Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, we’re proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 04/29/2004, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran.
I’ve heard this a lot lately; I suppose you have too. We may have said it ourselves on occasion. It’s the common phrase uttered by people who believe a piece of fiction has drifted a little too far from reality. Alfred Hitchcock had a name for these people. He called them “the plausibles.”
Take a closer look
Spotting the flaws in films has become quite a popular game these days. Websites like MovieMistakes.com and MovieBloopers.com (ed. note: now defunct) contain vast collections of goofs, gaffes, glitches, flubs and mishaps divided into categories named “continuity,” “factual,” “anachronisms,” “plot holes,” “geography,” “visible crew/equipment” and “revealing mistakes.” In an ongoing quest to uncover the most blatant blunders ever committed to celluloid, anyone online is encouraged to submit a newfound error, and the most frequent contributors earn themselves a spot in the Member Top 20. “Take a closer look” is the proud tagline of the site Whoops! Movie Goofs. Indeed, all that nitpicking may seem pretty clever, but is it not the most rudimentary way of evaluating a work of art: to see if it resembles real life accurately? “Picasso, he can’t paint! My five-year-old can do that.”
Filmmaker Brian De Palma has often been ridiculed because of the supposedly ludicrous elements in some of his thrillers. His twisty plots and ultra-stylized visions are sometimes hard to swallow and provoke skeptical remarks like: How come the gangster still stands after being shot so many times? (Scarface) Why are the blood stains on the jewel thief’s shirt still bright red when they should have dried to a brown color during the seven years he spent in prison? (Femme Fatale) Why does the Indian take forever to kill a woman with that awkward giant drill? (Body Double) Why does the sound technician go through so much trouble to wire the call girl and send her off to meet a famous news reporter when he could have gone himself (and isn’t it a little too “convenient” that she is not able to recognize this reporter because she never watches the news)? (Blow Out)
Suspension of disbelief
De Palma never made much of an effort to defend these creative liberties, other than to say he is “bored by” or “too old for” reality to even care. The thriller genre has always been an easy target for the plausibles. Unlike the horror genre, thrillers cannot rely on the supernatural as the element of surprise and depend instead on ordinary factors such as chance, cause and effect. Consequently, if a logical error in a thriller seems blatant, the entire narrative construction may appear to fall down like a house of cards. On the other hand, drama has a logic of its own that needs to be taken into consideration too, otherwise there will be hardly a narrative to speak of. Paradoxes thus make suspension of disbelief a delicate balancing act. An emphasis on the sensible may make a movie more representative of real life, but all the exposition and excuses needed to cover up or fix the improbabilities tend to get in the way of the flow of the narrative. Hitchcock was very clear on this point:
“Aside from the waste of time, they make for gaps and flaws in the picture. Let’s be logical if you’re going to analyze everything in terms of plausibility and credibility, then no fiction can stand up to that approach, and you wind up doing a documentary.”
Hitchcock’s particular brand of storytelling was often improbable, but banal it was not. In order to achieve drama, the old master of manipulation argued that the dull bits of life have to be cut out, resulting in “a slice of cake” rather than a slice of life. He even went so far to claim that filmmakers should have total freedom to do as they like, “just as long as it’s not dull.” Still, as much as Hitchcock would have liked the contrary, the members of the audience do need some convincing. After all, without make-believe there is no movie magic. In the 1990s the Coen brothers came up with a marvelous workaround by opening up their purely fictional Fargo with the following title:
“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
A crude way of suspending disbelief, perhaps, but to those who took the message seriously—and there were many—the false introduction turned out to be sublimely effective. The profound influence of such a simply stated lie on the overall viewing experience says something about the value we attach to real events and about how little it takes to alter perception. The trick of the Coen brothers was later repeated to similar effect in movies like The Blair Witch Project and dozens of mockumentaries.
The rules of plausibility
Stanley Kubrick once observed that “most films don’t have any purpose other than to mechanically figure out what people want and to construct some artificial form of entertainment for them.” Our increasing focus on logic and cynical delight in spotting inconsistencies have made plausibility one of the main criteria for evaluation. We’ve collectively robbed the filmmaker of his poetic license and have pushed the artform in a corner where suspension of disbelief, a mere storytelling tool, seems to have become the highest obtainable goal for a filmmaker to achieve. This self-declared No-Bullshit position has increased public interest in films like The Usual Suspects and TV series like CSI; clever variations on straightforward narrative development that sidetrack skepticism by examining a series of “facts” in pursuit of Absolute Truth. Solid entertainment, for sure, but little more than a jigsaw puzzle to kill the time. Ironically enough, these popular examples have as little to do with the real world as any other piece of fiction out there. As long as everything is played by the rules of dramatic convention, the audience does not seem to notice.
Our frame of reference is formed by what we are accustomed to. Traditional Hollywood scriptwriting based on three-act structures, life-defining dilemmas, melodramatic character arcs and emotional pay-offs have seriously screwed up our sense of realism. What we experience as naturalistic in a movie is often nothing but a worn-out stereotype. We are conditioned to accept a hero who does not eat, sleep or shit for days in a row, that the light from the moon is blue, that cars explode as soon as crucial passengers have had the time to crawl out, that thunder and lightning is perceived in perfect sync, that no one bothers to say goodbye at the end of a telephone conversation and that leading ladies in full make-up wrap sheets around their naked bodies as soon as they rise from their beds. We ask no questions about all of this, but we wince at the “incoherencies” in movies that make a genuine effort to stray away from predictable paths.
Looking for truth
Why is realism held in such high regard anyway? Back in 1967 François Truffaut posed the following, most obvious explanation, aimed at the critical establishment:
“It’s sometimes said that a critic, by the very nature of his work, is unimaginative, and in a way, that makes sense, since imagination may be a deterrent to his objectivity. That lack of imagination might account for a predeliction for films that are close to real life.”
Everybody is a critic nowadays. The cult of plausibility might be our way of filtering a culture of information overload. With endless streams of images mirroring each other and continuous loops of resampled soundbites numbing our senses every second of the day, authenticity has become a thing to cherish. So much so that anything with a sheen of realism is automatically construed as more truthful. It is reasonable to assume that the Danish Dogme 95 movement has profited considerably from a cultural elite that had grown weary of audiovisual excess at the close of the 20th century and applauded a return to basic “truths,” not quite realizing that this hardcore take on cinéma vérité was just another opportunity for Lars von Trier and his fellow rebels to mislead the skeptical spectator all over again.
Context is king
Belief is a funny thing. Chuck Jones once said about the sense of absurdity in his animated work: “It doesn’t have to be realistic, as long as it’s believable.” It makes you wonder why a coyote surviving a fall from a cliff for the umpteenth time in a row is somehow more “believable” than Tony Montana taking a few bullets more than medically feasible. And now we’re asking ourselves that question: why do the plausibles seem to have less of a problem with Peter Jackson’s fantastical vision of Middle-earth or the mind-blowing fever dreams of David Lynch?
It has to do with context and expectation. A literal-minded audience that watches a Roadrunner cartoon is more than willing to stretch the imagination because the action takes place in a wacky universe where a total disregard for logic is part of the fun. Its far-outness makes it immune to a sensical approach. The reverse is true for Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s trilogy, in which a mythical world is presented with a sense of authenticity that many appreciate for its extraordinary attention to detail. Because Jackson’s screen retelling was treated as the reconstruction of a historical event, brought to life by elaborate visual effects, art direction, costume and set design founded upon a thoroughly formulated hypothetical culture, millions of people bought into it. And as far as Lynch is concerned—however weird and improbable his twisted tales may be, nowadays they fit more or less conveniently within the extremely flexible parameters of a genre he pioneered: the “mindfuck movie.” Much like Jacob’s Ladder, Abre Los Ojos, Pi, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Memento and Donnie Darko, Lynch’s films are surrealistic extravaganzas treading overtly subconscious territory, where we perceive the world distorted through the eyes of an outsider who lost all touch with reality.
Breaking the pattern
Things get much more confusing whenever something with a surface of reliability unravels on the screen. Comforted initially by the prospect of following a recognizable story logic, some viewers come to expect the certainties such a familiar narrative structure implies. Then, if something happens that falls outside the established framework, the plausibles spot it as fakery and cease caring.
Enter Brian De Palma: Ever the non-conformist, De Palma lures the spectator into familiar waters and then, halfway into the movie, flushes all certainties down the drain, reverses the roles of his antagonists, shifts drastically in tone, unveils the identity of the bad guy too early, uses deus ex machina to drown dramatic logic altogether, or worse: makes his femme fatale wake up in a bathtub to show it was all just a bloody dream! When traditional plotting prescribes that subtle clues must be handed out in advance to give the audience a fair shot at guessing the final twist, De Palma turns that expectation against us by subverting the genre itself as a form of misdirection. Providing reliable hints is not what this man is about. De Palma is interested in pulling the rug from under our feet and he does so with a graceful, almost sadistic style that borders on parody and often calls attention to itself. It is hardly surprising that such anarchic behavior has frequently maddened an audience spoon-fed on formulaic crowdpleasers.
Believe it or not, it’s the relative subtlety of De Palma’s deceptions that most infuriates his detractors. To literalists who take his films at face value Brian De Palma doesn’t exaggerate enough to be forgiven for his stylistic eccentricities, schizophrenic obsessions, filmic references, Brechtian devices, off-the-wall inversions and violations of convention. In this light, the plausibles may not view De Palma as a delirious postmodernist, but as a painfully inept, cheating realist. His self-reflexive use of the medium alienates them as much as it mesmerizes others. To be reminded that they are watching “only a movie” pulls the plausibles out of the dream and makes them wonder why they wasted their time looking at something that did not, will not, could not actually happen.
The paradox of fiction
A fair question, actually. Why are we compelled to believe in something that we know to be untrue? How can we be emotionally moved, sometimes to the core, by anything lacking a reasonable dose of verity? Many books and articles have been written about what Noël Caroll called the “Paradox of Fiction.” All of them go out of their way to explain what intellectual mechanism enables fiction to convince our minds that a murder is taking place in front of our eyes, without causing the proper response for us to get up and call 911. In his wonderful article, “How is Disbelief Suspended?” Pablo Ortega-Rodriguez comes to the conclusion that human beings are able to hold a certain “double belief”:
“Think of cases where we execute actions which only make sense if we believe that it is at least reasonably possible to succeed in their objective, although we are in some level deeply convinced that they are completely pointless, as when we are watching the last minutes of a football match wherein our team is losing by many goals: very rarely do we turn off the TV set before the final whistle, and there is a sudden and vivid upset when that ending occurs, although a few seconds before we stated with complete sincerity (seconded by our knowledge of the game) that nothing could be done. In such cases, hope makes us irrational, in that it is not settled with the things we do know and believe about the real world, forming a kind of second ’blind’ belief simultaneous with our ’intelligent’ belief, to the point of seeming to pertain to a second individual inside us.”
Sometimes the improbable makes perfect sense. Not only because escapism helps us to cope with reality, but just as much because fantasy can function as a short-cut to a deeper, poetic truth. Fiction has always been about imagining our lives in a wholly different light, testing ordinary dilemmas within extreme situations and projecting ourselves onto anything we’re not. Metaphors and hyperbole provide a level of abstraction that is often needed to illuminate universal concerns. Faith, fear, love, hope, sex and death: they’re all very much part of the fabric of everyday reality.
Realism versus formalism
Director Todd Haynes defended his radical stylizing in the critically acclaimed Far from Heaven as follows:
“I think the best movies are the ones where the limitations of representation are acknowledged, where the filmmakers don’t pretend those limitations don’t exist. Films aren’t real; they’re completely constructed. All forms of film language are a choice, and none of it is the truth.”
The “impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it” is a more romantic notion than André Bazin has led us to believe. Cinematic realism is only superficial; no matter how naturalistic a filmmaker intends to record reality, what ends up on the screen is hardly objective. What is in or out of the frame depends on perspective, focus and selection, just as much as editing is a manipulative process that places things out of context and modulates time into bits that “matter” and bits that “don’t.” The same can be said about every other part of the filmmaking process, right up to the illusion of movement caused by the projection of a succession of stills. Brian De Palma makes no secret of it: he refuted Jean-Luc Godard’s credo “cinema is truth 24 frames a second” by restating that “the camera lies 24 times a second.”
The above can easily be read as a plea for the formalist tradition, were it not that such one-sided devotion is what has made the plausible argument so problematic to begin with. Film theory would be better off if it moved beyond the classical realist-formalist opposition, since a preference for one school of aesthetics over the other is counter-productive and simply not very relevant anymore. The truth can be revealed in the most accurately visualized naturalistic detail, just as much as it can in the most wildly imaginative allegory. In the most interesting cases, film does both at once. Of all the arts, cinema is unique in its ability to simultaneously capture the world as it is and the way we interpret it, juxtaposing objective and subjective points of view in a curious blend of fact with personal ideology. De Palma’s openly manipulative directing style and self-reflexive deconstructions of the form are ways of showing that perception is limited, that looks deceive and that we should never, ever judge on appearances. This is the truth within the lie. Apparantly, cinema is truth at 24 lies a second.
It takes a certain degree of sophistication to recognize dualities like these and with it comes an acknowledgment of the mechanics behind the magic. Sadly, even though the value of self-reflexivity is widely embraced in literature, theatre and painting, it is far from popular in the movies. Unless a touch of irony delivers us from the medium’s misleading photorealistic surface that blinds us to the layers of meaning underneath, self-conscious cinema mainly succeeds at taking audiences “out of it.” As if escapism is all the medium is good for.
Reevaluating De Palma
Let’s get back to the “flukes” mentioned earlier and see how well they stand up to a closer examination:
How come the gangster still stands after being shot so many times?
De Palma elevates the deplorable career of Tony “Scarface” Montana to equally mythic proportions as the American Dream of which he represents the flip side.
Why are the blood stains on the jewel thief’s shirt still bright red when they should have dried to a brown colour during the seven years he spent in prison?
Because Black Tie’s release in Femme Fatale is a brilliant visual gag that practically oozes tongue-in-cheek. And if you haven’t been paying attention: this image is part of a dream.
Why is the Indian taking forever to kill a woman with that awkward giant drill?
No matter what De Palma has said to defend himself from allegations of misogyny, the drill scene really does a magnificent job of symbolizing the act of penetration, or even rape. Body Double is a story that deals with issues like voyeurism, sexual obsession and female objectification. In an obvious provocation to his detractors at the time, De Palma forces the spectator into the role of the voyeur and makes them complicit in the action. During the prolonged murder scene, we are torn between wanting to save Jake’s object of desire and wanting to have her for ourselves, which makes Jake’s fruitless rescue attempt, the unseen kill and the streams of blood pouring from the hole an analogy for a number of things, along them being premature ejaculation.
Why does the sound technician go through so much trouble to wire the callgirl and send her off to meet a famous news reporter when he could have gone himself (and isn’t it a little too “convenient” that she is not able to recognize this reporter because she never watches the news)?
For Jack Terri in Blow Out, the situation at hand is an ideal excuse to try and win his dignity back. By making his odd decision, he consciously grabs the chance to reenact a traumatic event from his past in the hope to redeem himself by “covering all the bases” this time. If Blow Out is a microcosm for the political scandals and assassinations that took hold of the United States throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, then Sally’s death can be seen as America’s loss of innocence personified. The fact that Sally does not watch the news emphasizes her naïve purity (despite her job as a call girl, which hints at the fact that America was never that innocent to begin with), while Frank Donahue’s identity as a mask for the evil Burke illustrates the corrupting forces behind mass media.
Although these explanations are my own and won’t please everyone, they at least show how open the films of De Palma are to interpretation and how heavy they are on subtext. Surely a lot of people will have overlooked this significant quality in De Palma’s oeuvre, too busy as they were pointing out the pathetic “slip-ups.” It just proves how hard it is to beguile the skeptic. In order to let a work of fiction speak to you, you must be willing to believe.
Review: Ophelia Wants, and Fails, to Transform a Victim into a Girl-Power Icon
Transforming Ophelia’s abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of Hamlet.1.5
Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein of the same name, Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia reimagines Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of the troubled Danish prince’s would-be betrothed. Here, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) is a tomboy forced into court-life femininity, her tragedy rewritten as a triumph, but it’s hard to say that she comes out, in the end, either as a more full-blooded character or as a girl-power icon.
Given Hamlet’s sustained cultural influence, Ophelia might be described as the original “refrigerator woman,” the girlfriend or wife whose shocking death serves to motivate the male main character to action. In Shakespeare’s play, the vengeance-obsessed Hamlet callously drives her to suicide, first by spurning her as part of his insanity charade, and then by accidentally murdering her father, Polonius. Gone mad due to her lover’s too-perfect performance of madness, Ophelia drowns herself in a river, her death exacerbating both Hamlet’s anguish and his simmering feud with her brother, Laertes.
In the film, Ophelia recounts her side of the story in voiceover: how she, the common-born daughter of an advisor to the Danish crown, was taken in by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and raised as one of her handmaidens; how she became privy to Gertrude’s affair with the king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen, glowering throughout from within a villainously matted Severus Snape wig); and how she fell in love with Hamlet (George MacKay), the crown prince with the awful bowl cut. But first, the film opens with a fake-out, the camera skimming along the water of a river until it lands on Ophelia’s floating body, surrounded by water lilies and other vegetation in a vision of tragic, all-natural femininity. It turns out that she’s alive, and that floating peacefully in the river is just a habit of hers, which has the unintentional effect of fooling us into thinking the film’s about to end every time Ophelia slinks into the water.
Ophelia looks and feels like a syndicated ‘90s television special, with its blandly lit sets, skeletal romance between the girlish Ophelia and its bro-ish version of Hamlet, and haphazard imagining of 15th-century speech and customs. The film can never quite decide whether it should be exploding or paying homage to Shakespeare’s text. What we see isn’t simply the events of the play from Ophelia’s perspective, but it also isn’t something radically new. Unintentional humor results: In the well-known scene from the play in which Hamlet first maniacally spurns Ophelia, they whisper secret messages to each other between simplified Shakespearean lines—margin notes as dialogue. Rather than an alternate take on the play, such moments simply shoehorn new material into the old. Other lines clumsily rewrite the play’s sexism by turning Hamlet’s verbal abuse into lovers’ code: When Hamlet advises Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery,” he’s just telling her to hide out from the coming violence.
McCarthy’s film concocts an original plot involving a medicine woman in the woods outside the castle who’s a dead ringer for the queen (and is also played by Watts), which ultimately places Ophelia in the Danish grand hall as the bloody climax from Hamlet plays out. In this moment, Ophelia, who’s been known to everyone in the court since childhood, improbably passes as a male page because her shock of red hair is a few inches shorter. It might be argued that resonant whispers and unlikely misrecognitions are a part of the Shakespeare toolbox, but Ophelia otherwise makes few pretentions to replicating the tropes of the Elizabethan stage. Early in the film there’s some woeful faux-Shakespearean banter between Hamlet and Ophelia, but the filmmakers quickly abandon a dialogue-driven approach in favor of a plot-heavy structure of court intrigue and scandalous revelations.
Ophelia, in fact, ends the film at a nunnery, a twist which completes the process of transforming Hamlet’s abusive words—symbols in the original play of the blurry line between cruelty and its simulation—into the signs of true love. In the end, Ophelia’s no longer defined by her victimhood, but transforming her abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of English literature’s most well-known drama.
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George McKay, Tom Felton, Dominic Mefham Director: Claire McCarthy Screenwriter: Semi Chellas Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up
The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.1.5
The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.
Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.
In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.
Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.
The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.
Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.
Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family
The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.2.5
Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?
At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.
The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.
Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.
One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident
Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.2
Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.
It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.
As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.
While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.
Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.
Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón
Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.
Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.
Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.
Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.
If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.
Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.
Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.
More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.
And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”
Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects
Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.2
Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.
The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.
Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.
By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.
Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
The Best Films of 2019 So Far
Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.
In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.
And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.
But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.
That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown
3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac
Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)
The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac
The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)
Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg
Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)
A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti
Black Mother (Khalik Allah)
Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray
Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same
By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.2
Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.
The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.
It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.
Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
The Best Films of 2019 So Far
Review: Legion’s Unhinged Final Season Plunges Us into an Unknowable Mind
Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same
Interview: Calexico and Iron & Wine Talk Years to Burn and Collaboration
Blu-ray Review: Jordan Peele’s Us on Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Review: Ophelia Wants, and Fails, to Transform a Victim into a Girl-Power Icon
Review: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up
Review: Tony Richardson’s The Border on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family
Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident
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