There was little to pity about the Rolling Stones in September of 1965. â(I Canât Get No) Satisfactionâ was outselling the Beatles, with the band on the cusp of mega-stardom and half-amazed to be so. On stage, they still got to play a lot of straight blues, while backstage they were hatching something altogether newer. Recut by Mick Gochanour and Robin Klein from Peter Whiteheadâs original film, The Rolling Stones: Charlie Is My DarlingâIreland 1965 captures this charged moment in the bandâs history with a stylish intimacy absent from Stones in Exile or even Shine a Light. Charlie Is My Darlingâs approach is more D.A. Pennebaker than Martin Scorsese: Combining rare early concert footage with well-chosen scenes of the boys back at the hotel, the doc weaves its footage into a meditation on sex, art, and money among a band not yet wearied of all three.
Across two days and four gigs in Dublin and Belfast, the Stones offer heat-laced renditions of âThis Could Be the Last Time,â âTime Is on My Side,â and âPain in My Heart,â as well as the brand new âSatisfaction.â The stages are small, the performances manic but tight, the performers unremitting in their glee. Scenes of the Stones backstage, or goofing in hotel rooms, have been culled sedulously from what must have been hours of pure drunken nonsense; weâre privy to glimmering little moments, plus ominous intimations of whatâs to come. Mick and Keith argue over a line as they compose âSittinâ on a Fenceâ (later to appear on Flowers), before making up over an acoustic âTell Meâ (from the bandâs debut). Caught between mockery and admiration, they futz around with the Beatlesâ âIâve Just Seen a Faceâ and âEight Days a Week.â Among other things, the scene reminds us that the Stones worked best when the rivalries were external.
Elsewhere in the film, Jagger complains about pop musicâs tendency to be âall romantic,â by which he means it doesnât evoke a strain of everyday madnessâas he puts it, âcoming home and feeling very screwed up about things.â Then there are the moments of portent. Brian Jones observes that âthe future as a Rolling Stone is very uncertain,â and that heâs âalways been a bit apprehensive about the future.â (The band would find him drowned in a swimming pool four years later.) Meanwhile, we see hints of the frenzy the Stones could whip an audience into: At one gig, the band soldiers through Bo Diddleyâs âItâs All Rightâ as the stage is flooded with marauding teens. When Bill Wyman is asked for comment on a girl whose legs were fractured in one pile-on, the bassist can only muster a âWell.âŠâ Whether thereâs a through line from these stampedes to the blood at Altamont in 1969 is left to the viewerâs discretion.
Interspersed throughout is a one-on-one interview between Whitehead and Jagger addressing the economic basis for the rise of rock nâ roll. âThe kids,â Jagger says, âare looking for some different moral value because they know theyâre gonna get all the things that they thought impossible 50 years ago.â If for centuries, humans have been âcoming home and feeling really screwed up about things,â the emerging versions of commerce and self-regard were born of a market where the old pieties no longer applied. Charlie Is My Darling emphasizes the accompanying musical innovation in liquorized backstage sessions over acoustic guitars, as the band repurposed its sources, transposing the contrarian code of the blues into more modern pathologies with riffs to match. Jagger and Richards wrote â19th Nervous Breakdownâ on the 1965 tour, and the period marked a transition between racy rock nâ roll and heavier, or at least more conflicted, offerings. Still, itâs a happy and exciting cusp, and the fly-on-the-wall filming induces regular surprises, both musical and otherwise.
Cast: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts Director: Mick Gochanour Distributor: Brainstorm Media Running Time: 67 min Rating: NR Year: 1966 Buy: Video
Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year
A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festivalâs competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.
Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europeâs most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festivalâs competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as JoĂŁo Nicolauâs Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcĂ©, LuĂs (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as heâs past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.
LuĂs, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.
Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive whoâs frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bumâs dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this yearâs special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.
Runar Runarssonâs Echo isnât exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a childâs funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But itâs delightful to behold Runarssonâs sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the countryâs collective mental health.
Yet while the filmâs underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of âJingle Bellsâ amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that weâre looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kidsâ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.
However, itâs Echoâs sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland thatâs equal parts bleak and beguiling.
A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich KĂ¶hler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.
KĂ¶hler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, itâs easy to share Ursâs disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boyâs earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as heâs the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.
While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Adeâs masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Yearâs nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7â17.
Interview: J. Hoberman Talks Make My Day, Ronald Reagan, and â80s Movie Culture
Hoberman discusses how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered Reaganâs presidency.
The poster boy of American conservatism, the bar to which all Republicans would unashamedly evaluate future candidates, and yet now seemingly lower on a weekly basis, Ronald Reagan was an ideal movie star with an idealized view of the past. His perfect America would be equivalent to the opening shots of red roses, green lawns, and white picket fences that kick off Blue Velvet, while Americaâs reality would be what transpires once Bobby Vintonâs song concludes and the swarming ants are revealed beneath the surface.
A time of Hollywood blockbusters and silver screen patriots, macho men and teens headed back to the future, the 1980s, while not considered a golden movie age, saw a symbiotic relationship between American film and the nationâs chosen leader. How else to account for Reagan proposing his âStar Warsâ strategic defense initiative in March of 1983, a mere two months before the release of the yearâs top grossing film, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?
With his methodically researched new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman takes a sociological approach to discovering how the art of filmmaking, and the business of moviegoing, influenced, mirrored, and altered the goings-on of our 40th presidentâs administration. And on the occasion of the bookâs release and accompanying Film at Lincoln Center series, which samples feature films from the â80s, I spoke with Hoberman about the first Reagan screen performance he ever saw, being a working film critic during the âAge of Reagan,â and the unexpected rise of real estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
One of your most revered books is Vulgar Modernism, a collection of reviews and essays written during the â80s without the benefit, or trappings, of historical hindsight. Now 30-some-odd years later, youâve taken a step back to take a look at the bigger picture of the decade. What was that experience like?
I should say that this book was the culmination of two earlier books, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. Make My Day is the end of a trilogy. When I began writing the trilogy, I didnât realize how central Reagan would be to it, but by the time I started Make My Day, he had become, in effect, the protagonist of the entire trilogy. Make My Day was different from the other two books. Itâs not just that I lived through this period, but that I was then a working critic. How was I going to deal with that? In the earlier books, I went out of my way to quote critics and others who wrote about movies because I was very interested in how these films were initially received. In the case of Make My Day, however, it seemed absurd to quote other critics when I was there myself. It took me a while to come to that conclusion because my impulse wasnât to put myself in the book and yet I realized that I would ultimately have to.
I found that my opinion of the various movies discussed hadnât changed all that much. My opinion of Reagan was modified somewhat, in that I saw him as a more complicated figure than I did during the 1980s, but I also believe my response to him in the â80s was true to the moment. Thatâs why I included a number of longer pieces in the book, while also annotating them, so that one could see that I wasnât just reusing the material without thinking about it.
You note that each volume can be read in chronological order, the order in which they were published, or as standalone installments. I took it up after finishing your and Jonathan Rosenbaumâs Midnight Movies, and it felt like I was emerging from the pre-â80s underground to a Reaganized American society that had become depressingly anything but countercultural. What was it like being on the underground and Hollywood beat as a critic throughout those years?
I didnât really start reviewing the blockbuster films until around 1984. I was the Village Voiceâs second-string critic when Andrew Sarris, the first-string critic, fell ill, and I took his spot for a while. As a result, I was reviewing movies that I might otherwise not have. To make things interesting for myself, I began reviewing these movies from a political and ideological perspective. Even when Andy came back, that stayed with me. So, for example, there were a lot of action films during that period that Andy was very glad not to review, like Top Gun, but I did those while also reviewing foreign films, avant-garde films, documentaries, and so on. I always said that I could never be a first-string critic for a newspaper. I would have lost my mind having a steady diet of big Hollywood movies! I would have had to mix things up.
While midnight movies arenât the primary focus of Make My Day, the underground did find a way into your reviews of â80s blockbusters. I recall a review in the Voice titled âWhite Boys: Lucas, Spielberg, and the Temple of Dumbâ in which you tear down the nostalgic Indiana Jones prequel while praising Jack Smithâs nostalgic Normal Love. Was it maddening for you to review the latest Spielberg while underground artists concurrently made the same points to much smaller audiences?
That was really something that came from the heart. I was outraged by Temple of Doom, by its attitude, and I was really sick of these guys, Spielberg and Lucas. I wanted to bring out that there were other forms of filmmaking and other ways of dealing with this material. I was making a point, yes, but it was something that was fueled by emotion rather than reason.
Were there any Spielberg films, or Spielberg-adjacent films like Gremlins or Poltergeist, that you found less than risible throughout the Reagan years?
There were some that I preferred. I liked Gremlins quite a bit, and I enjoyed Back to the Future, which is Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. At the time, I didnât much care for Poltergeist, but when I looked at it again for the book, I thought it was interesting in terms of its pathology. I should also say that I liked Jaws and E.T., to a degree, although it was no Blade Runner.
Though primarily concerned with Reganâs political reign, you also dig deep into his filmography, noting how his sole villainous role, in The Killers, has always prompted a vocal reaction from every audience youâve watched it with. Why do you think that is?
Well, Iâm not sure thatâs still true. A friend recently saw The Killers at Film Forum and told me he was sort of shocked that people didnât respond to the scene where Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson. The first time I saw The Killers, which was, I think, in June of 1969, I didnât expect to see Reagan in it. I donât think I had seen him in a movie before. I was well aware of who he was, of course, and I hated him because I had been at Berkeley the previous summer, when students were public enemy number one and there were disturbances every nightâthe whole thing was extremely compelling for me as a 19-year-old. The point I wanted to make was that my whole view of Reagan was predicated on The Killers. To me, he seemed to be playing himself. I had a very naĂŻve response. I couldnât understand why he would do the role. I mean, what crazy hubris prompted him to show what he dreamed of becoming on screen? I recognize my response as primitive, but it also demonstrates the power of movie images. I didnât see him as acting, even though he clearly is. I saw it as him projecting his evil, bastardly essence.
Speaking of essence, itâs odd re-watching Donald Trumpâs numerous cameos in American film and television. Unlike Reaganâs silver-screen presence, Trump literally always played himself: an obscenely rich braggadocio. Whereas Reaganâs âlovableâ persona no doubt helped his later career in politics, Trumpâs media appearances helped to fortify his reputation as an arrogant huckster.
This is the point I tried to make at the end of the book. I was surely thinking about Trump a lot while writing the book, but he only became president when I was close to finishing it. Trump may have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesnât come as a result of the movies. Heâs a celebrity and a celebrity is someone whoâs able to project a cartoon version of themselves, or a larger-than-life version of themselves, into the media world: TV, the tabloid press, and so on. Trump is being true to this persona. I didnât really see Trumpâs presidency coming. For me, he was a New York City character, a local celebrity who was regularly exposed in the Village Voiceâs narrative of New York City corruption. I had no sense of how he existed to the rest of America, in Celebrity Apprentice. Clearly thatâs what put him over, or at least helped to put him over. That and his appearances on Fox News as a kind of pundit and even his involvement with professional wrestling.
As you mention in your book, the uncomfortably awkward 1979 CBS Ted Kennedy sit-down interview with Roger Mudd ultimately derailed Kennedyâs attempt at a presidential run. Itâs hard to imagine, given the feckless attempts by our current political leaders to appear like an everyman, that current presidential candidatesâ chances could be derailed by the televised struggle to answer a basic question. If anything, we might view the guffaw as endearing and humanizing. Trump says dumb stuff on a daily basis, and we all just accept it. Have we become desensitized to politicians being put on the spot and not being able to come up with succinct answers?
I think itâs different for different candidates. Being the younger brother of J.F.K., who was the first real political star, created a lot of expectations. People credit Kennedyâs success in the 1960 election with his appearance in the first debate, for looking so much better than Nixon. That may be simplistic, but itâs not simplistic for people to think that TV had something to do with Kennedy becoming president. I think this is a case of âlive by the sword, die by the sword,â that his brother just stumbled so badly in that interview, in what was essentially his television debut. He did go on all the way to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, but the myth of the Kennedy charm and invincibility was destroyed by that interview.
Looking at subsequent presidents, Reagan certainly had an elastic sense of reality. But in his distortions and lies and misstatements, he was by and large upbeat and, when he wasnât, he was at least coherent. Trump lies so continuously that you feel that that must be part of his appeal for his base, that heâs just going to make this stuff up. They think itâs funny or entertaining or maybe that it represents a âgreater degree of authenticity.â
There had been a very interesting point made by Theodor W. Adorno about Hitlerâs appeal. Iâm not saying that Trump is Hitler, but heâs a demagogue and Hitler was too. Adorno, who lived through Hitlerâs lies, made the point that intellectuals and serious people didnât get Hitlerâs appeal. Before he came to power, he just seemed like a clown. There was something ridiculous about Hitlerâs assertions and his tantrums. What they didnât realize was thatâs precisely what his fans liked about him. I think thatâs also the case with Trump and his supporters.
If Nashville, as you point out in the book, foresaw the real-life presidential assassination attempts that were soon to come, could you see the same cinematic influences happening today? Are there films today that you think are foreshadowing things that could come into fruition within our own political future?
Nashville was a movie made at a time when movies were much more central to American culture than they are now. It was made by a filmmaker, Robert Altman, who was directly addressing, as an artist, what was going on. I bracketed Nashville with Jaws because in some respects, Jaws is a similar movie, although Iâm not sure if Spielberg was consciously making an allegory. Some things in the film are political, for example the behavior of the Mayor of Amity, but beyond that the movie itself was utterly central to American culture. There was nothing more important during the summer of 1975 than Jaws. Thereâs no movie that has that kind of centrality anymore, nor do movies as a whole.
A number of television shows seemed to be predicting Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election. There were shows like Madam Secretary and Veep and Homeland, strong, female, political heroes, or, in the case of Veep, comic. But what were they compared to Celebrity Apprentice? Those aforementioned shows were very feeble in terms of reaching an audience and I think it was more a projection of the people who made it. When I look at movies now, and I have to say that I donât see as many movies as I used to, I see some that seem to manifest things that are in the air. Jordan Peeleâs Get Out would be the best example of this. That movie was made and conceived while Obama was president, but it certainly projected the post-Trump mood. Quentin Tarantinoâs Once Upon a TimeâŠin Hollywood is interesting because, on the one hand, itâs a movie about 1969, and yet itâs also a movie about 2019. It canât help but manifest some of our current fantasies and tensions. But even if it had a bigger audience than Nashville, people just arenât taking it the same way.
And Once Upon a TimeâŠin Hollywood presents a cinematic take that has a romanticized, almost fetishistic view of a 1969 that never truly existed, at least not the way Tarantino wishes it didâŠ
Well, thatâs certainly one way to look at it. I would put it somewhat differently, but we can let people discover for themselves if they havenât seen it!
The book also talks a great deal about the revisionism and idealization of specific time periods that were said to represent wholesome Americana. The â50s is a big one, but as you point out, the moviesâ view of the â50s were drastically different from the one the world actually experienced. I remember growing up in the â90s convinced Happy Days was a TV show not just about the â50s, but from the â50s itself.
That makes perfect sense, and I think other people share that same experience. The genius of that show is that it portrayed the â50s âas it should have been.â Jean Baudrillard has a memorable description of walking in to see Peter Bogdanovichâs 1971 black-and-white film The Last Picture Show and, for a moment, thinking it was actually a movie from the period it depicted: the early â50s. It was a hyper-real version of it. Thatâs what Happy Days was. I think Reaganâs genius was to be able to do that on a larger scale, to conjure up an idealized â60s almost out of whole cloth, vague memories, old television, and old movies in his own conviction, even if that was ultimately a fantasy. It was an idealization of the period.
On the occasion of your bookâs release, youâve programmed a selection of double features for an upcoming series at Film at Lincoln Center. Outside of a closeness in release dates, like The Last Temptation of Christ and They Live, what went into the pairing up of certain titles?
I appreciate that question. I really love the concept of double bills. Whenever itâs possible, I like to teach using double bills, because then the movies can talk to each otherâand I donât have to talk as much. Ideally the movies should comment on each other. The reason for including The Last Temptation of Christ was a bit tricky. I thought that the response that it got certainly looked forward to the culture wars of the â90s. There was such hostility directed toward that movie and, by extension, the movie industry as a whole. As Trump would say, it was as âan enemy of the people.â And to me, They Live seems to be the bluntest, most direct critique of Reaganism ever delivered, and it was delivered at the very, very end of his presidency. In a sense, it was already over, as the film came out just before the 1988 presidential election. I see both They Live and The Last Temptation as political movies, one overtly political and one that was taken in a political manner.
Review: Vita & Virginia Leaves the Nuances of a Love Affair to the Imagination
The film frequently falls back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.2
When capricious socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) first glimpses Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) at a bohemian party in Chanya Buttonâs Vita & Virginia, the latter is the midst of a dance, her head leaning back and arms freely swaying in the air. Itâs an uncharacteristic moment of outgoingness for the author, who by this time in the early 1920s has had only modest success, and the throbbing ambient techno music that underscores the scene lends her and Vitaâs desires a strange and striking modernity. But the film doesnât fully commit to such anachronistic flourishes in its portrait of the two womenâs tumultuous love affair, instead frequently falling back on the stately demeanor of countless other historical biopics and period pieces.
Vitaâs deviousness and unpredictability does, for a time, make for some compelling proto-feminist drama, thanks in large part to Artertonâs bold performance. Vita is amusingly blasĂ© in the face of both her heiress mother, Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini), who protests to her dressing as a man and openly having affairs with women, and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), completely dismissing his concerns about maintaining their marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, Debicki is left with the difficult task of dramatizing Virginiaâs escalating strife, and with little help from a script that basically skirts over the serious mental health issues that plagued Woolf throughout her life. In fact, Virginiaâs joys and struggles as they arise from Vitaâs hot-and-cold treatment of her are rarely given any concrete form aside from the occasional ham-fisted touch of CGI-enhanced magical realism, as when vines grow out of the woodwork when Virginia returns home after first sleeping with Vita.
Outside of these moments, Virginiaâs interiority is given similarly blunt expression through her relationships with her passive yet understanding husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), her lively artist sister, Vanessa (Emerald Fennell), and Vanessaâs roommate, the flamboyant painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). Each of these archetypes always seems to be conveniently on hand to explicitly outline the details of Virginiaâs emotional state. The only time her thoughts and emotions, as well as Vitaâs, are articulated with any nuance is through a series of epistolary interludes that see Arterton and Debicki reading the love letters that Sackville-West and Woolf wrote to one another. And yet, these moments are so awkwardly and unimaginatively incorporated into the film, with the actresses speaking their words directly into the camera, that the lettersâ flowery language is effectively drained of its poeticism.
Vita & Virginia eventually lands on Woolf writing her breakthrough novel, Orlando, which was inspired by her relationship with Sackville-West. But as Button gives us only a vague sense of what drew these two vastly different women together, she leaves to the imagination how Sackville-West had such a lasting and profound effect on one of the great authors of the 20th century. In Orlando, Woolf writes, âIllusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth.â Thereâs more ambiguity, complexity, or passion in that one line regarding the elusive and illusory qualities of Vitaâs love for Virginia than there is in all of Buttonâs film.
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando, Emerald Fennell, Gethin Anthony, Rory Fleck Byrne, Karla Crome Director: Chanya Button Screenwriter: Chanya Button Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Ready or Not Ribs the One Percent with More Laughs than Horror
Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the filmâs violence come close to matching that of its plot.2.5
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillettâs horror film Ready or Not is centered around a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, and if that sounds unconscionably silly, at least the filmmakers are aware of that. Guy Busick and Ryan Murphyâs screenplay embraces the inherent absurdity of this premise, concocting an elaborate narrative justification as to why a bunch of grown-ups would be engaged in a murderous version of the classic kidsâ game. It all boils down to a family ritual: Anyone marrying into the obscenely wealthy Le Domas clan must play a game at midnight on their wedding night, and this game, which is selected at random by a puzzle box, could be anything from old maid to checkers.
Bright-eyed good girl Grace (Samara Weaving), whoâs just wedded the familyâs favorite son, Alex (Mark OâBrien), gets picked to play hide-and-seek, and thatâs where the trouble begins. Because while the other games proceed in perfectly ordinary fashion, the Le Domases have made a violent mythology surrounding this one game: The family must capture its newest member and slaughter them in a ritual sacrifice before sunrise, or else each family member will be cursed to die. And so, the Le Domases give Grace time to hide anywhere she likes in their sprawling country manor before they set out with rifles and crossbows to find her.
Gradually, the convoluted family mythology comes to overtake the goofy simplicity of the filmâs premise, and to the point that one is apt to forget that a game of hide-and-seek is even going on. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett keep things lively with a lavish visual style that nods toward Kubrickâs The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and even Barry Lyndon, while still maintaining an identity of its own. Lit mostly with candles, the sprawling villa in which the film mostly takes place assumes a creepy aura reminiscent of the opulently spooky house in Robert Wiseâs The Haunting. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillettâs mildly showy use of long takes and lithe camera movements exhibit an ironic grandiosity that suits the filmâs light-hearted sadism.
Funny but not quite a comedy, Ready or Not, to its credit, leans in to the arbitrariness of its own myths and rules. Some of the members of the Le Domas clan arenât even sure they believe in their family curse, and they bicker over whether they should be allowed to utilize modern technology, such as their mansionâs security cameras, to track Grace down. But the filmâs constant reiteration and reevaluation of the Le Domasesâ goofy traditions can sometimes make things feel repetitive and slightly exhausting, impressions which are enhanced by the lackadaisical handling of the filmâs kills. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett primarily employ violence for laughs, but they frequently flub the punchline with a confusingly quick edit or an awkwardly shaky handheld shot. Only in its giddily gory finale does the outrageousness of the filmâs violence come close to matching that of its plot. But this gonzo capper has the effect of retroactively diminishing the tame, uninventive bloodshed that preceded it.
Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Nicky Guadagni, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett Screenwriter: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Jawline Takes a Measured Look at Social Media Stardom
The film is refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what itâs like to be a commodity with a nervous system.3
The perma-glossy avatar of our profit-minded social media era is the cheery influencer, that species of professional bon vivant who seems perpetually more put together than anyone could be. Liza Mandelupâs debut documentary feature, Jawline, traces the dynamics that drive such influencers, their intensely adoring fans, and the malicious managers who try to turn a profit on them, and itâs refreshing for its lack of pearl-clutching, its ambivalence in assessing what itâs like to be a commodity with a nervous system.
The film begins on Austyn Tester, a sweet, poor Tennessee teen with a few thousand followers across Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly, and YouNow whoâs itching to escape his hometown and become an online celebrity. Mandelup mostly focuses on his daily efforts toward achieving that fame, including his semi-disciplined uploading regimen and the many retakes required to snag the perfect post. He spends much of his times posting, singing, and assuaging his young fansâ personal frustration on live chat. Only a slight variant on his actual personality, Austynâs online brand, a âfollow your dreams, no matter whatâ sort of positivity, would be unremarkable if it werenât for its apparent impact on his teen girl fans.
Several of these fans are interviewed throughout the film. Each one is grappling with unique problems, from abusive families to bullying, though all of them justify their interest in Austyn and his peers for their willingness to listen, emphasizing the therapeutic effect of his livestreams. Jawline displays a certain evenhandedness here. The girlsâ intense reliance on a stranger for comfort is uncomfortable to watch, but the film doesnât trivialize this dependence. In an act of fan service, Austyn meets with a small group of girls at a local mall where their intense affections make themselves plain. Mandelup records them pushing an uncomfortable Austyn to ride around motorized stuffed animals so they can post it on Instagram, all the while demanding affirmations from him. Later, one girl forces him to share his phone number with her. Here, Jawline suggests a limit to his affection for them, if it ever existed, as well as the emotionally transactional nature of the relationship between fan and influencer.
The libidinal peak of this surreal relationship, though, occurs when Austyn and other influencers go on tour, performing shows for adoring fans with the hopes of upping their follower count in the process. On stage, the teens pose with fans, sing, and dance, all without any clear knack for it, in what amount to in-person livestreams. In this moment, there isnât much that can be said about these largely cookie-cutter performers except that theyâre toned, twinky, and peppy, and their fans love them for it. Mandelupâs footage of their displays is transfixing, not because the performances are spectacularâthe shows are expensive to attend but often happen in dingy unadorned venuesâbut because the nearly contentless shows are only about the fansâ adulation. From an outsidersâ perspective, thereâs a dizzying mismatch between the palpable intensity of their fervor and what theyâre actually responding to.
How to relate to teen girls, how to monetize whatâs relatable, and how to make the content more relatable and more profitable? These are the sorts of questions pondered by social media talent manager Michael Weist. Heâs great to watch in the way reality TV villains are, as his success is propelled by a well-known combo of business sense, greed, and probable chicanery (appropriately, he finds himself in legal trouble by the filmâs end). Around 21 years old, Weist has somehow marketed himself into a role as an authority figure on social media stardom, roping in young wannabe celebs and growing their followings. Heâs turned a house in L.A. into a content factory, living there with his clients while haranguing them into posting, recording, and being on call 24/7 for their needs. Ever-candid, Weist reveals his long game at one point without being prompted: to run influencers through the content mill before theyâre old enough to drink, at which point he can move on to the next hot prospect seeking fame.
At the heart of Weistâs efforts is the exploitation of Austynâs more successful colleagues to commodify young girlsâ emotions. Jawline is most fascinating when it tracks this process in action. Mandelup doesnât draw as much attention to it as she could, meandering through IRL details that donât quite elucidate or explain as much as they pretend to and donât measure up to the retina-display realities of virtual stardom. A similar problem shows up in the documentaryâs way of depicting tween girls. One notable scene involves slow-motion portraits of the fans accompanied by their disembodied voiceovers explaining why they spend so much time online. The scene is conceived in the spirit of chromatic maximalism, with the girls brightly lit against floral-print and pastel backgrounds, in a manner that humanizes their experience but flattens their differences, as if one were the precondition of the other. The style presents their range of justifications for standom as more or less equivalent to each other, reducing these girls to the same faceless morass of drives that Weist cashes in on.
More importantly, while Jawlineâs depictions of predatory managers, overblown hopes, and obsessive followers spell out reasons to be despondent about the way this economy works, the film doesnât look past its narrow horizon. Thereâs little indication of how this phenomenon is so profitable or how wide reaching this it is. Instead, Jawline offers a deflationary, measured suggestion that the current crop of influencers differs only in quantity from celebrity cults in Hollywood or the music industry. The latest iteration of celebrity is just monetizing a new type of media. All thatâs really changed is that the stars burn dimmer and fade younger.
Director: Liza Mandelup Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon Is a Moralizing Buzzkill of a Comedy
The film is inspirational only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.1.5
Watching writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzoâs Brittany Runs a Marathon is a bit like listening to a runner describe a motivational posterâthe type with a single-word slogan below a stock photographâthat inspired them to persevere as they trained themselves to be a serious runner. Sensing that such overt preachiness would be irksome, the film cloaks its proselytizing in self-aware jokes about how much more pleasurable sitting around is than running and a token acknowledgment that thereâs nothing wrong with being out of shape. But the screenplayâs cute, if somewhat insipid, humor doesnât prevent the film from feeling self-righteous. Indeed, for a comedy about a woman who makes a personal decision to get in shape, Brittany Runs a Marathon sure engages in a lot of moralizing.
At the start of the film, twentysomething Brittany (Jillian Bell) is overweight and working part time as an usher for a small off-Broadway theater, which somehow provides enough income for her to regularly drink champagne at high-end clubs with her roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Walking back to their Queens apartment after nights of hard drinking and eating greasy food, they often catch their uptight, bougie neighbor, Catherine (Erica Hernandez), going out for an early morning run, seemingly judging them for their indulgence. Itâs only a matter of time, then, before Brittany is informed by a Yelp-recommended doctor (Patch Darragh) that her lifestyle has led to elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass indexâand an ominous close-up on the doctorâs chart shows us that sheâs crossed over into obese terrain.
And so Brittany begins running, ill-advisedly, in her beat-up Chuck Taylors, which she soon upgrades to spotless, turquoise New Balances. Catherine, for some reason forgiving of Brittanyâs persistent churlishness, introduces the young woman to a local running club. What follows is surely intended to inspire laughs of recognition in audience members who picked up running in adulthood, as the neophyte Brittany hangs out at the back of the group with a fellow reformed slacker, Seth (Micah Stock). The new trio sets themselves an ambitious goal: to complete the New York Marathon the following November.
The film makes jokes about how hard running can be, but thereâs an earnestness behind such humor that leaves certain sacred cows untouched. Most of these have to do with the selfânamely, self-discipline, self-love, and self-actualization. As the film sees it, all those things can be realized through running. Seth may joke about how ready he is to stop, or how much heâd rather be doing something else, but he keeps going, and if Brittany cheats on her diet and eats some cheese fries, itâs portrayed as a dramatic, shameful misstep. Weâre told over and over that Brittany is valued by her friends, old and new, because sheâs funny, but we see scant evidence of this, particularly as her devotion to running takes on a quite pious dimension.
Arriving for comic relief and romantic interest is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who works the night shifts at the same house-sitting service where Brittany has begun picking up hours during the day to fund her marathon training. Casually trashing the house theyâre meant to be looking after, Jern supplies Brittany Runs a Marathon with the levity that began to evaporate from the film as soon as Brittany started exercising. But as her flirtatiously contentious relationship with Jern deepens, the other parts of her life become a plodding series of confrontations. Her improving self-image emboldens Brittany to kick Gretchen to the curb, accusing her friend of having always viewed her as a âfat sidekick.â
Itâs a fair enough grievance for the character to have, but at a certain point in Brittanyâs active defense of herself, the film takes on a self-righteous tone, associating its protagonistâs newfound healthy living with virtuousness and seeing Gretchen as despicable for her profligate lifestyle. Brittany Runs a Marathonâs positioning of exercise as a moral triumph is nothing more than a marketing technique, as Colaizzoâs film is âinspirationalâ only in the sense that it may inspire an uptick in Amazon searches for running gear.
Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howrey, Micah Stock, Mikey Day, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Peter Vack, Patch Darragh Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo Screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Official Secrets Is an Ambitious Muckraking Thriller Prone to Melodrama
Gavin Hood wrings suspense out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts.2.5
Gavin Hoodâs Official Secrets is a muckraking thriller that revels in wonderfully lived-in details as well as generic biopic platitudes. The film tells a story that might have caused a sensation in Britain and the U.S. had it not been drowned out by those nationsâ war machines. In 2003, Katherine Gun, a British translator for an intelligence agency, leaked an email in which the American National Security Agency urged for surveillance of pivotal members of the U.N. Security Council. This operation was for the purpose of blackmailing the U.N. into voting for the American invasion of Iraq (which President George W. Bush authorized later that year anyway, without the U.N.âs approval). Katherine leaked this email, and faced prosecution from her government under the Official Secrets Act of 1989.
In the filmâs first half, the filmmakers offer a fastidious glimpse at how the press responds to Katherineâs (Kiera Knightley) whistleblowing. Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) are anti-war reporters for The Observer, which is in favor of the war and eager to maintain its relationship with Tony Blairâs government. Hood wrings suspense, and docudramatic fascination, out of the parsing of the nuances of evidence and the tapping of mysterious contacts. Various jargon in the N.S.A. email is decoded, as insiders weigh its legitimacy. An intensification of surveillance is referred to as a âsurge effort,â intelligence sources are âproduct lines,â and so forth.
This sort of commitment to texture is reminiscent of the novels of John Le CarrĂ©, as are the juicy scenes in which Beaumont and Bright reach out to people in the MI6 and the British government. Though Hood isnât a moody stylist in the key of, say, Alan J. Pakula, his handling of the filmâs actors is sharp, as their crisp and musical cadences allow the audience to understand that every spoken word matters, and that, if the reporters misstep at any time, they could potentially lose more than their contacts.
Katherine is eventually defended by an attorney, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who has vast experience with human rights cases and with working within the labyrinthine British government. Fiennesâs probing, tormented, erudite charisma is always pleasurable, but this section of Official Secrets, meant to provide the legal counterpoint to the journalism thread, is shortchanged, as Hood starts to juggle too many balls at once. Interspersed with Emmersonâs adventurous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act are moments in which Katherine must rush to prevent her Turkish-Kurdish husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), from being deported out of an obvious retaliation against Katherine. These scenes are unimaginatively staged and unmovingâa sop to melodrama that temporarily halts the filmâs procedural momentum.
Itâs strange that the domestic dimension of the protagonistâs life should feel like clutter, which underscores a larger issue with Official Secrets: Katherine herself isnât especially compelling as rendered here, as she almost entirely operates in the formula mode of aggrieved, persecuted, self-righteous avenger. A major ellipsis in the narrative is telling, as the British government forces Katherine to wait almost a year in limbo before deciding whether or not to persecute her, which Hood skips to keep the story moving. The emotional toil of such a year couldâve provided a personal counterpoint to the filmâs political gamesmanship. As it is, the filmmaker reduces Katherine to a supporting character in her own story.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri Director: Gavin Hood Screenwriter: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid Wrings Preciousness from a Drug Warâs Carnage
It never resolves its commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma.2
Writer-director Issa LĂłpezâs Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tapestry of flourishes. All are inseparable from Mexicoâs gangland carnage, but its most memorable one is also rooted in magical-realist tradition, namely 100 Years of Solitude. The novel tells the multi-generational story of the BuendĂa family, and in one particularly exacting and vivid passage, master fabulist Gabriel GarcĂa MĂĄrquez details how the seemingly eternal Ursula IguarĂĄn learns of her son JosĂ© Arcadioâs death after a trickle of blood from his body winds its way through war-torn Macondo, around corners, across terraces, down steps, and over curbs, before finally arriving at his motherâs doorstep. âHoly mother of God,â she says.
Ursula comprehends the truth of that thread of blood even before it leads her back to her sonâs body. By contrast, the protagonist of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella (Paola Lara), prevaricates so as to put distance between herself and the horrors around her. âWe forget who we are, when the things from outside come to get us,â she says in voiceover at the start of the film. She doesnât see the line of blood that runs from a dead manâs head and follows her all the way home until itâs already tracing a path across her living room floor and up a wall, finally creating the shape of an insect on a dress that hangs from the ceiling. Estrellaâs mother is missing, and in this moment, the girl seems to know that sheâs being sent a message, which she wonât learn to decipher until she becomes more fluent in the language of fairy tales.
At its most assured, Tigers Are Not Afraid strikingly literalizes the idea of the ties that bind, suggesting how the living and the dead walk hand in hand, almost as a matter of course, in a modern-day Mexico where 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Before Estrella stumbles upon the aforementioned dead manâs body, you get the sense that today isnât the first time sheâs seen boys use police tape as limbo sticks, or dragged her fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. Which isnât to say that the girl is desensitized to this violence. She seems to almost exist at a remove from it, and LĂłpez sensitively syncs the swaying of her camera to the girlâs visible numbness.
That sensitivity, however, proves to be a kind of redundancy. Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, LĂłpez effectively conjures an aura of ordinariness, but she never resolves her commingling of the fanciful and the mundane into a particularly compelling argument about the legacy of trauma. The film concerns Estrella and a group of orphaned boys going head to head with a cartel after young El Shine (Juan RamĂłn LĂłpez) swipes a gun and phone from the treacherous El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), and when that narrative isnât picking up signals from the supernatural realm, you sense its allegiance to so many films indebted to the neorealist tradition, from Luis BuĂ±uelâs Los Olvidados to HĂ©ctor Babencoâs Pixote. Tigers Are Not Afraid is alive to the harsh reality of its main charactersâ lives, though at times it feels as if LĂłpezâs only means of accessing that truth is by conspicuously shaking her camera.
As for the filmâs supernatural flourishes, none are as inspired as that thread of blood that trails Estrella at various points. Little flying creatures suggest visitors from Guillermo del Toroâs cabinet of curiosities, while a gathering of ghosts inside an expansive, derelict building brings to mind a Silent Hill freak-out. And in the case of the tiger graffiti on a wall that comes to life at one point, there isnât even the sense that weâre watching the deadâs handiwork. After a while, deathâs intrusions come to feel more cosmetic than substantial.
Early in the film, LĂłpez fascinatingly suggests that Estrellaâs perception of the world, after a teacher grants her three wishes, is both shield and sword. But after the girl uses one of those wishes to commit an act of brutality, the filmâs fairy-tale conceit reveals itself as an engine for easy absolution. By the time the girl arrives at an understanding of her world that isnât too far removed from the logic of her opening voiceover, Tigers Are Not Afraid has so given itself over to feeling the innocence of cocooning that it only effectively haunts us with its preciousness.
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan RamĂłn LĂłpez, Hanssel Casillas, Tenoch Huerta, Nery Arredondo, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero Director: Issa LĂłpez Screenwriter: Issa LĂłpez Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Whereâd You Go, Bernadette Serves Up Lifetime-Grade Chestnuts of Wisdom
The film is a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlightening idea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.1.5
The opening passages of Whereâd You Go, Bernadette include a handful of scenes in which an agoraphobic architect and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett), restlessly expresses her internal thoughts inside the empty rooms of her Seattle mansion. Observed in flowing Steadicam shots, these soliloquiesârecorded and translated to text by Manjula, the digital assistant on Bernadetteâs smartphoneâgive space to reflect on how the womanâs eclectic furnishings grow out of her racing mental landscape. And in performing them, Blanchett offers the rare cinematic spectacle of a mother in her alone time, compelled to let her imagination and anxieties loose outside the pressures of maternal duty. In these moments, the film, an unapologetically straightforward adaptation of Maria Sempleâs best-selling novel, briefly takes on the tone of something candidly personal.
Itâs a shame, then, that Whereâd You Go, Bernadette is cloyingly beholden to the demands of its crowd-pleasing narrative arcâthat of a creative woman driven to ennui by motherhood and middle age yet rescued from the brink by an inspiring vacation and the love of her family. Itâs nice, reassuring stuff, not false by any standard, but told with such didacticism and cuteness that one canât help but be bewildered by the fact that the film was co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. Where the Texas auteurâs leisurely paced Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! excel in their attention to the nuanced spectacle of characters changing over time, Whereâd You Go, Bernadette plays like all of its air has been sucked out in the interest of plot progression, which it conducts with the workshopped efficiency of a television movie mindful of commercial breaks. In fact, with its coverage-dependent mise-en-scĂšne, off-the-rack musical score, and tacked-on bookending voiceovers, Linklaterâs latest feels strangely close to something Lifetime might have churned out in the early aughts.
The film establishes its narrative conflicts quickly and bluntly, often through dialogue, simple juxtaposition, and, in one particularly dull case, a YouTube mini-documentary about Bernadette that plays in full in order to clarify her backstory. A brilliant and influential architect in the midst of a long hiatus after a demoralizing relocation and a series of miscarriages, she displaces her creative frustration on her city and its inhabitants, including her prosperous, TED Talks-giving husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup); stuffy neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), a gossipy associate of Elgie and friend of Audrey. Her only routine source of joy is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), who loves her unconditionally and whom she treats perhaps a bit too much like a peer.
Symptomatic of Linklaterâs always-generous worldview, the film sees Bernadetteâs quirks not as deficiencies, but as inevitable side effects of lifeâs persistent curveballs. When the character refers to herself as a âcreative problem solver with good taste and a soft spot for logistical nightmares,â itâs clear that the filmmaker endorses that assessment, and perhaps even recognizes it as a description of his own artistic career. For all their suspicion toward Bernadette, Elgie and Audrey arenât characterized entirely negatively either, for each is given a path to redemption, and Wiigâs portrayal of her characterâs transition from belligerence to empathy in particular is one of the highpoints of Whereâd You Go, Bernadette.
Rather, in true boomer fashion, Linklater reserves his cynicism for technology, kickstarting the filmâs third act with the contrived revelation that Manjula is actually a Russian-operated phishing scheme seeking to steal Bernadetteâs identity. This development briefly gets a Department of Homeland Security agent, Marcus Strang (James Urbaniak), and a therapist, Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), caught up in the narrative, but itâs all really just a busy preamble to the Antarctica family vacation thatâs hinted at from the very first scene. Bernadette has her reservations about the trip, Bee thinks it will be cathartic for the family, Elgie is too preoccupied with his career to concern himself with the logistics, and the shadowy forces behind Manjula are poised to swoop in and cause chaos during the scheduled dates.
What ends up happening is neither the transporting escape Bee wants nor the complete disaster Manjula intends to enact, but something messily in between that triggers a coordinated stream of life lessonsâand a few uninspired drone shots of icebergs. Indeed, in its eagerness to diagnose Bernadetteâs existential impasse, the film lays on thick the kind of back-patting chestnuts of wisdom that have become increasingly common in Linklaterâs recent films, groaners like âPopularity is overratedâ and âYou donât have to do anything you donât wanna do.â Such sentiments have always been window dressing in Linklaterâs nonchalantly libertarian body of work, but if in many cases his films have tacitly acknowledged the limits of language to articulate lifeâs mysteries, here thereâs very little sense of a frontier to be explored. If Bernadette is Linklater and Blanchettâs collaborative expression of the right balance between parenting and artistry, itâs a curiously anodyne affair that proposes the distinctly unenlighteningâand privilegedâidea that the medicine against despair is just a little R&R.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Emma Nelson, Zoe Chao, James Urbaniak, Judy Greer Director: Richard Linklater Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vincent Palmo Jr. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 130 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Roberto Minerviniâs What You Gonna Do When the Worldâs on Fire?
The film is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.2
With What You Gonna Do When the Worldâs on Fire?, Roberto Minervini returns to the American South to tell the stories of several African-Americans living in New Orleans, over the summer of 2017. These stories are so self-contained that the documentary comes to suggest an anthology film, which, in this case, has been organized around a pervading theme of how political and personal textures intersect in everyday black life. And in the tradition of the anthology film, Minerviniâs material is also variable, suggesting that the filmmaker couldâve been more ruthless in the editing room and less beholden to the pleasures of his self-consciously neat aesthetic.
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Minerviniâs subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew thatâs clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titusâs inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocenceâan impression thatâs affirmed later in the film when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titusâs hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness thatâs bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love thatâs deeply poignant.
Juxtaposed with this coming-of-age youth narrative are stories of a recovering crack addict, Judy Hill, whoâs realized her dream of opening a bar, and of a local chapter of the New Black Panthers, which is investigating and protesting several murders, such as the recent decapitation and burning of a local black man. Intellectually, one can see why Minervini believes these threads belong together, as they both illustrate how African-Americans foster their own infrastructures as a reaction to the corruption and indifference of governments on various levels. But Minerviniâs cross-cutting shortchanges both of these story threads. Minervini reveals preciously little about the principle murder that the New Black Panthers are seeking to avenge, using it vaguely as a symbol of Southern atrocity at large, and the practical details of operating Judyâs bar are reduced to sketches. In both cases, the specifics of the subjectsâ concerns havenât been entirely dramatized.
In certain portions of What You Gonna Do When the Worldâs on Fire?, particularly those featuring the New Black Panthers, Minervini taps into reservoirs of anger that are nearly at odds with his chilly formalism. The film was shot by D.P. Diego Romero in pristine black and white, with long takes that drink in the details of the landscapes and peopleâs bodies. One is often encouraged to savor the beauty of the lighting, especially in Judyâs bar, and Minervini eschews typical documentary devices like narration and interviews. In terms of gliding, sumptuous style, What You Gonna Do When the Worldâs on Fire? is reminiscent of Alfonso CuarĂłnâs Roma, as both films verge on turning class struggles into moving coffee-table books.
Weâre supposed to feel as if weâve slipped effortlessly into the lives of Minerviniâs subjects, which might have been possible if more time had been devoted to pivotal moments. If Minervini wasnât able to capture the moment when Judy learns that she must close the bar, then perhaps he couldâve wrestled with his inability to capture it. Judy demands a meta-textual approach anyway, as she is a highly charismatic and self-absorbed person who is often clearly performing for the camera, most gratingly when she responds to her motherâs fear of homelessness with a monologue about her own generosity. A filmmaker like Robert Greene mightâve challenged Judy and utilized her for a riff on the power of self-mythology, but Minervini prizes his faux-objectivity; heâs more interested in mood than process or character. What You Gonna Do When the Worldâs on Fire? is beautiful and occasionally quite moving, but its subject matter deserves more than art-house irresolution.
Director: Roberto Minervini Screenwriter: Roberto Minervini Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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