When Pulp Fiction hit the movie landscape like a tornado in 1994-—the film surprised almost everyone by picking up a Palme d’Or at Cannes that year-—it wasn’t only moviegoers lapping up writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s irresistible circular triptych of blood, guts, bullets and gleeful postmodern hip. Critics, by and large, bought into the hype for it too. When he reviewed it for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert called Tarantino “the Jerry Lee Lewis of cinema, a pounding performer who doesn’t care if he tears up the piano, as long as everybody is rocking.” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly called it “quite simply, the most exhilarating piece of filmmaking to come along in the nearly five years I’ve been writing for this magazine.”
However, the most interesting critical reaction that came out of the Pulp Fiction bubble—at least, the thing that caught my eye the most—was voiced by David Denby, who wrote for New York magazine at the time. In his review of the film, Denby compared Tarantino not to Jerry Lee Lewis, but to the famous 1960s French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard. According to Denby:
”Pulp Fiction is play, a commentary on old movies. Tarantino works with trash, and by analyzing, criticizing, and formalizing it, he emerges with something new, just as Godard made a lyrical work of art in Breathless out of his memories of casually crappy American B-movies. Of course Godard was, and is, a Swiss-Parisian intellectual, and the tonalities of his work are drier, more cerebral. Pulp Fiction, by contrast, displays an entertainer’s talent for luridness.”
As a recent convert to the Jean-Luc Godard bandwagon myself, I admit that my initial reaction was to take Denby’s and others’ critical declarations of this sort as proof of Tarantino’s inferiority to Godard as an artist. Sure, both directors share a lot of surface similarities: they both have certain stylistic likenesses, and they both dabble in the postmodern genre of self-reflexivity—making movies that make you aware that you are watching a movie, to put it simply. But the differences are more telling: Godard, the cinema philosopher who likes to use popular American movie genres for his own intellectual and socially critical ends, seems to have totally different artistic priorities from Tarantino, the self-professed trash movie geek who often seems more interested in having fun with those same popular genres than in rigorously exploring anything political, semiotic or philosophical except in the most movie-based terms. A close look at Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction versus, say, Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) and one could perhaps detect a sense of real world melancholy underlying the surface playfulness of Godard’s little heist picture that is hardly present amidst the unabashed pop trashiness of Pulp Fiction.
But then I got to wondering: could it just be that Tarantino and Godard are essentially the same filmmaker, except part of different time periods and totally different societies? Certainly, there are quite a number of noticeable differences between the France of the politically tumultuous 1960s—when Godard was making his mark on world art cinema—and the media-saturated, relatively more politically apathetic America of the 1990s, during which Tarantino first burst onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs (1992). Perhaps those who try to make a case for the artistic superiority of one director over another are, at least for the moment, forgetting that both directors come from such diverse backgrounds, and that all films speak of the contexts in which they are made and seen. Films, as do all works of art, do not exist in a vacuum, and to treat them as entities separate from time and space is to engage in only a superficial level of interpretation, at best.
I think that this is an important distinction to make, especially when it brings into clearer focus the fact that both directors, to admittedly varying degrees, are working in basically the same tradition of the self-reflexive work of art, a tradition that goes all the way back to Cervantes and even Shakespeare—with its self-consciousness and its implicit allegory of readership—and maybe beyond. So while Godard is always aware of the social function of the cinematic image, Tarantino turns self-reflexivity into a form of genre pastiche. Does that automatically make one director’s work more important than the other? Godard fans might prefer his social analysis and critique to the self-absorbed playfulness of Tarantino, but what explains Tarantino’s immense popularity all over the world on the basis of Pulp Fiction or his recent two-part trash epic Kill Bill (2003, 2004)? Godard, by comparison, may command only an intense cult following outside France at best, particularly now that he has remained fairly reclusive over the past couple of decades. One would certainly not see recent Godard works like In Praise of Love (2001) or Notre Musique (2004) headlining the marquees of big multiplexes nationwide.
Thus, in this weeklong series—and in celebration of both Film Forum’s revival of Godard’s La Chinoise starting Wednesday and the recent DVD release of Tarantino’s Death Proof—I would like to examine the similarities and differences between Godard and Tarantino in many of their different facets. I plan to explore this comparison not only by examining their respective work and comparing and contrasting them, but also by considering both directors in terms of both their personal biographies and objective historical contexts. I will then draw on all this to evaluate how both directors are similar yet temperamentally and substantively different, and how each is representative of his particular era and social environment. As for their body of work: because Godard has been so prolific for over four decades now, it would simply be unwieldy to try to encompass his entire body of work (a lot of which isn’t even readily available on video). For that reason, I will focus almost entirely on the bulk of his groundbreaking oeuvre from the 1960s—his most popular period, arguably, and the one most comparable to Tarantino’s—when comparing it to Tarantino’s comparably meager, yet equally varied and fascinating output.
Ultimately, the broad question I would like to pose is: is Tarantino really a Jean-Luc Godard of the 1990s and today? Maybe there is something to the comparison after all, and not just technically or stylistically speaking. If Godard is a reflection of a politically-conflicted, self-aware, industrializing society, Tarantino is perhaps an example of Godard’s convictions taken to a perversely logical conclusion. In a society that has already been industrialized and invaded by pop culture as America has, maybe it is only logical that a Tarantino would take that self-awareness and popularize it for the mass American audience—an audience, some might say, that prefers its entertainment to be pure escapism, something that Tarantino provides even as he occasionally makes gestures toward something deeper. And what of Tarantino’s worldwide popular success compared to Godard’s relatively provincial success? What does that suggest about the societies and audiences from which both filmmakers came? And, if they are so different, does that necessarily mean that they are both incomparable? Or could it just mean that Tarantino is a kind of Godard stripped of political content (and perhaps creating an implicit stance of its own: apathy) and raised on a diet of both high art and pop culture?
At one point in Band of Outsiders, all three main characters—Franz (Sami Frey), Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Odile (Anna Karina)—impulsively decide to share a minute of silence amongst one another because, as Franz says, they don’t have anything left to say to each other at that particular point. When they do initiate their minute of silence, however, Godard suddenly silences the soundtrack as well—almost as if Godard wants you to feel in your gut just how long a minute of silence can really be.
In Pulp Fiction, when Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) responds to Vincent Vega’s (John Travolta) befuddlement (“What the fuck is this place?”) after they both get to Jackrabbit Slim’s, Mia coaxes him by saying “Don’t be a…” and then drawing a rectangle in the air to visually denote “square.” But when she draws that rectangle, Tarantino visually emphasizes it so that she seems to be drawing an actual physical rectangle—one made up of tiny brightly-lit bulbs—onscreen.
Both of these moments have the effect of breaking the fourth wall, of deliberately throwing us out of the movie for that one brief period of time—in effect, to remind us that what we are watching is a movie. In other words, those two examples evince self-consciousness about their artistic selves that courses through not only both films, but also through both directors’ bodies of work as a whole. Furthermore, it is this tradition of self-consciousness in which both Godard and Tarantino consistently work—it is, in a broad sense, what is so strikingly similar about both directors.
First things first: what makes up a “self-conscious” work of art? A self-conscious work of art signifies a work that consistently makes the audience aware of its sheer movie-ness (to put it in fairly crude terms). Many fiction films demand that audience members assent to the illusion that the filmmakers—the director, the actors, the behind-the-scenes crews—are presenting to us. For that reason, classical Hollywood films are known for their unobtrusive style: invisible editing, carefully-structured plotting, and well-placed camerawork, among other attributes. Better to use cinematic materials to tell the story well rather than experiment too much and risk impairing our willing suspension of disbelief.
Self-conscious artists, however, are less interested in immersing their audience in their films’ illusions than in exposing the gears underlying those illusions, in making us aware of how fake those illusions actually are. Look, self-conscious filmmakers seem to say to their audience, I could tell this story in the familiar classical manner. I could make more of an effort to immerse you in the lives of these characters and the world they inhabit. But that would only be false to reality, because classically-told stories simply aren’t real, as much as we might want to believe they are. As Robert Stam puts it:
“In their freedom and creativity, anti-illusionistic artists imitate the freedom and creativity of the gods. Like gods at play, reflexive artists see themselves as unbound by life as it is perceived (Reality), by stories as they have been told (Genre), or by a nebulous probability (Verisimilitude). … The god of anti-illusionist art is not an immanent pantheistic deity but an Olympian, making noisy intrusion into fictive events. We are torn away from the events and the characters and made aware of the pen, or brush, or camera that has created them.”
If art is all about raising our consciousness of the world around us, of looking at certain previously-taken-for-granted things anew, self-conscious works of art use, as their playing field, previous works of art instead of something from the outside world. Self-conscious artists take apart what has already been done before, try to understand what previous artists were trying to do with those elements and how they went about doing it, and put all those elements back together again to create something new.
Stam notes that this approach has roots all the way back to Shakespeare; he cites the use of the play-within-a-play in Hamlet as an early example of self-reflexivity even before Cervantes picked it up and pushed it further in Don Quixote. Only relatively recently, however, has this kind of approach been taken seriously as an artistic style in the cinema.
Both Quentin Tarantino and Jean-Luc Godard fit right into this mold of the postmodern self-conscious artist. Their works deliberately take you out of your involvement in the film’s story and point up the artificiality of the construct. Though their purposes for doing so may be different (as we will see later on), their means are often surprisingly similar.
Reworking classical narrative
Neither Godard nor Tarantino show much interest in telling stories in any conventional sense. Indeed, Godard—in films like Masculin féminin (1966), Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) and Weekend (1968)—barely shows any interest in telling any kind of story at all, instead preferring to essentially make either portrait films (his fascinated-yet-critical look at French youth and the sexual divide in 1960s France in Masculin féminin, for instance) or essay films (his seemingly stream-of-consciousness philosophical ruminations on the power of the image in an increasingly industrialized Paris that form the backbone of Two or Three Things). Godard’s deliberate disregard for classical narrative convention goes all the way down to the level of technique, most notably editing (his celebrated use of jump cuts and mismatched shots from Breathless (1960) on) and sound (his playful experiments with music and sound in A Woman is a Woman (1961) or his random dropping-out of sound at certain points in Band of Outsiders and Masculin féminin).
On the other hand, Tarantino often sticks to a fairly unobtrusive technical style. Much like Godard, he is an actor’s director, sometimes preferring long takes to allow his actors to strut their stuff, other times cutting back and forth between actors who are conversing with each other. Tarantino’s innovations of narrative are temporal rather than technical. Pulp Fiction is known for its circular, three-story plot structure, in which the film starts and ends in the same setting; in which a threatening incident in an apartment cuts away in media res only to resume in the third story; and in which a major character killed off in the second story returns very much alive in the third story, which had taken place beforehand. Reservoir Dogs and the Kill Bill films all play with this kind of non-chronological storytelling—the former in particular cuts back and forth between past and present in dissecting how a robbery attempt went horribly wrong. Even Tarantino’s most linear film, Jackie Brown (1997), has one show-stopping sequence—a homage to Stanley Kubrick’s early heist thriller The Killing (1956)—that replays a theft from three different points of view. And his most recent film, Death Proof (2007), still manages a measure of structural rigor even while remaining linear all the way through: it’s a two-part work, with rhyming motifs giving it an underlying sense of unity.
The point here is that neither director makes films that fall neatly into typical Hollywood storytelling structures, even though both directors unapologetically dabble in well-worn Hollywood genres. This has the effect of taking a viewer out of his/her Hollywood-induced comfort zone as far as storytelling is concerned.
The films of both Godard and Tarantino are often layered—or littered, depending on whom you ask—with references: to pop culture, politics, other films, popular music, literature, etc. Take Godard’s crime films, like Breathless and Band of Outsiders: they are full of references to both literature (the Dolores Hitchens novel that Godard credits as the inspiration for Band of Outsiders is referenced visually and verbally in the film; one of the characters is named Arthur Rimbaud) and cinema (the poster of Humphrey Bogart that seemingly stares at Michel in Breathless; the use of legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang playing himself in the film-about-filmmaking Contempt (1963); the paraphrasing of narration from Fritz Lang’s 1950 thriller House by the River to alert “latecomers” to the theater at one point in Band of Outsiders); later films such as Pierrot le Fou, Masculin féminin and Weekend would also add explicit and implicit allusions to the contentious political events of the day—Vietnam in particular—to his burgeoning plate of references. (But then, even the relatively lightweight Band of Outsiders finds Godard in a serious-enough mood to make a random yet poignant reference to Rwandan atrocities as Franz is reading the newspaper out loud at one moment.)
Tarantino tends to limit his references simply to cinematic ones—movies were the biggest part of his upbringing after all, as we shall see later—but Roger Ebert does note one interesting literary allusion: “the opening exchange between Jules and Vincent about what the French call Quarter-Pounders, for example, is a reminder of the conversation between Jim and Huckleberry Finn about why the French don’t speak English.” As he does with movies, Tarantino is taking a literary trope from a classic American novel and updating it on film for a newer audience. Also interesting to note are Tarantino’s references to Godard himself. In the unrated version of Death Proof, for instance, one lengthy sequence that kicks off the film’s second half is shown in black-and-white until the film suddenly reverts back to color, in a piece of technique that may remind some viewers of Godard’s switching of color filters in an opening sequence of Contempt. Or consider the twist sequence in Pulp Fiction, which recalls the Madison dance sequence of Band of Outsiders in its randomness and sense of isolation. Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction is also done up like Anna Karina in My Life to Live (1962), short black hair and all, even if Mia Wallace comes off more like a gangster’s wife playacting at being a gun moll than Karina’s Nana ever does throughout Godard’s film. (In some cases with Tarantino’s references, context matters less than the fact that he makes the reference in the first place.)
But such references often aren’t simply mere mentions or hints of that sort. Often, Godard and Tarantino run deeper, trying to allude to whole genres or styles with their references. Godard’s voiceover narration of Band of Outsiders is full of comparisons: when Arthur decides to delay the robbery, Godard says that such an act is “in keeping with the tradition of bad B movies”; when Franz decides to turn around to try to save his friend, he’s compared to “the hero of a legendary romance.” (Ironic, because Band of Outsiders, though it may seem like a similar kind of bad B movie or legendary romance when you hear a plot description, certainly doesn’t play like either; if anything, it is a romantically anti-heroic film that often alludes to a heroic tradition.) Even his characters diegetically evoke such movie-conscious associations: Arthur thinks of Franz as “a good shield…like in the movies”; one random character asks his teacher how to translate “a big million-dollar film” to English.
Tarantino does something similar—taking recognized genre characteristics and putting them into entirely new situations—except his references simply stay on the level of iconography. Thus, Pulp Fiction doesn’t so much impose genre conventions onto grounded characters as basically conceive characters as icons from the start and then fashion them in a manner that feels more pop-contemporary and wink-wink existential than such characters usually are in classic noir genre pictures. Unlike Franz and Arthur in Band of Outsiders, Jules and Vincent aren’t regular folks who try to be glamorous movie hit men. They are glamorous movie hit men through and through—their black-and-white suit-and-tie wardrobe recalls any number of Jean-Pierre Melville’s quietly existential heroes from 1960s noirs like Le Samourai. It’s just that they talk like stoned pop philosophers when they discuss the minutiae of daily life in ways that make such minutiae seem more significant than they really are. Many of Melville’s heroes, by contrast, spoke barely a word. Then there is troubled boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), who seems to have walked right out of the 1949 real-time boxing noir The Set-Up, especially since the character is saddled with a plot that recalls similar situations in Robert Wise’s film. And when Butch feels compelled to save an angry Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) from sex-crazed male hicks, the various weapons he examines, before deciding upon a samurai sword as his weapon of choice, implicitly act as representations of the kinds of trash genres—action, horror, martial arts—that obsess Tarantino himself.
Yet, as different as their approaches may be, Godard and Tarantino are essentially playing the same game: making films that are heavily intertextual, depending to a certain extent on their—and our—knowledge of other works outside of the one we are currently watching. In a way, they are creating both a cinematic meta-context and a community of viewers who get that context.
Choice of genres
Godard and Tarantino’s references to “lower” genres which I referred to above is also a characteristic of postmodernism, and is thus important to articulate here for the purposes to establishing the tradition out of which both directors create in the cinema.
In his essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson believes that one of the tenets of postmodernism is the blurring of the lines between high culture and pop culture. As he explains it:
“…[M]any of the newer postmodernisms have been fascinated by that whole landscape of advertising and motels, of the Las Vegas strip, of the late show and Grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery and the science fiction or fantasy novel. They no longer “quote” such “texts” as a Joyce might have done, or a Mahler; they incorporate them, to the point where the line between high art and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to draw.”
This would seem especially appropriate to Tarantino, whose films are almost entirely about his mixing of “texts”; Pulp Fiction, after all, references and borrows from a whole host of films and genres (principally noir films like the aforementioned The Set-Up, but also such diverse sources as Saturday morning cartoons, Saturday Night Fever, even 1960s Godard films like My Life to Live and Band of Outsiders). Even Jackie Brown, arguably Tarantino’s most “down-to-earth” feature, constructs its universe out of remnants of 1970s blaxpoitation flicks (with its star, Pam Grier, its most obvious icon). But keep in mind that Jameson published his article a decade before the Tarantino cult exploded. Godard did this kind of wholesale rummaging of pop culture in many of his ‘60s features before Tarantino picked up on it for his films. While many of his ‘60s films deconstruct popular American genres—Breathless, Band of Outsiders (crime drama), A Woman is a Woman (musical comedy), Contempt (Hollywood melodrama), Alphaville (1965, science fiction), Made in U.S.A. (1966, spy thriller), Pierrot le Fou (as many genres as possible)—they also exude the kind of fascination with “low” culture that Jameson is talking about. Appropriate, then, that some early-‘60s Godard works like Band of Outsiders and Pierrot le Fou are based on supposedly inferior literary material—a cheap American thriller entitled Fool’s Gold in the case of the former, a Lolita knockoff called Obsession in the case of the latter. Even when Godard credits or quotes “high” literary, artistic or philosophical sources in film—Pierrot le Fou, for example, is loaded with such allusions, from Diego Velázquez to James Joyce—Godard places them in a distinctly modern context that doesn’t immediately call to mind something that one might initially consider “high” art.
Because both Godard and Tarantino dabble so unreservedly in “lower” genres, and take such an interest in popular culture, many who simply look at the playful surfaces of Band of Outsiders or Pulp Fiction have sometimes perceived the films of both directors as trivial and “fun” at best. As much as they might prefer to play around with the archetypes of crime drama or the musical or whatever, when you see such clichés in their films, they certainly don’t play and feel like any of their sources. Such deconstructions of genre, in addition to embracing a measure of romanticism toward the movie-influenced characters that they sometimes simultaneously debunk, is what intrigues me the most about their work. It is a vivid illustration of the “increasing difficulty” of drawing the line between high and popular art as anything that Jameson points out in his essay.
When it comes to both directors’ self-reflexivity, I think the most important similarity to note is that, because of the distance they instill between the viewer and what is happening onscreen, in their films one often ends up caring less about the ostensible plots and more about other things—for instance, the artificial, movie-based nature of it all. It is almost as if Godard and Tarantino assume that you are quite familiar with all the conventions of the genres in which they work, that you’ve basically seen it all before, and that there is nothing more to do with genre clichés except to try to mock them or think of them in a new way.
Of course, this raises the question: why are Godard and Tarantino playing this self-reflexive game in the first place?
Review: Soul More Sublimely Mediates on the Pull of Music Than It Does the Afterlife
In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.2.5
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), the main character of Pixar’s Soul, is a jazz pianist living in Harlem who’s desperate for music gigs alongside his part-time job directing the disengaged middle schoolers in his band class. When the school principal offers him full-time hours with benefits, it feels more like a final surrender than a lifeline. The threat of lifelong mediocrity has tightened its grasp around every corner of Joe’s life. In a brilliant stroke, even the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star” tune that plays over the logo before most Disney movies is heard here as if played by Joe’s out-of-tune student ensemble.
Soul, directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers, quickly reveals that Joe is anything but mediocre. Hearing melody in the wail of sirens and rhythm in the cacophony of a jackhammer, he has music in his, well, soul. When Joe catches his big break auditioning to play with a pro quartet, headlined by imperious jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), the film follows him into “the zone.” Not since Fantasia has a Disney film treated music with such reverence, as the seed of all the visual flowering that follows. As pinks and purples swirl around Joe and as his fingers coax unexpected harmonies from the keyboard (Jon Batiste provides the impassioned playing), Soul gives itself over fully to his music.
For these gloriously substantial few minutes, it’s jazz set to animation rather than the other way around. As such, it’s hard not to want Soul to be all about music, not just as metaphor but as the very real engine that drives the film’s characters forward. Music’s extraordinary impact is palpable when Joe’s face lights up as one of his students, Connie (Cora Champommier), leans into a trombone solo, and as Joe’s fingers escape his anxiety in their own improvisatory pursuit. Walk away 15 minutes into the film, at the end of what would make, on its own, a snazzy, sublime short, and you’ll have seen Pixar’s greatest, purest tribute to the arts.
But Joe’s joy, and soon the film’s, is cut short when he plummets down an open manhole, and finds himself—or, rather, his soul, depicted here as a blue-green turnip-shaped substance with glasses and a fedora—on the pathway to the Great Beyond. Refusing to face death, Joe hurtles into the void toward the Great Before, where not-yet-born souls obtain their personalities in a Youth Seminar. Mistaken for a celebrated psychologist, Joe’s soul is assigned a mentee, a cranky pre-human called 22 (Tina Fey) who refuses to cooperate: She’s unwilling, and, so far, unable to find the “spark” that will allow her to be born into a human body. Previous famous mentors have tried and failed (the soul of Carl Jung amusingly tells the difficult 22, “Stop talking—my unconscious mind hates you”), but Joe sees 22 as his ticket back to Earth.
It’s somewhere around here that Soul, co-written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones, starts to veer down its own wrong path, abandoning its accessible storytelling, along with that vitalizing jazz soundtrack, for a confusing maze of pseudo-spiritual planes of existence. Besides the Great Beyond and the Great Before, souls can also be in the Zone, where tuned-in artists like Joe sometimes find themselves while still alive, or in a desert of Lost Souls, which belong to people who’ve forgotten how to live (hedge fund managers, in particular, we’re told).
In this ever-evolving terrain occupied by 2D and 3D life forms, the film’s visual adventurousness takes off as contrasting animation styles collide. At the Youth Seminar, flat, geometric figures with transparent features direct the bulbous souls to where they can pick up personality traits (at the Excitable Pavilion, for example). Meanwhile, a New Age-inflected Mystics Without Borders subplot, with Graham Norton voicing the tripped-out Moonwind, adds a daringly vibrant psychedelic color palette to the gentle blues and greens of the Great Before. But as the categories of souls keep expanding, the rules for these overlapping worlds grow foggy, and by the time that Fey’s voice is coming out of Joe’s body in a switcheroo that’s never quite explained, it’s hard not to feel as if the film has lost track of its internal logic.
At the core of the Pixar model is an exploration of friendship within the familiar parameters of the buddy comedy—Joy and Sadness in Inside Out, Sully and Mike in Monsters, Inc., Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo, all the way back to Toy Story’s Buzz and Woody—and Soul tries hard to plug into the transformative power of friendship in pairing Joe with 22. Despite Fey’s droll delivery, 22, who says she chooses to speak with the voice of a middle-aged white lady in order to be “annoying,” isn’t convincing enough as a fully formed character for their relationship, or Joe’s investment in 22’s decision to be born, to ever matter.
The contours of these worlds seem just hazy enough to land on the safe side of blasphemy; sometimes it seems like the film’s imprecision is a deliberate attempt to draw piecemeal from various belief systems and sidestep offending religious audiences by addressing the presence or absence of higher powers at all. But the viewers that seem most painfully left behind are the ones to which Soul should rightly matter the most: kids. Soul swirls with self-help lingo about finding your spark and seeking your purpose, but that’s almost entirely in the context of Joe’s midlife crisis, a sliver of the human experience with which children seem unlikely to resonate. In a troubling reversal from Pixar films past, which magnanimously welcomed grownups along for a sophisticated ride, it’s kids who will have to do the most heavy lifting to keep up here.
Coco’s take on the Land of the Dead and Inside Out’s representation of depression exemplify explorations of “grownup” topics with a probing awareness of the ways they also touch kids’ lives. For a while, it seems that Soul, in its treatment of the Great Before, will have a similar capacity for digging into big, unanswerable questions with care and clarity. But while most Pixar films pride themselves on presenting rich, fantastical responses to real-world wonderings, Soul keeps conjuring up visions that don’t correspond precisely enough to anything in the real world. It’s not clear whether the film ultimately offers a call to arms to pursue a passion or a warning that creative passion alone doesn’t provide for a fulfilling life.
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi Director: Pete Docter Screenwriter: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Black Bear Is an Unnerving Look at the Baggage that Fuels Creation
Shot through with darkly existentialist humor, the film finds Aubrey Plaza throwing a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past.3
Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear belongs to a long tradition of sexual psychodrama, in which a handful of frustrated and privileged characters hole up in a remote place and exorcize their resentments. This tradition is so venerable that it was parodied by Christopher Guest over 30 years ago in The Big Picture, and there’s also a dark strand of existentialist humor running through this similarly self-conscious film.
Levine casts doubt on his narrative’s sense of reality in the opening sequence, wherein a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) is sitting on a pier in a swimsuit looking out at a vast foggy lake. After a moment, she rises and proceeds into a luxurious home, ascends a flight of stairs, and sits at a desk and smokes a cigarette. Soon, she begins to write in a notebook and the narrative segues into what’s presumably a dramatization of the story she fashions. This scene will be repeated several times in Black Bear, suggesting both a leitmotif and a temporal loop.
We then see this woman, Allison, being dropped off on a road a bit away from the home. Meeting Allison at the drop-off point is Gabe (Christopher Abbott), who immediately sets about flirting with her. It’s the sort of flirtation indulged by aspiring artists and self-conscious intellectuals-in-training, rife with deflections, fake-outs, and challenges to the nature of reality that complement the suggestion that the entire situation is possibly a projection of some kind. Allison and Gabe arrive at the residence to meet Blair (Sarah Gadon), who’s pregnant with Gabe’s child, which wasn’t mentioned when Gabe was probing Allison about her career as a filmmaker and, especially, her relationship status. The trio have a long and boozy dinner and air a variety of grievances, leading to a shocking accident.
Allison, initially suggesting a prototypical Plaza character, seemingly prizes hip detachment above all else, in the process enraging the judgmental Blair, who was hoping for help in persecuting Gabe for various slights. This characterization of Allison is a purposeful trap door—a sop to expectation that Levine detonates. In Black Bear’s first half, Allison is cast as a male fantasy—a sexy, seemingly willing and wandering artist who’s uninterested in Blair’s sermonizing about gender roles. In effect, Allison gratifies the submerged feelings of men and even women who may feel that women wish to be subjugated—feelings that are perversely validated in the moment by Blair’s caustic hectoring, which is realistic of the patter of the blowhard at parties who wishes to bore everyone into submission with rigid political views. The film’s early scenes are so stacked against Blair that one may forgive Gabe’s own simplistic speechifying, though such forgiveness may prompt us to examine our own biases.
Remarkably, the film’s emotional intensity is inseparable from its parlor game-like self-consciousness, especially when Allison’s “cool girl” demeanor is unexpectedly demolished. At its halfway mark, Black Bear effectively reboots itself, switching the core identities of the women, with only Gabe tellingly gaining more power in the process. Suddenly, Allison becomes the vulnerable and rejected party, and Plaza imbues her transformed character with a raw and frenzied anguish. Plaza throws a gauntlet to filmmakers who have typecast her in the past, while Levine plumbs the various forms of subjugation that fuel the creative process.
In Black Bear’s second half, the remote house is now a set for an independent film with a plot that roughly re-stages the earlier clashes between Allison, Blair, and Gabe, who are now reimagined as two actresses and the director, respectively. The film thusly expands beyond the confines of a chamber play to include a micro community, with sustained, confidently intricate set pieces—reminiscent of the game-show scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—that explore the exhilaration and terror of corralling dozens of working parts and personalities to create something palatable for audiences. Both films understand such corralling to thrive in part on exploitation, and in the case of Black Bear, the film-within-a-story-within-the-film is constructed around Gabe’s gaslighting of Allison, which Levine stages with a sense of unnerving intimacy that might playfully echo his own experience working with his spouse, filmmaker and actress Sophie Takal, who’s among Black Bear’s co-producers.
Levine is hunting big game in Black Bear, as the film reflects to varying degrees the influence of dozens of self-reflective film classics, mostly notably Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. If Black Bear feels too neat, a little too resolved as a game, it may be because the framing device gives us a convenient exit, though even the conclusion isn’t without ambiguities. Given that both stories are sex triangles fueled by exploitation, you may be driven to wonder if Plaza’s writer is attempting to find a way to channel real trauma. Or, perhaps more disturbingly, she’s conjuring it out of thin air, accessing unvarnished pain out of sheer talent and for the hell of it. This coda restores the smug Plaza stereotype to an extent, while alluding to the vast emotional undertow it suppresses.
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon, Lindsay Burdge, Alexander Koch, Paola Lázaro, Jennifer Kim, Shannon O’Neill, Grantham Coleman, Haitao Zeng, Lou Gonzalez Director: Lawrence Michael Levine Screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine Distributor: Momentum Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Survival Skills Surreally Straddles the Line Between Parody and Pathos
Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014.2.5
Purporting to be an actual VHS-shot police training video unearthed from the last gasp of the Reagan era, Survival Skills feels like something you’d stumble upon on Adult Swim circa 2014, sandwiched between Too Many Cooks and reruns of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Yet writer-director Quinn Armstrong’s debut feature resists indulging the easy trappings of our current cultural obsession with ‘80s-era aesthetics as it digs into some rather contentious and particularly timely subject matter.
Survival Skills opens on a training guide introducing his lesson on a stagy classroom set. Credited as the Narrator, he’s played by Stacy Keach, a recognizable enough personality to immediately break any illusion of found-footage “authenticity.” But seeing as Armstrong will continue to break the fourth wall and experiment with meta-fictional ideas throughout, Keach, with his never-failing gravitas, becomes the perfect chaperone for this cracked video project.
The Narrator’s first order of business is creating the ideal police trainee, filtering the expected qualities needed for the job through an ancient computer system to end up with Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell), an all-American goody-two-shoes who we’ll follow through his first year on the force in quaint Middletown, U.S.A. Speaking in insufferably chipper soundbites, Jim acts and sounds exactly like someone who you’d see in the kind of stilted training video that Survival Skills spoofs throughout. But as we enter Jim’s video world, the joke becomes that he’s almost the only one here who behaves this way, while his hardened partner—curiously named Allison Lohmann (Erika Kreutz), in what must be some kind of inside joke—and the people they encounter are all perplexed by his alien manner. No matter, though, as Jim continues to take his cues from the Narrator’s booming voice, which seems to be heard solely by him.
The line between the staged world and the real one blurs even further when Jim and Allison are tasked with responding to a domestic violence call involving a married couple, the Jennings. After the cops diffuse the situation, Mr. Jennings (Bradford Farwell) assures them that everything is okay while Mrs. Jennings (Emily Chisholm) sheepishly nods along, but Jim can’t shake the feeling that something is off. Defying orders from his superiors (and the natural progression of the training video), Jim begins a quixotic attempt to rescue Mrs. Jennings and her daughter (Madeline Anderson) from a situation that no one but him seems to particularly care about, while the Narrator desperately tries to steer him back on track.
Unlike many a throwback that adopts a retro look and doesn’t offer much beyond hollow non sequiturs (Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes instantly comes to mind), the film avoids cheapening its domestic-abuse storyline by using its formal conceit to also highlight another absurdity that Jim must confront: the impossibility of positive, meaningful police work within a broken legal (and social) system. The only lesson Jim can ultimately take away from his training is how to not get too involved, while his well-meaning suggestions to Mrs. Jennings that she flee her husband and file charges provoke immediate scorn from the same person he’s trying to help, since she’s already well aware how stacked the system is against her.
While mostly pulling off this tricky balancing act of humor and real-life horror, Survival Skills doesn’t quite go far enough in its critiques, especially in a climate where police-community relations are more frayed than ever. The whimsical mechanics of Armstrong’s world occasionally take precedence over the thematic issues at play, making it strange at times that Jim, who for all intents and purposes is a glorified android (Allison tellingly nicknames him “Robocop”), becomes so obsessed with this one case when he can barely read the room in any other setting. This dichotomy is even more pronounced in scenes with Jim’s hyperbolically domesticated wife, Jenny (Tyra Colar), who, while being the only other person in the film to behave in the same pre-programmed way, is clearly undergoing a stifled breakdown of her own. In these moments, Armstrong hints at but doesn’t fully comment on the correlation between the pressures of police work and domestic violence in police families.
The final act of Survival Skills, however, still intrigues, with Jim’s impossible quandary causing his idyllic existence to come unglued at the seams. Armstrong forcefully dives headfirst into the deep end of the meta pool, staging an aptly surreal revenge climax before Keach’s narrator concludes with a blunt lesson in the futility of policing. It’s a sentiment that ultimately resonates beyond the film’s stylistic posturing.
Cast: Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz, Tyra Colar, Emily Chisholm, Bradford Farwell Director: Quinn Armstrong Screenwriter: Quinn Armstrong Distributor: Cranked Up Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: I’m Your Woman Is an Unresolved Grab at Feminist Revisionism
Julia Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything.1.5
Julia Hart’s I’m Your Woman is, in practice, a feminist response to the decidedly male-centric crime genre. Rather than follow a hoodlum named Eddie (Bill Heck) as he eludes his gangster cohorts, the film tracks Eddie’s wife, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), and their baby, Harry, as the latter are inducted into an underworld witness protection program. Such a premise has immense potential, especially given that Jean knows little about Eddie’s profession and that anyone could be an enemy looking to get back at him through her and Harry. A head of paranoid steam, resonant of Jean’s indentured status as a “kept” woman, could have been built up by the film, but Hart and co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz are barely invested in engendering suspense. Instead, I’m Your Woman is content to have us cheer Jean as she comes into her own apart from Eddie’s lies and manipulations—except that she never does, which appears to be an accidentally achieved irony on the filmmakers’ part.
I’m Your Woman is set in the 1970s, in conjunction with the second and third waves of feminism, and more pressingly so that Hart may have reason to offer the retro pop songs and ostentatious set designs that are common of films replicating the era. A strange opening scene, in which Eddie presents the mysteriously acquired Harry to Jean as one might an impulse purchase from a fancy store, establishes above all Jean’s complacency, which would shame a stereotypical American housewife of the 1950s, let alone the ‘70s. Indeed, Jean is so accommodating, defenseless, and opinion-less that she resembles a cult member, and as such you may wonder how she’s held the firebrand Eddie’s attention. As proffered here, these details are stereotypical and unconvincing, existing only as easy thematic signifiers.
None of this might matter if I’m Your Woman were remotely serviceable as a thriller, but it’s composed of a thicket of incoherent exposition, with a cipher at its center. Jean often hears rumors of what’s happening to Eddie while he’s hiding somewhere else, mostly as related by her primary protector, Cal (Arinzé Kene), and these stories suggest the conventional male-centric narrative that’s being consciously elided by Hart and Horowitz. But this gambit backfires, given that the story that Cal relates to Jean, however convoluted, is more exciting than the one we actually see play out on screen. At times, I’m Your Woman appears to be tipping its hat to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Gloria—two films, both made by men, that are far more curious about the inner lives of women than this one. Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes didn’t see their heroines merely as embodiments of an agenda, but also as volatile, intelligent, furious living and breathing human beings.
By contrast, nothing seems to elicit a recognizably human emotion from Jean. Once she’s sprung from life as Eddie’s plus one, Jean remains supernaturally passive—entirely reactive and played by the usually inventive Brosnahan in a monotonal stupor that nulls Hart’s theme of female empowerment. Jean is almost killed several times, and commits murder in self-defense, all without evincing remorse, panic, or jubilation at facing extremities of human existence, which Hart films perfunctorily without offering even scraps of the sort of basic narrative context that might’ve made these sequences thrilling. In other words, Hart drains the crime film genre of its macho bluster without replacing it with anything, only to restore said bluster belatedly and halfheartedly once she’s run her single idea into the ground.
Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Arinzé Kene, Frankie Faison, Marceline Hugot, James McMenamin, Jarrod DiGiorgi, Bill Heck, James Charles, Justin Charles Director: Julia Hart Screenwriter: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Superintelligence Keeps a Lid on Melissa McCarthy’s Comic Energy
The big disappointment of the film is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde.2
Melissa McCarthy successfully transitioned from television to film playing outcasts who chafe at conventional standards of appearances and manners. The exhilaration of the actress’s performances, especially in Paul Feig comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, resides in the volcanic force she lends characters who might be reduced in to wallflowers in your run-of-the-mill production. Such visceral comic energy represents a revenge-of-the-oppressed transcendence, as these vehicles find a diminutive, overweight middle-aged woman stealing productions out from under more traditionally sophisticated stars via the profound force of her personality and talent. McCarthy is a veritable superstar-as-everyperson, which is a rare pose for an actor to convincingly master.
The big disappointment, then, of Ben Falcone’s Superintelligence is that McCarthy’s performance is all Jekyll and no Hyde. At first, Carol (McCarthy), a computer programmer who quit her job years ago out of frustration with corporate heartlessness, appears to be the sort of stunted ne’er-do-well that the actress specializes in playing. Superintelligence’s early scenes are its sharpest, parodying how Google- and Apple-type companies attempt to launder the complacency they demand from consumers and employees alike with therapeutic babble about wellness and self, which Carol isn’t able to convincingly sell. After a botched interview for a new dating site amusingly called Badankadonk, the viewer is primed to wait patiently for Carol’s rage to explode in characteristic McCarthy fashion, as a satirical rebuke against the faux-progressive hivemind of our social media age, yet this combustion never occurs.
Superintelligence is less a parody of modern consumerism than a bland gene splice of a rom-com and a 1980s-era film in which a loner befriends either an alien, a robot, or, in this case, a sentient, super-intelligent program voiced—in another amusing touch—by James Corden. Porting a narrative with such a distinctly Cold War-era makeup into the modern day also has satiric potential, for suggesting the similarity between past and present anxieties about technology run amok. And this commonality is acknowledged by the film in exactly one joke, in which the sentient program emulates the computer from John Badham’s WarGames in order to screw with characters who’re all old enough to get the reference.
Falcone and screenwriter Steve Mallory soon skimp on another wellspring for comedy, as the program gifts Carol with wealth and fashionable baubles—the sorts of privileged things that she comes to resent less once she’s capable of attaining them. Such hypocrisy, alive and well in virtually every present-day American, is acknowledged in a few fleeting jokes and soon forgotten, and even the general premise of a super-intelligent program as a kind of modern god-slash-genie is sidelined. Superintelligence is a junkyard of missed opportunities, as the unutilized ideas and gimmicks are revealed to exist as window dressing adorning a simple, frictionless kind of comedy-of-remarriage between Carol and the man who got away, George (Bobby Cannavale), who’s defined only by his sweetness and availability.
Superintelligence is probably intended by Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and regular collaborator, as a conventional star vehicle in which McCarthy plays the sort of wistful lonely heart that was once monopolized by the likes of Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. The film’s conventionality is meant to show that McCarthy needn’t always play the tormented weirdo with reserves of inner rage; she can also be a regular lead with regular problems with a regularly good-looking man as her “one and only.” But such generic and insidiously conformist attitudes, though born of reverence, insult and inhibit McCarthy’s talents.
McCarthy was authentically weird, profane, and confident, and therefore sexy, when playing a character who stood up to all those sexist men in Spy, which positioned her opposite of Jason Statham romantically without treating it as a big deal. By contrast, Falcone self-consciously lionizes McCarthy as an avatar of normalized romantic longing, trapping her in the process. The filmmakers here fatally forget that we love Melissa McCarthy because she isn’t a princess.
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bobby Cannavale, James Corden, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Ben Falcone, Josh McKissic Director: Ben Falcone Screenwriter: Steve Mallory Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
The film is affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.3
The legend of Shane MacGowan, frontman for the Pogues and imbiber extraordinaire, looms large over Julien Temple’s alternately fantastical and down-to-earth documentary Crock of Gold. Since achieving international renown in the 1980s leading the biggest Irish band after U2—and just about the only one to fully celebrate and explore their Irishness—MacGowan carved out a position as one of rock’s most determined boozers, druggies, fighters, and all-around hellraisers. But though he had a Keith Richards-sized appetite, being on a smaller budget meant going without a protective rock-star bubble.
MacGowan’s kinetic and alcohol-fueled energy was a big part of the Pogues’s appeal, vividly captured here by the footage Temple includes of people roaring and dancing in packed concert venues. But time took its toll, as evidenced by MacGowan’s downward spiral of performances sabotaged by his copious drinking. Eventually, the slurred speech, physical decrepitude, and ever-more gnarled dentition spotted in the archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s became like a self-fulfilling stereotype of the dedicated Irish drunk. While Temple includes a full view of MacGowan in his earlier form, the spiky-haired and Brendan Behan-worshipping punk balladeer, the story is told primarily through the lens of MacGowan’s racked and ruined present visage, prematurely aged and slurring his speech from a wheelchair. In MacGowan’s mind, he destroyed his body in pursuit of a different kind of legend entirely.
Much of the musician’s personal history is relayed via present-day interviews with interlocutors such as Johnny Deep—a friend of MacGowan’s and one of the film’s producers—former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But here and there throughout Crock of Gold, MacGowan looks back over his own life, telling stories with a slow, slurring mumble punctuated by the occasional surly snap of pique or wheeze that approximates a laugh.
MacGowan acknowledges the problematic aspects of being the drunken Irishmen who hated British stereotypes of drunken Irishmen. “You want Paddy?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll give you fucking Paddy.” But beyond the aggression that came from being a hyper-imaginative kid who hated the discrimination he felt being raised in 1960s England, he says that his creative drive was ultimately to create a different kind of legend. He wanted to do nothing less than save Irish culture. If not that, he wanted to at least resurrect the feeling that he had during the childhood summers he spent back in his extended family’s farmhouse in Tipperary (a one-time safe house for the I.R.A.), where even as a six-year-old he took part in the drinking and smoking and singing during the clan’s frequent all-night bashes.
MacGowan’s take on his culture is fiercely proud yet somewhat removed; his Irishness seems to come almost as much through literature and myth as through his family. Dreamy black-and-white recreations of a boy gamboling through Irish fields and archival footage of the Easter Rising and Ireland’s War of Independence fuel the sense that everything MacGowan strove for later in his art was in his mind a kind of fantasy crusade. “I did what I did for Ireland,” he says.
Raised mostly in England, MacGowan found the perfect outlet for that old poetry-infused rebel spirit when as a teenager he discovered his tribe in London’s punk scene. The raw chaos fit his natural state. After a several-month stay in Bedlam, his first concert was the Sex Pistols. Although this feels like a too-good story from a man who doesn’t mind gilding the lily, Temple includes grubby old footage showing MacGowan ecstatically pogo-ing just feet away from Johnny Rotten. Temple’s evocation of London street life in the period is short but vivid, in particular a segment set to “The Old Main Drag”, MacGowan’s semi-autobiographical song about a teenage hustler (“Just hand jobs,” he says with a grin in a later interview).
Wanting to “give tradition a kick in the ass” and make “Irish hip again,” MacGowan infused the lilt of traditional Irish music with a mixture of punk speed, wartime urgency, and late-night boozy romanticism. His recollections of the Pogues’s early years when their first three albums were met with increasing acclaim and popularity make clear that he knows that was the high point. The near-constant touring that followed the breakthrough success of 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God seems to have pushed his addictions over the edge. Most everything after the ‘80s—the later albums of dwindling quality, varying side projects and break-ups, and late-career encomiums—are handled in mostly chronological but still somewhat blurred fashion by Temple in an approximation of how MacGowan likely remembers them. In this way, the film is of a piece with the ruinous spectacle that Temple’s Sex Pistols films covered and the fireside intimacy of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, affectingly poignant in its frequently uncomfortable presentation of MacGowan’s physical ruination.
Director: Julien Temple Running Time: 124 min Year: 2020
Review: Before Turning Histrionic, Uncle Frank Is a Tender Look at Outsider Kinship
Alan Ball quickly loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other.2
Alan Ball’s ‘70s-set Uncle Frank commences as a rare portrait of the love between an uncle and his niece. Beth (Sophia Lillis), a provincial teenager with cosmopolitan dreams, is in awe of her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), a gay man living in New York City, a very long way from his South Carolina roots. “Uncle Frank was different,” Beth tells us in voiceover as we watch her pine for him at a family get-together. He was different than everyone around her because he was a college professor, his fingernails were always clear, and he used aftershave. But mostly because she could listen to him all day.
That sequence is shot like a conversation between lovers, slow-motioned laughter and all. But this isn’t the budding of incestuous love. It’s the sort of veneration that children are sometimes lucky enough to feel for the one adult in their midst who’s freer than most. Which is perhaps why many a queer uncle learns very quickly how disrupting their presence can be in family affairs. Frank represents a certain elsewhere. He truly listens to Beth, which visibly feels like some kind of a first for her. At one point, he tells her what she needs to hear with kindness—namely to believe in her dreams, which is code for her to get the hell out of the South. Four years later, she’s an NYU freshman obsessed with Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain.
When Beth moves to New York and they start hanging out, Frank can’t hide his homosexuality for long. After all, he lives with his long-term partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi), and an iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. Beth has never interacted with gay people before but gets used to the idea very quickly. And it’s at this moment, when the distance between uncle and niece shortens, that Uncle Frank ceases to be a tender portrait of outsider kinship and transforms into a histrionic road movie with screwball intentions, more interested in plot twists than the characters themselves. It’s an unfortunate pivot, as Ball loses sight of the sense of power that fuels the film’s early moments when his characters basically just gaze at each other, basking in what the other has to give, and something queer is transmitted.
When Frank’s father (Stephen Root) passes away, he drives back to the family home with Beth in tow. Also tagging along in a separate car, and much to Frank’s chagrin, is Wally, effectively triggering a predictable series of alternately kooky and unfortunate events, all interspersed with traumatic flashbacks to the source of the animosity between Frank and his father. It’s a whirlwind of melodrama that, before arriving at the obligatory happy ending, harkens back to the film’s initial quietude when Beth, sitting across from Frank at a diner, asks him, “Did you always know you were gay?” He responds that he always knew he was different, and in this moment Ball lets the characters breathe again, framing them much as he did at the start of Uncle Frank—in the midst of bonding, as a different sort of inheritance is passed on.
Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root, Lois Smith, Jane McNeil, Caity Brewer, Hannah Black, Burgess Jenkins, Zach Sturm, Colton Ryan, Britt Rentschler, Alan Campell, Cole Doman, Michael Perez Director: Alan Ball Screenwriter: Alan Ball Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Croods: A New Age Is a Step Up that Still Leaves You Wanting More
The film is brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic.2.5
Brightly colored, inventively designed, and constantly flirting with the outright psychedelic, The Croods: A New Age resembles what it might be like for a three-year-old to take an acid trip. Whereas its relatively subdued predecessor, directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, was grounded in some semblance of the real world, the sequel follows the path of another DreamWorks Animation series, Trolls, by packing as much manic energy and candy-coated visual excess into its runtime as it possibly can. The approach mostly improves on the limp family-comedy of the original, trading tired jokes about overprotective fathers for sprawling action sequences and a bevy of oddball creatures including wolf-spider hybrids, kung fu-fighting monkeys, and a King Kong-sized baboon with porcupine spikes.
Which isn’t to say that A New Age turns its back on the Crood family. In fact, it juggles a half-dozen or so emotional arcs pertaining to their daily lives, with the relationship between the feisty Eep (Emma Stone) and her conservative father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), once more at the heart of the narrative. As the film opens, the Croods, who’ve accepted Eep’s boyfriend, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), into the family fold, are desperately searching for food and safety when they happen upon an Edenic walled paradise owned by the technologically advanced Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann), who chafe at the boorish antics of the backwards Croods. Discovering that they knew Guy when he was a boy, the Bettermans contrive to kick the coarse cavemen off their property while stealing Guy away from Eep to live with them and create a family with their cheery daughter, Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).
Though ostensibly existing in the prehistoric world, the Bettermans, with their turquoise jewelry and rope sandals, epitomize a certain kind of well-heeled contemporary liberalism, where a rehearsed casual demeanor masks a fundamental narrow-mindedness and even intolerance of the uncouthness of their perceived inferiors. They’re the kind of people who won’t let a struggling family stay for long on their unused property but will send them off with a passive-aggressive smile and gift basket full of fancy soaps. The Bettermans are surprisingly complex, thanks in large part to Dinklage and Mann’s nuanced voice acting. In particular, Dinklage finds droll humor in a man whose conceitedness belies an essentially good heart.
This sort of gentle satire on class divisions isn’t the most natural fit with the film’s sweeping prehistoric milieu, but the screenplay manages to strike a relatively deft balance between its character moments and the comedy-adventure set pieces that are the film’s real raison d’être. A New Age doles out its emotional beats with a refreshingly light touch, never allowing sentimentalism to overpower its buoyant sense of adventure. But aside from some delightfully crusty line readings by Cloris Leachman as Gran, the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, the film is so packed full of incident that it rarely gives its jokes the space to land.
Similarly, its overall sense of spectacle is stronger than any particular image or scene. We’re never wanting for things to look at in the film—there’s nearly always some wacky creature or impossible Roger Dean-style landscape or virtuosic bit of animation onscreen—but we rarely get much chance to take any of them in before the film has moved on to the next thing. There’s plenty to look at in A New Age, but not a whole lot to truly savor.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, Kelly Marie Tran Director: Joel Crawford Screenwriter: Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Noir City: International 2020
The first international edition of the Noir City film festival in six years showcases the diversity and malleability of noir.
Noir City 18, presented by the Film Noir Foundation in San Francisco this January, shined a spotlight on 24 noir films from around the world. It was the first international edition of the festival in six years, and it showcased the diversity and malleability of the genre—the incredible range of formal, thematic, and narrative strategies that can fall under its umbrella. Now through November 29, a virtual edition of this year’s festival, co-presented by AFI Silver and the Film Noir Foundation, featuring many of the same films is open to noir afficionados across the United States.
A handful of established classics are presented here, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, as well as the only two American films in the lineup, each celebrating their 75th anniversaries, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. But the remaining films on this year’s slate consist primarily of lesser established films like Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night and Helmut Kautner’s Black Gravel, as well as a few more widely known films not discussed in terms of their noir credentials, among them Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds.
This edition of Noir City: International further broadens the scope of what cinephiles traditionally think of as noir. But in stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a noir production, perhaps too far at times for some noir purists, the festival offers an exciting blend of undiscovered gems and more canonical films that, when reevaluated through the lens of noir, are ripe for both new interpretations and renewed appreciation.
One of more obscure titles this year is Zbyněk Brynych’s 1965 thriller The Fifth Horseman Is Fear, which, while set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, makes no attempt to recreate the era. This approach allows Brynych’s Kafkaesque parable to achieve an immediacy and universality in its critique of authoritarianism that extends not only to the communist party running Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, but to virtually any brutal autocratic regime. Here, the Nazi soldiers and officers remain entirely off screen, overheard only occasionally as they speechify on the radio or in the distance outside, and the film instead summons most of the danger through the crippling, maddening aftereffects of widespread oppression that manifest in the fear and panic gripping seemingly every civilian character in the film.
Employing claustrophobic compositions, opaque plotting, jarring, sometimes disjointed editing, and a hauntingly atonal jazz score by Jirí Sternwald, Brynych crafts an environment of utter despair and confusion, where suspicions are cast in every direction and friends and neighbors turn on one another in order to survive. Chillingly, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear even blurs the psychological divide between the patients of an insane asylum and the unhinged behavior of the residents of Prague. And while that particular sequence recalls Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor from two years prior, Brynych’s nightmarishly surreal flourishes are innovative in their own right for the uneasy sense of paranoia that they rouse throughout, foreshadowing the more grim, disturbing films to come out of Czechoslovakia in the coming years, notably Juraj Herz’s The Cremator and Karel Kachyna’s The Ear.
Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Black Vampire, a 1953 Argentinian reimagining of Fritz Lang’s M, may not be as inventive as either Brynych or Lang’s films, but in approaching the material from the perspectives of women whose lives are adversely affected by the actions of the central child killer, it’s nonetheless quite fascinating and bold in its diversions from the original. Its feminist bent morphs the story into something entirely different than the Lang film, and in sympathizing primarily with mothers of the killers’ victims, along with a cabaret singer, Rita (Olga Zubarry), who witnessed one of the murders and fears for the safety of her child, Barreto’s film turns the oft-perceived misogyny of noir on its head.
Barreto villainizes not only the killer, but also the lead detective, Bernard (Roberto Escalada), whose hypocrisy—both in his domineering behavior on the job, as when he keeps a suspect he knows is innocent in detention, and his betrayal of his disabled wife (Gloria Castilla)—undermines his positioning of himself as the moral voice of reason. Cinematographer Aníbal González Paz, who also shot another gorgeous, under-the-radar Argentinian noir, 1958’s Rosaura at 10 O’Clock, uses an impressionistic visual palette, rife with chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles to create a heightened sense of disorientation that mirrors the volatility of a society in which injustices regularly occur on both sides of the law.
While The Fifth Horseman Is Fear and The Black Vampire fall on the more disturbing, thematically weighty end of the noir spectrum, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is a much lighter offering, though it’s quite an assured and stylish piece of mainstream entertainment. Verneuil, first and foremost, understands the simple surface pleasures noir can provide, be it gazing at a stone-faced Jean Gabin patiently skulking in the back of a Rolls Royce as he watches his master plan beginning to unfold or Alain Delon comically hamming it up as he uses his charm and sex appeal to fool everyone in the casino resort he plans to rob.
As delightful as it is to behold all the sharply written tête-à-têtes between Gabin and Delon—the former as the aging, implacable professional, and the latter as the virile, headstrong apprentice—it’s during the quieter, more deliberately paced third act that Veurneuil’s control of tempo and mood really shines. Generating a white-knuckle tension worthy of Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and capped off with a brilliant reworking of the ending of another ‘50s classic—to say which one would spoil the surprise—Any Number Can Win is a prime example of a film, and filmmaker, that was unfairly maligned by the cinephiles and critics of the French New Wave, and which has only just recently begun to recover its reputation.
Noir City: International runs through November 29.
Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is a Moving Swan Song for Chadwick Boseman
Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering that pursuit and escape are inextricably intertwined.3
In the canny opening moments of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the camera swoops over the heads of two black men sprinting through the woods at night, tripping over branches in their haste. The sequence, calculatingly staged to evoke an antebellum-era escape, invites our assumptions about who these men might be and from whom or what they might be running, but it turns out that the two men are just music fans on the move to catch a concert performance by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Southern singer dubbed “Mother of the Blues.”
It’s a pain-to-pleasure illusion that runs in reverse throughout the rest of George C. Wolfe’s film, which has been thoughtfully, gently adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s 1984 play. Though Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), here a fictionalized version of the real-life pioneering recording artist, may command sell-out crowds and booming record sales, she also knows what she ultimately represents for the white managers and producers who profit from her talent: “They don’t care nothing about me,” she explains early in the film. “All they want is my voice.” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom chips away at the seeming triumph of a celebrated chanteuse to reveal the bitter truths below the surface.
Ma Rainey, gilded and painted, is playing a part. With gold teeth and coarse coats of makeup highlighting a face often frozen in a withering sneer, most often directed at the white men who pay her but sometimes at the rogue trumpeter in her band, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), or at her chorus-girl lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), she’s miles away from vulnerability.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of a few hours in the recording studio where Ma presides over her deferential manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), disgruntled producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), and her four-man band, which, in addition to Boseman’s Levee, includes Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass, and Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone. For Ma Rainey, as long as the microphones are on, she has total power, and she relishes in elongating that reign through the power of refusal: she won’t sing until she has her Coke; she won’t move on until her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who stutters, perfectly delivers the introduction to the recording; and she won’t sign the release form that would liberate her white manager and producer from her say-so.
Davis, coarsely, tauntingly, slowly slurping on that Coca-Cola, communicates Ma Rainey’s premeditated defiance: As long as she controls the recording session, she rules over the white men who crave her sound, her strength and talent arising not in spite of her black body, but through it. And if that simultaneous tribute to, and desecration of, her artistry is ultimately heartbreaking to her, Ma Rainey isn’t about to let them see through her armor.
For the rest of the band, though, things are different. Levee has visions of forming his own band, of getting his original songs recorded, of winning over Ma Rainey’s beloved Dussie Mae. His jaded bandmates have seen it all by now, though, and they know Levee’s cocksure dreams will backfire. What they cannot anticipate are the frightening ways in which Levee’s grief has already hardened into powder kegs. If Ma finds small, sustaining triumph in refusal, Levee leans heavily on the blinding comforts of denial, and Boseman offers a deliriously frantic performance of contradictory extremes that eclipses the rest of the film when he’s at his most urgent and sweltering. Of the other bandmates, it’s Turman’s Toledo who most memorably emerges from Levee’s shadow: He’s the oldest of the musicians and the clearest-eyed in his surety that the rewards of individual artistic glory, the kind that Ma embraces and Levee pursues, will make scant difference in improving black lives in lasting ways.
Wolfe, best known as the razor-witted playwright of The Colored Museum and the original director of Angels in America, takes a hands-on approach in sending sparks of activity through the film’s claustrophobic spaces. In the small basement room where the band practices as they await Ma Rainey’s arrival, the camera often ricochets from man to man, as frenetic as the film’s briefer depiction of the Chicago streets above. Successful in the early scenes at animating what could otherwise feel static on screen, that perpetual motion may also somewhat undercut the boiling stillness that eventually erupts. Wilson’s trademark undercurrent of simmering rage against the divine—the same desperate resistance that distinguishes the climaxes of plays like Fences and The Piano Lesson—only sneaks in occasionally, and, when Levee’s restless hopelessness explodes into destructive action, it neither feels wrenchingly inevitable nor cathartically shocking.
That’s not through any fault of Boseman’s. Indeed, though Davis’ gritty, authoritarian presence at the mic complexingly layers the seductive highs of stardom and the exhausting veneer of Ma Rainey’s temporary, performative power, it’s Boseman who most movingly gives voice to the ghosts that haunt Wilson’s play. In his final role, Boseman meticulously charts the breakdown of a man discovering, within the mirages of 1920s blackness, that pursuit and escape, fleeing from and running toward, are inextricably intertwined.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Colman Domingo, Taylour Paige, Jonny Coyne, Michael Potts, Joshua Harto, Dusan Brown Director: George C. Wolfe Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2020
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