, as Sachs overstuffs it with overtly manipulative elements that compete with Huppert’s regal presence. There’s a painterly landscape, classical piano notes, death, cancer, metastasis, and friendship, but all we really need is Huppert. There’s so much certainty in her gait, so much self-assurance, if not peace, in the way her head sits on her neck with a sense of dignity, in how she looks down at the not-yet-dying (to the extent that one ever isn’t) with respectful detachment and hard-earned closure. The mountain is Frankie’s, and so is the whole Earth, it seems. Death will take her, she must admit, but the Earth is all hers in the meantime.

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Marisa Tomei, Brendan Gleeson, Pascal Greggory, Jérémie Renier, Greg Kinnear, Vinette Robinson, Sennia Nanua, Ariyon Bakare, Carloto Cotta Director: Ira Sachs Screenwriter: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Dolemite Is My Name Is an Explosion of Comeback Stories

After its promising first act, Craig Brewer’s film becomes a series of fleeting bits, allowing questions to pile up.

2.5

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Dolemite Is My Name
Photo: Netflix

Director Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name offers three comeback stories for the price of one. The film concerns Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), a wannabe star and entrepreneur in 1970s-era Los Angeles who’s suffering from a fatal lack of talent. Moore dreamed of being a multimedia hyphenate—a comedian, musician, fortune teller, and whatever other get-rich-quick fancy struck him at any given moment—and has ended up as another disappointed L.A. oddball. The film’s early scenes, which depict Moore working at a record store, trying to hustle the store’s DJ (Snoop Dogg) into playing his lame records, and hanging with a variety of aspiring entertainers at diners and comedy clubs, are poignant. And these moments culminate with a heartbreaking line, in which Moore observes that he has “nothing that anyone wants.” Initially, we deeply feel this man’s need to prove himself.

Dolemite Is My Name was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who specialize in ironically aspirational biopics such as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. Alexander and Karaszewski understand widely accepted American history for the con that it is, celebrating figures who realized a lurid version of the American dream by inventing their own rules, which, come to think of it, is more or less what the American dream is reputed to be. Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, and Rudy Ray Moore are all huckster visionaries who embody the idea of reality being what you make it, and their daring devotion to themselves is their talent as well as their means of transcending their innate alienation from proper society.

Of course, Moore eventually invented a character called Dolemite, a gaudy pimp hustler who told profanely sexual and racial jokes fashioned out of bits and pieces of African-American folklore. With this character, Moore sold a surprising amount of comedy records and eventually produced and starred in D’Urville Martin’s 1975 film Dolemite, cashing in on the blaxploitation craze and yielding several sequels. Brewer, Alexander, and Karaszewski follow Moore as he morphs from a loser into a self-fashioned myth, and Brewer taps into the “let’s just put on a show” opportunism of Moore’s conception of Dolemite. (Speaking with a screenwriter, Moore says his movie should feature everything from karate chicks to an exorcism.) Dolemite Is My Name is very eager to entertain, and that eagerness purposefully mirrors Moore’s own, but this obsession with propulsion also shortchanges the material.

Dolemite Is My Name is incredibly entertaining, so much so that I distrusted my increasing disappointment with it. Its superficiality springs from its other comeback stories, both of which are auto-critical. Dolemite Is My Name is ultimately more concerned with Eddie Murphy than Rudy Ray Moore, as Moore’s need for stardom merges with Murphy’s desire to rejuvenate his career. After the 1980s, Murphy went from being dangerous to needy as a performer, and his most recent daring performances—in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and Norbit—allowed him to viscerally exorcize his encroaching doubt with himself. But these productions weren’t taken seriously—Norbit was a legendary and undeserved critical disaster—and Murphy’s last self-conscious comeback role, in 2006’s Dreamgirls, was eclipsed by Jennifer Hudson’s performance in the same film. Which is to say that Murphy seems to see the goldmine of his role in Dolemite Is My Name and knows damn well that he needs to make it work.

Murphy is kinetic as Moore, and his signature utterance of “motherfucker” is still after all these years a thing of poetry. After the awards-baiting of his performance in Dreamgirls, it’s a palpable relief to watch Murphy cut loose again, especially as Moore first discovers his swagger at a night club—a scene which recalls Buddy Love’s revenge on Dave Chappelle in 1996’s Nutty Professor. Yet Murphy is also lovable here, to the point of being cutesy, which leads to a trade-off. Murphy gives Moore an authority and fluidity that Moore could never dream of attaining, while shortchanging what probably made Dolemite such a weird and unexpected success: Moore’s radiation of authentic contempt. Moore was an awful and closed-off actor, and Dolemite is unwatchable, but his lack of polish signified a refutation of white establishment. In the tradition of many cult oddities, Dolemite’s appeal resides in the fact that it somehow manages to exist to begin with. Murphy once understood such contempt, as he became a superstar in the ‘80s emanating a volcanic and rapier-witted fury with the Man. Now, however, Murphy wants you to like him, and you will—at the expense of a thornier protagonist.

Brewer, the film’s third comeback story, keeps the narrative humming, throwing a party with hit ‘70s songs, Alexander and Karaszewski’s delicious dialogue, and an amazing supporting cast that includes Snoop Dogg, Keegan-Michael Key, Tituss Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, and Wesley Snipes. But the film moves too fast, favoring event over atmosphere and preventing most of these actors from making an impression that goes beyond “fun” caricature. Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt were also debauched anecdotal party movies, but they were keyed into the despair that drove their characters’ schemes.

After its promising first act, Dolemite Is My Name becomes a series of fleeting bits, allowing questions to pile up. Does Moore, who goes from ne’er-do-well to a facsimile of a stud, have a sex life? It’s implied that he doesn’t, due to his issues with his weight and history of poverty—a truthful fact of people marked by failure that this film would do better to explore. Does the family of any member of Moore’s entourage resent the fact that their loved ones are risking their livelihoods for a rickety cause? (This idea is broached in one scene and quickly dropped.) Issues of race, which seem pertinent to a story of poor black people trying to break into a white-dominated industry, are also acknowledged with expositional winks and essentially sidestepped. Brewer references the hurdles of making Dolemite for next to nothing without exploring their emotional textures. Like Murphy, he seems eager to behave, when this film could use the overheated racial-sexual neuroses of his Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan.

One person does fulfill the potentials of this narrative: Wesley Snipes. Playing D’Urville Martin, the actor could be potentially billed as another of this film’s comeback stories, except he’s playing the villain and relieved of the obligation of being adorable. Characterized by the film as a pretentious alcoholic fop who more or less sleeps through his directing duties while Moore puts Dolemite together, D’Urville allows Snipes to radiate the volatile self-absorption that’s lacking in Murphy’s performance. With his snap-crackle timing, Snipes turns D’Urville’s hostility into a fashion statement, conjuring the fuck-you spirit of blaxploitation.

Cast: Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, Kodi Smit-McPhee Director: Craig Brewer Screenwriter: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 117 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: With Terminator: Dark Fate, a Series Moves Closer to Obsolescence

The film is good enough to redeem the bad taste that lingered from its predecessors but too uninspired to make one want more.

2

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

“It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves,” pronounced Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 cyborg about the human race in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. One could easily, if obviously, apply the same adage to movie franchises, inevitably doomed as they are to self-abnegation with each sequel, prequel, or offshoot, most adding asterisks to their cinematic reputations. So it goes with the Terminator films.

Where The Terminator and T2 were groundbreaking, its follow-ups have been either derivative (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), frivolous (Terminator Salvation), or self-parodic (Terminator Genisys), each signaling the series’s de-evolution toward relevance-free cash-cow status. But none of those films involved Cameron, who returns to the series as co-producer and story co-contributor for Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest attempt to dust off the old kill-bots and render them sellable to brand-saturated, special effects-numbed audiences. Even if Cameron’s hand here is visually negligible—nothing in the direction or color palette here evokes the steely quasi-noir atmosphere of the first two films—he’s left his imprint in one important sense: Dark Fate terminates its last three predecessors by abandoning their cumulative narrative timeline and acting as an “alternate sequel” to T2.

This was probably for the best given that Genisys possesses one of the most convoluted, unintelligible stories ever assembled for a summer blockbuster, scrambling and revising the chronology of the other films in a futile attempt to manufacture surprise and import. But while it wipes the franchise slate clean, Dark Fate proves no less confusing and pointless, contriving an often nonsensical narrative with generic set pieces bearing little trace of the classic Terminator atmosphere but all the desperation of a purely nostalgia-fueled project.

A major component of the nostalgia that Dark Fate banks on is the return of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Conner, who opens the film with a voiceover: While she and her son, John, prevented an AI-orchestrated apocalypse in 1991, she was subsequently unable to save him from assassination by a Terminator presumably different from those in the first two films. (This raises a question the film refuses to address: If Sarah and John prevented Skynet’s takeover of the world, how could it send another Terminator to kill John, and even if it could, why would it need to do so at this point in the timeline?) Accompanying this voiceover are three blandly realized minutes depicting the assassination—set, incongruously enough, on a sunny beach—that fail to impart the emotional intensity of a tragedy befalling two beloved characters.

Fast-forward to the present, where a technologically-augmented human “super-soldier” (Mackenzie Davis) from the future lands—iconically naked amid a globular lightning storm—in Mexico City. Her mission is to protect one Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) from a Terminator model Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna). No Terminator film can resist contemporary technophobic commentary, and so the Rev-9’s first attempt on Dani’s life takes place after her boss at a car factory threatens to replace her co-workers with machines. A protracted chase follows and ends on a freeway, where the Rev-9 kills Dani’s brother (Diego Boneta) and Sarah Conner suddenly shows up to save Dani and the super-soldier.

Extended exposition clarifies these events: The super-soldier is named Grace and hails from an apocalyptic 2049 that diverges only slightly from the future Sarah and John nixed—the only notable change seems to be that in this other future, the self-aware AI system exterminating humanity is called Legion. Dani must be shielded from harm not for the sake of her unborn resistance leader son, as with Sarah in The Terminator, but—big twist here—because Dani herself will be the leader of the resistance. Sarah Conner, meanwhile, is a survivalist fugitive who hunts Terminators at mysteriously received map coordinates. (This raises several more questions. Namely, if Sarah hunts Terminators, and the non-Skynet timeline has been erased since the early ‘90s, then why is the Rev-9 new to her experience?)

Serviceably naïve in The Terminator and a revelation of physical potency and focus in T2, Hamilton does well enough in reprising Sarah’s jaded toughness, but she also doesn’t have much to play off here. Where her overprotective love for Edward Furlong’s foolhardy John and her hesitant trust in Schwarzenegger’s reprogrammed T-800 formed much of the heart of T2, equally poignant relationships are hard to come by in Dark Fate. Davis’s sinewy presence is an external match, but Sarah and Grace’s alpha-female contestation feels tacked on, only in the script by formula. Davis makes for a strange yet touching maternal figure to Reyes, but Reyes doesn’t fit with anyone anywhere on screen; she’s dominated by Hamilton and Davis during Dani’s initiation and utterly unconvincing when assuming her messiah role. Luna is defined entirely by the special effects that enhance the Rev-9, which includes, new to this franchise, the CGI-produced separation of Terminator exo- and endoskeleton. As a dispassionate cyber-killer, he fails to possess anything approaching the charisma of Robert Patrick’s eerily icy T-1000 from T2, still the gold standard of all non-Schwarzenegger terminators.

Speaking of Arnie, his reprisal of the T-800 role is at once odd and a little sad. Odd because it isn’t logical: For those who haven’t seen the too-revealing Dark Fate trailer, I won’t spoil the T-800’s place in the new Terminator universe, but suffice it to say that, while good for a few chuckles (self-aware campiness crept into the series starting with T2), the T-800’s development of a penchant for domesticity seems implausible even within the bounds of a Terminator film. And a little sad not because the 72-year-old Schwarzenegger is forced to intone an “I won’t be back” as a pragmatic punctuation mark to his T-career, but because Sarah’s antagonism toward this T-800, and the T-800’s subsequent attempt to redeem itself, isn’t earned. The Governator was last seen as John’s guardian and surrogate father in T2, and the version we see in the opening of Dark Fate doesn’t receive enough screen time to acquaint audiences with a new Terminator/Conner dynamic.

Am I thinking too much? Probably. Everything else in the film is perfectly passable: The action scenes, which include a plane crash and a fight on/in the Hoover Dam, are impeccably kinetic, and the stock character and narrative arcs diligently accounted for, down to the noble act of sacrifice that must conclude every Terminator film. But this is still a hollow enterprise: As in every entry after T2, palpable suspense is traded in for over-edited hyper-action, and nobody once stops to ponder the ramifications of humans transforming into cyborgs and cyborgs displaying humanity, as every Terminator movie past did to varying degrees of success. But perhaps that’s asking too much of a film like this: With a border-crossing trek and a detention center escape scene, Dark Fate shoehorns into its proceedings an unsubtle but fainthearted pro-immigrant message, and philosophical ruminations on The Singularity are far beyond its thematic scope. In the end, Dark Fate is a meek palette cleanser: good enough to redeem the bad taste that lingered from its predecessors, but too uninspired to make one want more.

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Luna, Natalia Reyes, Tom Hopper, Cassandra Starr, Brett Azar Director: Tim Miller Screenwriter: David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Girl on the Third Floor Brings Scares with a Side of Blunt Messaging

The film is loud and obvious about declaring its themes, as if to distract from their ultimate shallowness.

2

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The Girl on the Third Floor
Photo: Dark Sky Films

If you’ve ever wanted to watch Phil “CM Punk” Brooks put up some drywall or get metaphorically ejaculated on by a haunted house, Girl on the Third Floor has you—and, well, him—covered. The tattooed ex-wrestler brings a boiling Matt Dillon sort of energy to the role of Don Koch, an unsavory guy searching for a new start in the suburbs with his pregnant wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn). He buys a fixer-upper and begins making the house a home, which means cleaning up ominous stains, fixing molded walls, and pitching whatever used condoms lie around the floor. But the house, as the film’s characters say straight into the camera more than once, is a sort of test, and Koch isn’t performing well.

Girl on the Third Floor is an assured feature-length directorial debut from Travis Stevens, producer of such indie horror films as We Are Still Here and Starry Eyes. He gets the most of the house’s empty space through wider shots, often framing his protagonist between walls and doorways. And he fixates on small processes, as scenes often linger on Koch fixing a pipe or tearing away the wallpaper. And many of the close-ups capture him sticking his head or hands into an enclosed space like under the sink or into a hole in the wall.

Koch has opted for a macho DIY approach to the renovation, using minimal assistance despite not really knowing what he’s doing. A friend (Travis Delgado) chuckles at how few tools he’s brought for the monumental task, so it’s perhaps inevitable that as Koch attempts to make the house in his own image, it pushes back against him and his personal notion of masculinity. Sinks, sockets, and wall outlets ooze and spew things on him that look like bodily fluids, as though the house is intent on covering him in its blood, sperm, and shit. To top it all off, a mysterious co-ed, Sarah (Sarah Brooks), keeps hanging around and making eyes at him.

Stevens manages to craft a few chilling images, through the gross, squishy secretions of the house or something as simple as Koch slowly drilling a camera into the wall to see what’s inside. But as a critique of toxic masculinity, the film feels thin. A bad man is punished, and then various hasty third-act monologues neatly lay out not only the story behind the house, but the nature of Koch’s transgressions and the perceived wokeness of his resulting punishment. Girl on the Third Floor demonstrates Stevens’s visual promise as a horror director, just not so much as a writer. Like Ari Aster’s Midsommar, it’s loud and obvious about declaring its themes, as if to distract from their ultimate shallowness, their general absence of psychological complexity, or probing truths about humanity.

Cast: Phil Brooks, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Sarah Brooks, Elissa Dowling, Karen Woditsch, Travis Delgado, Marshall Bean, Anish Jethmalani, Bishop Stevens, Tonya Kay Director: Travis Stevens Screenwriter: Travis Stevens Distributor: Dark Sky Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Nadav Lapid on Synonyms and Our Conflict with Existence

Lapid discusses how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.

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Nadav Lapid
Photo: Kino Lorber

Nadav Lapid is one of the most exciting Israeli filmmakers to emerge in recent years. His first two features, Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher, are hypnotic studies of the nature of power and resistance. His latest, Synonyms, tackles similar issues, but Lapid’s approach to his material here is almost as obfuscating as it is illuminating.

Tom Mercier, in a phenomenal screen debut, plays Yoav, a twentysomething Israeli who exiles himself to Paris, refusing to speak Hebrew or return to his homeland. Yoav is intense and enigmatic, whether sharing stories of his military experiences or practicing a form of wordplay while walking, head down, through the streets of the French capital. Whether he wants to or not, everyone is drawn into his orbit, from the young couple (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte) who finding him naked and helpless in the bathtub of an apartment adjacent to theirs, to the various men who work security at the Israeli embassy.

At this year’s New York Film Festival, Lapid sat down with me to discuss Synonyms and how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.

While there’s a narrative to Synonyms, it feels deliberately very episodic, creating emotions and moments of high drama but also ambiguity. What was your approach or purpose to tell this story in this way?

I arrived at the conclusion that I might be a strange person, because people find unusual and irregular things in the way I construct my movies. Policeman was divided into two parts, which was normal to me, but people found that strange. I try to be as close as I can to what I see as existence. And existence, as I see it, is composed as a series of events, and these events are composed of one single melody. Synonyms doesn’t have a classic narrative line, though its narrative is simple: Yoav gets to a place that he thinks will be his salvation and he’s disappointed. But even if the narrative structure isn’t classical, the film is one movement, or melody, even though it has a thousand variations.

I admire how deliberate the film is in its depiction of and ideas about storytelling. Yoav narrates photos, and he gives—and takes—stories from Emile, Quentin Dolmaire’s character. How do you find meaning in art, or inject meaning into it?

When we create art, there’s this desperate attempt to create stories that, on one hand, are full of beautiful storytelling moments. They may be the only way we have to communicate ourselves, our essence, and our past. On the other hand, there’s something very artificial in the way art and life tell stories. It’s as if we treat the world as if it has suddenly stopped and nothing is happening except for the stories we tell. The other person is only the ears. As we know in real life, everything is mixed, so we can tell a story with only words. Our body will deconstruct it, or reconstruct it, or give it another meaning. There’s something artificial in this desire to detach this moment of storytelling from the person.

In cinema, there are stories, but they have a peculiar relationship with the actual moment. Maybe this is also true of the storytelling of my film. It’s a classical narrative: Yoav arrives in the big city, tries to find success, and in the end is rejected. Maybe this is the peculiar, unique, singular thing, and it’s the film interfering with this simple narrative line? It spoils this naïve attempt to just tell the story. There’s something naïve and interesting that movies that are applauding their own stories. It touches only a thin layer of life.

There’s a specific emphasis on language, words, contrasts, and meanings in Synonyms. How did you land on the specific words you incorporated into the film.

I think that I tried to keep a certain balance between accidental and instinctive choices. I had this picture of Jackson Pollock hitting a painting in an accidental, or automatic, way, like the surrealists. I was also interested in the texture of words. Words have bodies and organs. I was walking, and talking to myself, and I can’t imagine how people looked at me! But I tried to feel and let my tongue lead me. And at the same time—and this is the nice thing about words—you can’t only reduce them to syllables. They have meanings, and the meanings have choices.

Are you into wordplay? Do you do crossword puzzles or other word games?

No. I read, and when I read books, I’m fascinated by words. I can’t bear the idea that people say that art cinema should be without words, and that words aren’t cinematic. There are films of acts and films of words. I think it comes from the fact that people treat words on a content level, and their only role is to mean or represent something. If you detach words from the story, or don’t want to say something by using words, then life changes.

Do you, as Emile suggests in the film, drink before writing to ward off the fear?

I drink when I write my shooting plan. I encourage myself to be courageous—to not to fall to convention.

I loved the dancing in the film. The women outside the bar, the nightclub scene with Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” and even a scene of Yoav dancing alone in his apartment, though he almost looks like he’s fighting. A scene of Michel and Yaron fighting is like a form of dancing, too, no?

I like when people dance by themselves for the audience in films. They come to the camera and say, “Here I am, look at me!” On another level, Synonyms goes further; it dances by itself with complicated mise-en-scène and trashy music. You cannot classify me! I am this and I am that. I’m fancy mise-en-scène and “Pump Up the Jam.”

Your film is, of course, erotic, not just because of Yoav’s often naked body, but his relationship with Emile is homoerotic, and his passion for Louise Chevillotte’s Caroline is palpable. She’s so sexy just sitting on the couch looking at Yoav or playing her oboe. How did you approach this element of desire?

When I think about desire, I’m guided by the idea that we all have a body. I’m trying to create movies where the existence of sex and the possibility of sex is in each and every second—rather than creating a film where there are sex scenes. There are sex scenes in my films, but they’re not the hottest scenes in my movies. There’s a permanent existence of the body, and that has a sexual potential. I sound like a new French philosopher! I’m not like this at all!

Speaking of bodies, how did you work with Thomas Mercier on the role of Yoav? Was there guidance you gave him to elicit this remarkable, full-bodied performance?

Tom was like a miracle. The work was intense but easy once he was cast. I bought him a French dictionary and I wanted him to study five new words each day and five new synonyms for each word. That was the work. He understood it so well. He prepared for a year because he was the thing itself. He was a judo champion and then became a dancer. He had a tenderness and fragility, and was very sexual, but he also had a violence and fury. You feel it. He could explode at any second. He was limitless.

All of your films address issues of desolation and madness. Why are these such key themes in your work?

I think my films are about people that take themselves very seriously—not in an ego way, or a stupid way, but in a way where they feel as if they understand or grasp something and follow these things until they find hell in paradise. They follow it until they recognize the deeper truth. But when you follow a principle to the end, it puts you in conflict with existence. And in odd moments, you lose your sense of humor and why life has humor.

You also explore issues of identity and nationality. There are ideas here about birth and corruption, the individual versus the masses, citizenship and rights. It seems like you deliberately set out to make viewers puzzle over lots of things.

I think Synonyms is broadly a political film. For Yoav, his national identity and Israel is like a dragon that he should kill and destroy and fight against—this mythological enemy. And, as you know, these mythological enemies are always yourself. Like Rosemary’s baby—the devil is inside you. But the film is attracted and seduced and fascinated by all the elements of nationalism. I read somewhere that Synonyms is anti-nationalist, but I wouldn’t define the film so easily. The moment in the metro where Yaron is humming the Israeli national theme—it creates a polemic in Israel, but [Yaron] has his problems. At the same time, it’s a powerfully charismatic, embracing moment. He’s humming the hymn of a nation that was annihilated. Whatever it means, I’m on the opposite political pole. I think the film has a right to flirt with nationalism while condemning it. You can’t hate a country if you’re not attracted to it.

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time

If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.

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The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.

If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.

At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley


Night of the Comet

20. Night of the Comet (1984)

Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins


The Living Dead Girl

19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)

In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins


Messiah of Evil

18. Messiah of Evil (1976)

This debut feature from future Lucasfilm writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz stars Mariana Hill as Arletty, the emotionally vacant daughter of a disappeared artist (Royal Dano). There’s a hushed quality to Messiah of Evil, all the better to hear the waves crashing in the distance. Nobody shouts until they’re about to die, usually at the hands of cannibal mobs. A super-chill dandy, Thom (Michael Greer), and his two girlfriends, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), join Arletty in an attempt to unravel the mysteries afoot in this secluded, unfriendly location, and as Thom busts a move on Arletty, the girlfriends disappear into the ominous blackness. Among the film’s more haunting elements: photorealist faces peering through windows and a wall weirdly painted with a full-size escalator. At any moment, this empty house seems as if it could warp into a nightmarish shopping mall—one of many bizarre evocations of a film that cannily mixes Lovecraftian dread with Antonioni-esque alienation. Erich Kuersten


They Came Back

17. They Came Back (2004)

They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez


Zombi

16. Zombi (1979)

Zombie lacks Romero’s allegorical undercurrents and horror-comedy hybridization, substituting instead a streamlined narrative that owes a substantial debt to H.G. Wells’s Island of Doctor Moreau and an all-encompassing mood of claustrophobic desolation. Taken on its own terms, it works quite agreeably as a visceral blow to the breadbasket, with one of the most outrageous and apocalyptic final scenes in the entirety of the subgenre. Some of the film’s most inventive shots are from zombie-cam POV, as the dead rise, shake off clods of dirt, and slouch toward the mission church. Attacks come fast and furious now, setting a frenzied pace that later zombie films like Evil Dead II and Dead Alive will utilize to infinitely more comic effect. By film’s end, only one couple remains, fighting their way back to a crippled ship. Adrift on the open sea, they catch a radio broadcast from New York. As it will in every mid-period Fulci film, hell has broken loose, and zombie hordes have overrun the outlying boroughs. In the fantastic final shots, as the panic-stricken newscaster narrates the zombie invasion of his radio station, a mass of zombies cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. Wilkins

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Review: Downtown 81 Celebrates a Bygone New York’s Creative Energy

This time capsule of bohemian New York distorts its representation of the city for reasons more loving than lazy.

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Downtown 81
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Todd Phillips’s Joker takes place in 1981, in a Gotham City meant to evoke the New York City of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: garbage-strewn, violence-ridden, institutionally broken, on the brink of anarchy. But this vision of New York as a place where people live in perpetual fear is a cliché, a detail-absent caricature derived mostly from other movies, with Taxi Driver its most obvious reference and inspiration. Ironically, though not surprisingly, Joker can only simulate pre-gentrified Manhattan in its quest for “authenticity.”

The real New York of 1981 is the setting and subject for Downtown 81, a low-budget time capsule of bohemian Manhattan that distorts its representation of the city for reasons more loving than lazy. Like the city then, the film’s history is messy and beleaguered. The brainchild of French designer Maripol and her Swiss-born photographer husband, Edo Bertoglio, the film was written by cultural critic Glenn O’Brien and conceived in order to document the vibrant New York avant-garde scenes of the time. With a hip locale and cast, which included a pre-fame Jean-Michel Basquiat and several post-punk bands, it seemed primed for underground success, but post-production funding dried up and the film, originally titled New York Beat, was left incomplete until 1999. Unfortunately, in the intervening years the original dialogue recordings were lost, and since Basquist had died 10 years earlier, Saul Williams was hired to dub his voice, and the film was released to the public in 2000 as Downtown 81.

Downtown 81 frequently mythologizes its time and place. The “Once upon a time” prologue establishes this with a dreamy glide through the clouds and a female narrator intoning, “Any resemblance between the characters and the events depicted here and reality is purely magical.” The action occurs on a Lower East Side of demolished buildings and boarded-up windows that Jean accurately characterizes as looking “like we dropped a bomb on ourselves,” but while Jean is clear-eyed about the perils of the concrete jungle (“You can get anything you want here if you try,” he explains in voiceover, “You can get plenty of what you don’t want, too”), his adventures are often depicted as a series of urban whimsies through which he saunters as insouciant flâneur and DIY artist. He wakes up in a hospital for reasons unknown, gets evicted from his apartment, and encounters muggings, robberies, and hustles, viewing it all with utter nonchalance. The city takes care of its own, the film seems to say, and its moral and architectural degradations merely create occasions for reappropriative creativity, especially when Basquiat applies his absurdist graffiti to already heavily tattooed walls.

Like its occasionally wonky dubbing, this fairy-tale aspect of the film is sometimes endearing, sometimes irritating. Much of Downtown 81’s charm rests on having captured the thrill of art being created by like-minded weirdoes in their natural, incubating habitat, which means viewers get to see a Fab 5 Freddy rap session and a scintillating performance by James White and the Blacks, with White doing his best James Brown-by-way-of-Richard Hell routine. (Also performing in the film are DNA, the Felons, the Plastics, and King Creole and the Coconuts.)

But that charm fades in several frivolous asides, including a silly ending that has Debbie Harry transforming from bag lady to fairy godmother in order to provide Jean with a suitcase of money. This is supposed to resolve the film’s underdeveloped conflict—in which Jean must come up with roughly $500 to pay his rent, all while chasing a European model (played by Anna Schroeder) who might be his romantic and financial salvation—but it also marks the point where Downtown 81’s devil-may-care exuberance slides into a preciousness, and a sidestepping of reality, that’s no less juvenile for being 38 years old.

Other episodes work better, including one in which Walter Steding, of obscure No Wave band the Dragon People, recounts, in satirically mopey fashion, the indignities of life on the fringes of the music industry, vowing to never play again just before getting roped into another show moments later. And of course, there’s Basquiat himself, whose commanding presence as a neo-Beat wanderer and perceptual genius pervades every frame he’s in. As our guide, the easygoing yet street-wise Jean allows us to see the early-‘80s New York that’s been both romanticized and abandoned for its ubiquitous danger as a place where actual people lived, worked, and even thrived, his run-ins and shit-shootings with artist friends proving that New York City is more ragtag community of guarded aspiration than despair-plunging cesspool.

Ultimately, and despite its blind spots, Downtown 81’s gritty optimism in the face of unpleasant surroundings is a welcome reminder that, to quote Kurt Braunohler (which I admittedly learned from an NYCLink kiosk), “a true New Yorker doesn’t get ground down—he gets polished.” This is also a New York of the imagination—but a creative, not destructive, one.

Director: Edo Bertoglio Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 75 min Rating: NR Year: 2000

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Review: The Kill Team Seeks to Dispel the Illusion of a Clean War

This battlefront thriller has a clearer moral sense than other cinematic attempts to cope with the War on Terror.

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The Kill Team
Photo: A24

Based on true events from 2009, writer-director Dan Krauss’s The Kill Team suggests that the war in Afghanistan—America’s longest by an unhealthy margin—long ago reached the state of a self-perpetuating feedback loop. The story concerns a group of soldiers whose frustration and rage at the death of colleagues was channeled into a campaign of terror in the Kandahar countryside. Led and allegedly manipulated by a rogue commanding officer, the unit executed randomly selected villagers, framing them after the fact as insurgents by planting weapons next to their bodies and concocting false battle reports.

The Kill Team opens with the death of the team’s commanding officer, Sergeant Bruer (Zackary Momoh), who’s killed by an IED while offering candy to children. Throughout its telling of this and other events, the film sets up Private Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) as the audience’s surrogate, an eager and sensitive recruit who observes his fellow soldiers’ actions almost from an outsider’s perspective. He doesn’t smoke hash with his fellow soldiers, and he doesn’t, like them, begrudge the locals their differing traditions and language. He also doesn’t relish the opportunity to fight and kill. After Bruer is killed, his unit is assigned a new commanding officer, Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), an imposing, stone-faced figure who begins cultivating insecure attachments with the men under his command, bestowing and withdrawing favor at a whim in order to make them dependent on his approval.

While Krauss’s film examines the way that the young men’s subsequent embrace of an amoral warrior’s mentality leads to inhuman consequences, its reflection on both the inherent violence of war and the loss of a sense of mission among the occupiers remains incomplete. This battlefront thriller has a clearer moral sense than other cinematic attempts to cope with the conflicts formerly known as the War on Terror, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but it achieves this clarity largely by finding confining itself to a scenario with a clear moral dichotomy: that between the relatively innocent Briggman and the icy madmen Deeks.

In Deeks, the fictionalized version of the real commanding officer convicted of encouraging the young men to view all Afghans as animals, Krauss captures the sociopathy of a truly committed warrior. To play a killer who entices young men to join him in almost ritualistic slaughters, Skarsgård deploys the coldly attractive moral nonchalance familiar from his role as the vampire Eric Northman on HBO’s True Blood. “We kill people. That’s what we do,” Deeks explains softly and plainly to the uncomfortable Briggman at one point. Briggman averts his eyes, attempting to square the apparent truth of Deeks’s warrior philosophy with the “hearts and minds” mission his unit has often been sent out on.

Deeks turns missions into hunts, compelling the men under his command to find an Afghan man to be shot. In these scenes, which frequently cut away from the actual act—to, say, Briggman coming across the men discussing their cover, or to the body of an Afghan man lying on the ground behind them—we can see one end of a thread tying together American forms of authoritarian violence. The murder scenes captured from Briggman’s perspective on the margins, or just after the fact, strike an overtone that resonates with the police shootings and cover-ups that have triggered unrest at home while our Mideast wars have been raging.

The Kill Team gives us snapshots of a rural Afghan population whose hearts and minds are, as of 2009, very much not won over. Men and women alike shout fruitlessly in Pashto as their loved ones are pulled aside by the American soldiers. The trembling, battered face of a man picked up from the road outside the U.S. base, and whom Deeks attempts to convince Briggman to torture, is a powerful image that could stand as an indictment of the war itself. But the story limits its perspective to the experience of Briggman as he struggles internally, and in messages back home to his father, with what to do about the situation. The film’s focus on the private only becomes more acute as the circle around him tightens, the group of killers growing concerned that he will rat on them. The lives of the villagers killed becomes of secondary concern, as suspense in The Kill Team is increasingly driven by the question of whether Briggman will survive or be betrayed and murdered by his compatriots.

Krauss’s evident outrage at the commission of war crimes is something that’s sorely lacking in what meager public discourse about our continuing wars exists, but it doesn’t follow this outrage to what seems its logical, if radical ends. As the sergeant not entirely inaccurately asserts, the Army is there to kill. Given such a directive, perhaps liberal fantasies of a “clean war” are untenable. Warfare breeds bloodthirst; it produces people like Deeks. But despite glimpses of a larger critique of the American project in Afghanistan, and of the psychological and social sicknesses cultivated by two decades of continuous warfare, The Kill Team lets us escape from the horrors of war before it finishes demolishing the illusion of a clean one.

Cast: Nat Wolff, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Rob Morrow Director: Dan Krauss Screenwriter: Dan Krauss Distributor: A24 Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Black and Blue Provides a Quick Fix of Action-Movie Catharsis

The film’s command of action defuses concerns about whether it offers a thorough social critique.

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Black and Blue
Photo: Screen Gems

Deon Taylor’s Black and Blue is an intensely political, niche thriller that, if it generates much mainstream discourse, will likely spark angry boycotts from those on one side of the aisle and searing hot takes from those on the other. Step a few feet back from its fast-paced saga of a valiant solitary policewoman hunted through the streets of New Orleans as she attempts to return incriminating body-camera footage to her precinct and you’ll see a narrative that construes a cop as a Black Lives Matter hero simply for using her mandated body camera as she should. This is a major-studio film that may go further than many others, including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, in implicating police forces as systemic perpetuators of white supremacy, but it’s also one that handles the representation of poverty clumsily at best.

What’s more, Black and Blue’s action-movie tropes redirect its characters’ mistrust of authority into a narrative that tacitly approves of the militarization of the police and society at large. These same tropes, though, are part of what defuses such concerns about whether the film offers a thorough social critique. Despite its real-world trappings, Black and Blue comes off as fantasy, a story with the exaggerated features and simple satisfactions of a dream. Crooked cops will get their comeuppance, prejudices will be upended, and those not yet beyond redemption will be redeemed. Beyond the film’s spurious messaging about finding a middle ground between being black and being “blue,” its extended chase through New Orleans’s 9th Ward might offer simple, effective action-movie catharsis to those who’ve been outraged by this decade’s flood of videos of police offers shooting unarmed black people.

Perhaps unintentionally, Black and Blue’s setting and action reminds us that, with the advent of body cameras, the sci-fi dystopias depicted in various films from the 1980s and ‘90s have come true. Resembling the A plot of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, the film’s main action is jump-started by the mafia-style execution of a young black man by police, an explosive event that’s captured on video by a woman wearing a camera. And in Black and Blue, that woman, rookie cop Alicia West (Naomie Harris), is also the one tasked with delivering the footage to the authorities. The shooting, committed by narcotics detective Terry Malone (Frank Grillo) and his circle of drug-dealing police officers, takes place in a scummy, abandoned factory, and when the assembled perpetrators notice the wide-eyed rookie filming them, they repeatedly shoot her. West unexpectedly survives, and so the film also brings to mind Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, another sci-fi classic that hinges on a piece of incriminating video footage.

Mostly shielded by her body armor but grazed by a bullet on her side, West somehow slips away from the murderous cops. Black and Blue tends to solve such narrative impasses via the magic of montage: We see West stumbling away down a passageway but don’t see exactly how she escapes. Now pursued by the extensive cabal of officers, she makes it to a convenience store where a childhood friend, Mouse (Tyrese Gibson), reluctantly helps her patch herself up. Mouse and the tight-knit community of the nearby Kingston Manor apartment complex, the film makes clear, don’t like cops; an earlier scene has Mouse and his sister, Missy (Nafessa Williams), refuse to acknowledge that they know West, who’s recently returned from two tours in Afghanistan after growing up in their neighborhood. As seen from the perspective of West and her partner, Kevin (Reid Scott), this impoverished area is full of shifty-eyed gangsters, and Black and Blue veers into problematic terrain early on when it lays ominous bass notes under close-ups of black men slinking around in and out of the cops’ view.

The filmmakers, though, deploy such hammy racism mostly to undermine it. Deacon Brown (James Moses Black), an officer who saves West from one of the aforementioned black youth, is quickly revealed to be part of Malone’s conspiracy, and therefore complicit in the murder of unarmed men and the attempted murder of West herself. While Black and Blue indulges some of the worst stereotypes about black poverty, the dehumanizing practices of the police are portrayed as the truly pernicious social force. And West must ultimately reintegrate herself with the film’s black community: After skirting from place to place within the 9th Ward, her ultimate recourse is to bring the body camera to Kingston Manor and let the people there, including the hot-headed local kingpin, Darius (Mike Colter), see the footage for themselves.

What follows is a fun, if muddled, climax that upends some of the expectations set by the bulk of the film. While Black and Blue is much more comfortable dispatching the gangsters who are trying to kill West than the cops shown to be their moral equivalents, the intense showdown at Kingston Manor proves that the film’s typical action-movie ethos of violent retribution can also extend to figures of authority. And while it settles in a place that offers a less probing critique of the status quo than its makers might be intending, its over-the-top climax provides a brief, cathartic release from the real-world issues its story raises.

Cast: Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Mike Colter, Frank Grillo, Reid Scott, Nafessa Williams, James Moses Black Director: Deon Taylor Screenwriter: Peter A. Dowling Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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