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The Spielberg Blogathon: Indy Edition

Today marks the start of Ryan Kelly and Adam Zanzie’s Spielberg blogathon.

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The Spielberg Blogathon: Indy Edition

Today marks the start of Ryan Kelly and Adam Zanzie’s Spielberg blogathon. Click this link to visit the hosting site. In honor of the event, the House here reposts our 2008 coverage of the four Indiana Jones films: Odienator on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Matt Zoller Seitz on Temple of Doom and myself on Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Keith Uhlich

A Well-Oiled Machine: Raiders of the Lost Ark

When re-releasing their beloved E.T. and Star Wars trilogy for a new generation of viewers, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas angered the films’ original fans by committing crimes of digital alteration. Spielberg turned government agents’ guns into walkie-talkies, removing the few justifiable hints of menace in E.T. Lucas’ sins guaranteed him a lower circle of Hell: he added special effects using technology then unavailable to him, which upset purists like me; he changed character motivations; worst of all, he recast an actor in the ghostly final shot of Return of the Jedi (substituting Hayden Christensen, young Anakin Skywalker in the prequels, for Sebastian Shaw, who played the older, unmasked Anakin in the film proper) for the sole purpose of trying to convince us that the second trilogy deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the first. Granted, these are Spielberg and Lucas’ films, and they can butcher them at will, but in making the original versions hard to obtain on home video, it felt as if they were rewriting history. Imagine the rabid anti-smokers digitally redoing Paul Henreid’s famous Now, Voyager cigarette lighting scene with Twizzlers.

Lucas and Spielberg collaborated on Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie I resisted buying on any media until a widescreen version was available. The duo released the entire original trilogy in a DVD box set, along with a bonus DVD detailing all aspects of the filmmaking process. News of the release horrified me at first, as I expected some form of alteration to befall the series, which I could deal with only if it involved erasing the second installment, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Thankfully, the only thing these guys put their damn dirty paws all over was the title of the movie that started it all. Raiders of the Lost Ark, at least on the box and the DVD menus, became the unwieldy Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

People always ask me, “What’s your favorite movie?” or “Who’s your favorite actor/director?” My opinions have changed slightly over the years, but there is one question I doubt will ever be subjected to the kind of dirty pool changes I’ve just bitched about: If someone asks me what was the best time I had at the movies, the answer is, and will always be, the day I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. I read somewhere that every generation gets the James Bond it deserves. For me, that Bond was Roger Moore. Or so I thought. After watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again for the first time in several years, I noticed how much it plays into the conventions of the Bond genre. There’s an opening adventure to establish the hero’s feats of derring-do (though this occurs post-credits sequence), an M-like figure (Denholm Elliott) to assign adventures to the hero, a sidekick (John Rhys-Davies) who occasionally provides local information, spectacular action set pieces with suspenseful last minute escapes, and a feisty woman to add eye candy for the adolescent boys. Raiders of the Lost Ark has all of these, recasting and returning the Bond formula to its earlier, more chaste incarnation in the serials George Lucas loved as a kid.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has an odd pedigree and an even odder legend of its creation. The story is credited to Lucas and Philip Kaufman, two outer space-loving guys, and written by Big Chill-helmer Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan had just worked with Lucas prior, reshaping Leigh Brackett’s script for The Empire Strikes Back. The idea for the script came, according to both Spielberg and Lucas, from stories Lucas would tell about a hero named after his dog. After Close Encounters and Empire, Raiders of the Lost Ark came into being with Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones. Thanks to CBS, however, Selleck was unable to fulfill his obligation to the feature, leaving Harrison Ford the opportunity to create another trilogy-based character who will live forever. Selleck looks more like a serial character than Ford, but this would have been a different movie if Magnum P.I. hadn’t been contractually bound; Indy would have been more suave and less dangerous.

Speaking of danger, Mr. Jones can’t seem to stay out of it. Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with one of the greatest sequences ever committed to film, a mini-masterpiece of storytelling and editing that establishes the character’s motivations, enemies, skills, flaws and temperament better than pages of exposition. Indiana Jones is on some kind of mission in the jungle, looking for an artifact that its prior owners have suitably booby-trapped. Jones shows his vast knowledge of archeology early, preventing his subordinate (a pre Doc-Ock Alfred Molina) from stepping on the same fatal booby trap that will later repay his underling’s treachery. Indy retrieves the idol he is seeking, but sets off the ancient burglar alarm in the process. What happens next is thrilling: Indy outruns poison arrows, his guide’s treachery, and a boulder the size of Jupiter. Just when you think our hero’s home free, he is then robbed by his arch-enemy, a Nazi named Belloq (Paul Freeman). Belloq is armed with far more natives than Indy is, and Jones doesn’t speak their language. This leads to even more running, a quick escape, and the movie’s revelation that Jones has ophidiophobia.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has little time to stop and tell you All About Indy. The film’s dialogue sequences seem to be impatiently waiting for the action to begin; the storyteller is speeding up the tale to get you to the good parts. This isn’t a criticism, as Kasdan’s script moves through the important details and Spielberg’s camera provides reminders by mirroring scenes or repeating pieces of earlier dialogue. Raiders of the Lost Ark reveals a lot about its characters by showing rather than telling. When we meet Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s former love interest and the daughter of his mentor, she is drinking people under the table at the bar she owns. This seems like a throwaway character trait at first, like the skill a Bond girl is given to hide that she’s really just fodder for the hero’s loins. Indy’s character even seems to overshadow her (literally at one point—Spielberg reintroduces Marion to Indy by projecting his shadow on the wall behind her). Yet in a later scene, that throwaway detail becomes a major plot point, and Marion becomes more complicated than any Bond girl ever could be.

In their first scene together, Marion and Indy provide us with enough detail to invest in their relationship. They talk quickly, for as soon as Indy shows up looking for an artifact Marion’s father used to own, so do the Nazis. The chase is on, with Marion as Indy’s self-proclaimed “goddamned partner” in search of the Ark of the Covenant, a large MacGuffin that turns out not to be a MacGuffin after all. During the course of the film, Marion saves Indy and, to balance out the show for those teenage boys who get fidgety when a woman is effective, Indy saves Marion. Of the three women Jones encounters in the first three films, Marion is the most interesting and the least aggravating. The filmmakers were wise to bring her back for the fourth film, if only to save me from Cate Blanchett’s Natasha Fatale.

The original trilogy’s penchant for strange sidekicks for Indy also starts here with a Benedict Arnold of a monkey. The monkey latches onto Marion and Indy, then provides details of their whereabouts to their enemies. Kasdan and company find a clever use of the monkey; we hiss at him at first, but his accidental redemption saves Indy from a literal date with death. Later sidekicks will include the annoying Short Round in the second movie and the film’s acknowledgement of its Bondian lineage, The Last Crusade’s Indy Sr., Sean Connery.

I read an interview with Spielberg where he mentioned that he probably wouldn’t have used the Nazi plotlines if he’d made the original trilogy later in his career. (Thank God he didn’t digitally replace them with gigantic talking walkie-talkies on the DVDs.) This partially explains why the newest installment of the film, the forthcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is set in the postwar era. The Nazis support the premise that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a throwback to a time when they were the villains to be mocked and hated in films and cartoons; Belloq’s bespectacled lead henchman, Toht (Ronald Lacey), is truly menacing in every scene in which he appears. At the same time, though, the film’s bad guys are permitted a little complexity. Belloq is allowed some form of identifiable and relatable human failing—it seems he really is taken with Marion and that clouds his judgment. He has a scene of dialogue where he gives Indy the standard-issue “we’re two sides of the same coin” speech, but by film’s end, I realized that he was right. If the Nazis hadn’t opened the Ark of the Covenant when they got it, wouldn’t Jones (or his benefactor) have done so himself, inheriting the splitting headache that Belloq eventually earns?

Enough details and ramblings. Why Raiders of the Lost Ark remains my favorite time at the movies is simply this: It is damn exciting, technically crafted by Lucas, Kasdan, Spielberg, editor Michael Kahn (who won an Oscar for this) and composer John Williams into a well-oiled machine with well-timed shocks, how-did-he-do-that escapes and gory mayhem. Lucas may have re-edited so that Han Solo doesn’t shoot first, but Spielberg still allows Jones to commit the overly ruthless execution of the Nazi driving the Mercedes Benz whose ornament Indy thrillingly hangs onto in (for me) the iconic shot of the film.

As the ornament bends and Ford’s facial expression becomes more panicked, you can feel the movie pulling you to the edge of your seat. Kahn’s editing, Williams’ music, the stunt work and Spielberg’s direction conspire to grab you by the windpipe. This is great moviemaking, and Ford holds the entire contraption together. After playing Han Solo, his casting served as a form of shorthand, telling audiences to expect an adventurous type with a sense of humor who doesn’t play by the rules; yet this same expectation allows Ford to play with the more subtle details of his character. When a student in Indy’s archeology class sends him a message with her eyelids, Ford seems genuinely taken aback—his “OH NO SHE DIDN’T!!” expression is great—and Ford’s looks of frustration whenever Indy has been bested have a boyish “Aw, shucks” charm that shines through the cracks of the character’s seemingly impregnable façade. The much maligned (and deservingly so) Temple of Doom gets a lot of flak for being violent, but Raiders of the Lost Ark is equally violent. The tone is different, however, and that carries a double edged sword. Doom is far darker, and the violence takes on a more appropriate, accurate sense of its disturbing nature, but in doing so it pulls the series into a place it didn’t seem designed to go. Why thrill us with mayhem only to slap our hands for enjoying it later? Odienator

Childish Things: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has the series’s simplest plot, most annoying love interest, most casually racist and imperialist attitudes and most grotesque imagery (Doom and its summer-of-’84 blockbuster cousin, the Spielberg-produced Gremlins, sparked the creation of a new MPAA rating, PG-13). At the same time, though, it’s the most viscerally intense entry in the series and the most wide-ranging in its moods, spotlighting the imaginations of Spielberg and his co-producer, George Lucas, at their most freewheeling. It’s a blast from the id—like Close Encounters, 1941, E.T. and A.I, a rare instance of the director appearing to construct images and situations for his own private reasons, rather than keeping his eyes and ears attuned for signs of viewer discontent.

Spielberg was shocked by the negative response to the movie (robust box-office notwithstanding) and subsequently characterized it as a miscalculation, even a mistake; it’s surely no coincidence that he followed Doom with back-to-back adaptations of critically acclaimed historical novels (The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun) and returned to the Indiana Jones saga with The Last Crusade. The latter has charm and heart, but compared to Doom, it’s mild stuff—a salve for Indy fans that still felt burned. Doom does whatever it pleases, even if it means chucking commercial cinema’s knee-jerk insistence on “plausibility”—a requirement Spielberg and Lucas observed whenever possible in the innately preposterous Raiders of the Lost Ark—out the nearest window.

The film declares its “What the hell, let’s try it” swagger in its first two shots: (1) a dissolve from the Paramount logo to a brass mountain-emblazoned gong on a Shanghai nightclub stage being struck by a burly ringer, and (2) a whip-pan from the ringer to the nightclub’s main stage, which dollies into the stage’s central prop, a dragon statue with a mouth that disgorges our heroine, the nightclub singer Willie Best (Kate Capshaw, the soon-to-be second Mrs. Spielberg). As Douglas Slocombe’s camera keeps rolling (this is a surprisingly long shot), Willie sings Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in Mandarin, addressing the lyrics to the viewer, not the nightclub patrons, and capping the third “Anything goes” with a knowing smile into the lens. Then she turns her back to the camera and leads us through the portal, revealing a backstage area big enough to accommodate a Busby Berkeley-style all-gal chorus line.

What are we looking at? Is this an unseen spectator’s fantasy? Willie’s grandiose daydream? An alternate reality? It’s no real-world nightclub routine, that’s for sure. What stage director in his right mind would choreograph a dance routine in a style that’s not theatrical but cinematic (the dancers obviously arranged for an unseen movie camera’s benefit), and stage it in a room that the club’s patrons can’t even see? Anything goes, indeed.

Spielberg and his partner Lucas always worked very close to their subconscious minds; with Temple of Doom they outdid themselves, for better or worse. Raiders of the Lost Ark promises extreme brutality, then either averts its gaze (envisioning a German strongman’s decapitation-by-propeller by showing blood hitting a fuselage) or serves up a sight gag instead (Nazi torture master Toht hauling out what one assumes are nunchaku, then folding them into a coat hanger). The supernatural blowout finale plays less as pornographic gore than supernatural spectacle: God’s punishment as sound-and-light show. Doom starts out in more or less the same helium-high action mode as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but stirs in wacky slapstick and surrealism, then piles on nightmare logic: by its midpoint, a seeming escapist action picture has become a horror film.

Set in 1935, a year before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Doom kicks off in a Shanghai nightclub (Club Obi-Wan, alas) with a business-deal-turned-brawl between Indy and some gangster patrons; then it moves lickety-split through a tire-squealing car chase and a should-be-escape via cargo aircraft that becomes yet another nail-biting setpiece when the pilots (the gangster’s minions) wait until their passengers—Indy, Willie and Indy’s boy sidekick, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan)—fall asleep, then dump the fuel and bail out over India, forcing our heroes to sky-dive on a raft that becomes a makeshift bobsled that carries them down a snowy mountainside and lands them in the Ganges, which spirits them over a waterfall and deposits them near a village plagued by a Thuggee cult that stole their mystical Sankara stone and their children.

Doom’s first 15 minutes are even more exhausting than the sentence you just finished reading; many viewers find its jumbled energy as grating as Capshaw’s bimbo-in-peril shrieks. A major complaint—admittedly one among many—is that because Doom occurs in a Looney Tunes dimension in which humans can leap from a crashing plane on a raft, slalom down a mountain and dive off a waterfall without sustaining a scratch, one can’t get too invested in what happens; if anything goes, nothing matters.

I see the point of such gripes, but for me, Doom’s sheer audacity remains a tonic. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first film that made me realize that movies were directed: that they didn’t just appear mysteriously on theater screens fully-formed. Doom was just as significant to me as Raiders of the Lost Ark and in some ways more important, because it was the first contemporary escapist picture I’d seen that struck me as unquestionably the work of an artist—a snapshot of the contents of the director’s head. That realization—prompted by Doom’s Buster Keaton-style action choreography, with runaway mine cars literalizing the notion of movie-as-roller-coaster and lines of henchman toppling like dominoes—entranced me as deeply as the more measured kineticism of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg, Lucas and their screenwriters, Williard Huyck and Gloria Katz, spark sense memories of the unfettered free-association that humans rarely enjoy past childhood. Seeing the film reminded me of what it felt like to be eight or nine, shoehorning seemingly incompatible objects and characters (say, a Shogun warrior, Star Wars figures and Tonka trucks) into the same willy-nilly plot.

Yet Doom is remarkable not just because it evokes the id-play of childhood, but because it destroys that same innocence on behalf of a story that’s as much a fable of maturation as The Last Crusade. Raiders of the Lost Ark puts a smile on your face, and the prequel wipes it off: to quote Trey Wilson in Raising Arizona, that’s its whole goddamn raisin d’etra.

Doom’s fairy tale-dark vision is presaged by the village scene in which a wizened shaman recounts how representatives of an ancient, reawakened evil, the Thuggees, stole their children along with a sacred Sankara stone. Then it moves through a juvenile “Can-you-top-this?” phase: a gross-out palace dinner where decadent pashas dine on snakes, beetles, eyeball soup, and chilled monkey brains; a sex farce interlude between Indy and Willie that climaxes with Indy’s near-strangulation by a Thuggee assassin and Indy and Short Round’s narrow escape from a bug-infested spike chamber. Then the film descends (narratively and geographically) into more sinister terrain, an underground lair in which Thuggee boss Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) rips still-beating hearts from the chests of sacrifice victims and then dunks them (still alive, somehow!) into boiling lava while child slaves toil in diamond mines overseen by whip-toting goons.

Doom signals each stage of its descent into horror with an unambiguous cue—starting with the opening sequence, which finds Willie entering the nightclub through a dragon’s mouth (the mouth of Hell), then leading us back through it to reveal an unseen secret universe. (The Busby Berkeley set is to Club Obi-Wan as the Thuggee lair is to Pankot Palace.) When the travelers’ raft arrives at the devastated village, the film announces its shift into mystical/menacing mode by slow-dollying into a tight close-up of the shaman: his grim face signals his people’s misery and his determination to end it by treating a grave-robber as a liberator. (When Indy suggests that chance brought them here, the Shaman laughs, insisting it was prayer.) At the start of the temple section, Indy descends from a protected perch to the main platform of the Thuggees’ sacrificial altar to swipe the Sankara stones, then pauses to stare at human skins stretched out like shawls (a Holocaust image); the rack-focus from Indy’s face to the skins and back is accompanied by off-camera wails of agony.

The film’s next section is the nastiest, depicting Indy and Short Round’s torture by the Thuggees; Indy’s conversion to evil by being force-fed a potion contained in a skull-shaped pitcher (its mouth spigot delivering a figurative kiss of death); Short Round’s brief stint as a diamond-digger terrorized by vicious slave-masters; Willie’s near-deep-frying in the Thuggee lava pit (it’s not necessary for Mola Ram to tear her heart out; the sight of Indy enslaved by the dark side suffices), and Short Round morally and physically re-awakening Indy by searing his side with a torch while crying, “I love you!” (Short Round’s action is the antidote to Mola Ram’s poison—a moment foreshadowed in the opening sequence, which finds Indy accidentally ingesting poison and then scampering after a vial containing the antidote.)

It’s easy to dismiss Doom as a parade of bizarre, sometimes wantonly cruel setpieces, set in a xenophobic fantasy version of Asia that’s as untethered from cultural reality as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories. (One could argue that Indy and Willie are unflattering national stereotypes, too—caricatures of American self-interest—but because they’re the film’s romantic leads and are ultimately more sinned-against than sinning, the defense won’t wash.) Yet there’s method in the film’s madness: more than anything else, Doom is a sordid-fantastical origin story about trivial people deepened by trauma. Its intent unfurls during the first village sequence, beginning with the shaman’s spooky riverbank close-up and accelerating with the arrival of the escaped slave boy who collapses at Indy’s feet.

The adventurer’s reaction is unlike any we’ve seen in this film or in Raiders of the Lost Ark: shock, helplessness and seemingly instinctive, involuntary tenderness. Then Indy examines a scrap of cloth the boy carried—emblazoned with a painted image confirming that the stone taken from the village was one of the fabled Sankara stones, and therefore quite valuable—and his face is animated by a nearly demonic greed as he says, “Sankara.” (Ford’s expression here is—intentionally I think—similar to Indy’s expressions in the sequence where’s he’s ingested the potion.)

The subsequent scene on the hilltop (marked by the appearance of one of Spielberg’s signature shooting stars) is more complex than it initially seems. Short Round tells Indy that the boy was a slave who escaped from Pankot Palace. “What are we going to do, Dr. Jones?” he asks, meaning, “What are you going to do about these children?” Indy, who was clearly discombobulated by the slave child, tells Short Round they’re going to Pankot to recover the lost Sankara stones. “What is Sankara?” Short Round asks. “Fortune and glory, kid… Fortune and glory,” Indy replies. But note his tone of voice: it’s flat, almost monotone, arguably the least expressive line reading in either of the first two Indy films. One could write it off as a bum take that somehow found its way into the final cut. But if one places it within the movie’s clearly intended context—an origin story about a freebooting rascal remaking himself as a righteous hero—it seems not just intentional, but inevitable, perhaps even the key that unlocks Indy’s iconic persona.

When Spielberg described the movie as Indiana Jones Goes to Hell, he wasn’t kidding. The dragon’s mouth, the banquet hall decorations, Mola Ram’s skull paint and sash, the evil-Indy poison, the magma pools and the interior of the barricaded mine-car shaft are all the same hellish red. The movie is a crucible in which the hero is melted down and remade. It introduces Indy as a tuxedoed, single black-marketeer, a man so mean he tries to force payment for a job by threatening to stab a woman with a fork. The film’s emotional zenith finds Indy dying a figurative (moral) death after ingesting the potion and succumbing to a sinister sleep that literalizes the moral sleep in which he had previously existed; he is reawakened by love (corny, but that’s how it plays) and emerges a new Indy, a man less interested in personal gain (“fortune and glory”) than restoration (telling Indy and Willie, “let’s get out of here… all of us”). This evolution, too, is foreshadowed in the film’s opening nightclub brawl: while Indy fumbles after the antidote to the poison he drank, Willie simultaneously grasps at the diamond that the gangster boss gave Indy as payment for his grave-robbing—a diamond that means nothing to a man on the brink of death.

Doom ends with Indy liberating children from slavery, reanimating a nearly-dead countryside and entering (for the time being) a facsimile of a nuclear family. Returning the Sankara stone to the shaman, Indy says quietly, “I understand its power.” The trip to hell and back burns off Indy’s selfishness and foregrounds the decency and sense of moral responsibility he once sublimated. A single man-child goes to Pankot Palace and returns as a family man reuniting lost children with their parents. In its madcap-picaresque way, Temple of Doom echoes 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Flash back to that starlit hilltop: given what Indy is about to experience, the changes that are about to be beaten and burned out of him, his rote pronunciation of “fortune and glory” makes sense. He’s about to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. “Fortune and glory” is the lie that the old Indy has to tell himself, in order to give himself permission to start the adventure that will birth the new Indy: a man willing to risk his life for principle. Nestled in the midst of Spielberg’s most disreputable action movie is one of the most psychologically true moments he’s ever filmed—a moment in which a man’s life changes and he doesn’t even know it. Matt Zoller Seitz

All Is One: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The title promises an epic kind of finality, so it’s only fitting that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opens at the proverbial start of its globetrotting protagonist’s career. Clad in Boy Scout uniform, emerging from the shadows—both geographically literal and Fordian symbolic—of Utah’s craggy Moab arches, Henry Jones Jr. (River Phoenix) is all raw energy and American pluck, his ideals, as so often in Spielberg, potently reduced to an oft-repeated phrase (“It belongs in a museum.”).

He’s a knight-in-training, a quintessentially Western conqueror—enough of a freethinker that he gets by moment-to-moment, but still subservient (and often unknowingly) to a power structure greater than himself. His true instincts (all throughout his life) are base, improvisatory, brutal: the scoutwear here is as much a guise as the suit and spectacles he’ll adopt as an adult academic. As he makes off with the jewel-encrusted Cross of Coronado, he sheds (or shreds) the trappings. The hat goes flying, the clothes become tattered, caked with dirt and blood—experience sticks, makes its mark, sculpting the boy into the man.

A circus train is the conduit between Jones Jr.’s past, present, and future—it’s the three (soon to be four) film series’s madeleine in the tea, a remembrance (and a search) unburdened by time. Here, car by car, is the Jones legacy in miniature: a crate of snakes burrowing their way into, and unlocking, a fear-tinged subconscious; a rhino’s tusk, wittily placed so as to suggest a stunted, yet perpetually unbridled sexual urge; a lion (king of the jungle vs. usurper of the throne) to be tamed by bloodletting whip; and a magic box, a caboose-residing deus ex machina, that leads (per P.T. Barnum) to a great and expansive unknown. “Damn,” says Jones’ antagonist Fedora (Richard Young), as his quarry, prize in tow, runs off into the deserted distance. Then, same shot, a smile: beaming, ever-widening—the sacred melded with the profane.

Home, then, to father, so disinterested in his son’s adventures that he resorts to a dunce cap exercise (“count to ten… in Greek”). With no common ground on which to meet, they separate, Jones Sr. muttering to himself a selfishly guarded epiphany-cum-invocation (“may he who illuminated this, illuminate me”). The “rightful owner” of the cross comes calling, the town sheriff in his employ (no place, here, for idealized figures of authority). Jones Jr. relinquishes the prize, but gains something, perhaps, far more valuable. “You lost today, kid,” says Fedora (suddenly a surrogate), “but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.” He crowns him with the iconic chapeau, shadowing the fresh-faced youngster and bringing out, in a years-spanning jump cut (simple, resonant, sublime), the world-weary adult (Harrison Ford). No longer “Junior,” henceforth Indiana Jones.

Tempting to call this sequence Spielberg’s finest achievement, though the hyperbole, let’s admit, would be entirely personal, hardly supportable by fact. But: “Archaeology is the search for fact,” says Professor Indiana Jones in one of The Last Crusade’s early scenes, “not truth”—a statement, an ideology, easily proven within the walls of academe, less so in the complicated hash of the world at large. The facts, then (at least to me), are these:

In terms of purity (of theme, rhythm, meaning, metaphor, and movement), Spielberg never tops his opener, though I don’t think he’s out to. Coming as the third panel in a masterful triptych which includes The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, The Last Crusade is quite apparently a fade-out, a slow diminuendo—trace the bell curve from Color Purple’s orgasmic explosion of community, through Empire’s sustained cri de coeur for childhood lost, to The Last Crusade’s end-credits ride into (a Spielberg favorite) a perspective-obliterating sunset. “The search for the cup of Christ is the search for the divine in all of us,” says Indy’s confidante Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), just before they embark on a quest, initiated by Indy’s missing father (Sean Connery), for the Holy Grail. That suggests a journey both outward and inward (what we see, what is hidden, and, resulting, what comes to the fore) that Spielberg and his collaborators—among them, George Lucas and Menno Meyjes on story, Jeffrey Boam on script, John Williams, as ever, on score, Douglas Slocombe, final film, on photography—consistently parallel and explode onscreen.

This push-and-pull between the secular and the spiritual is perhaps best embodied by the Venice locale where Indy, Marcus, and Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) begin their crusade—a library housed in a former church. Using clues gathered from both his father’s grail diary and a stained glass window depicting the Christian trinity, Indy uncovers the edifice’s heretofore unspoken “truth.” “X marks the spot,” he smirks, pointing at a hidden-in-plain-sight Roman numeral, and sheepishly contradicting, though not canceling out, a formerly confident classroom pronouncement. Per Roland Barthes: “… the subject gains access to bliss by the cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is a sanctioned Babel.” In a sense, then, this crusade is about the co-existence, and the acceptance, of the multiple natures within and without.

Thus, when Dr. Schneider is revealed as a two-faced antagonist (during Indy’s rescue of his father from an Austrian castle), it comes as something of a meta-shock considering the Marions and Willies of yore. The love in this Indiana Jones film is familial rather than sexual, though Spielberg complicates, or better, perverts it by having Schneider be the sensuous, Mata Hari-like link between father and son. It’s poisonous, yes, but it cuts both ways: when Indy (disguised as Gestapo) seeks her out during a Berlin book-burning rally, they have a brief semantic argument (all sound and fury) before coming to the plangent philosophical point: “All I have to do is squeeze,” says Indy, his hand violently at his former lover’s throat. “All I have to do is scream,” she whispers. Neither of them does—the acknowledgment is enough.

This collision of ideals (cloaked in and revealed by threats) leads to an indelible punchline, as Indy comes face-to-face with Der Führer himself (Michael Sheard). Two creatures of myth (one fictional, one horribly real) stare each other down, silently, mysteriously, iconically (fatherland locking eyes with a cautiously defiant snake in the grass). The grail diary exchanges hands, but Hitler can’t see the forest for the trees—he’s an image man, plain and simple, and must maintain an immediate illusion of power. Unknowingly, he inscribes the very thing that would give him all he purports to desire; he makes his mark on the quest, but, by that action, is brought down to earth and put in harsh perspective. The only thing that might have deepened the gag would be to have Riefenstahl on hand, filming the exchange and setting the epitaph in emulsified stone (reportedly, the wonderful, horrible Leni was indeed present in an early rough cut).

“What do you want to talk about?” asks an indignant Jones Sr. of his son, both of them sharing a quiet moment on board a zeppelin. There are innumerable lost years here, but Indy “can’t think of anything” to bridge the gap. Our turmoils, Spielberg seems to say, are mostly our own creations. And besides… in this world, action (whether by plane, car, boat, gun, or tank) always intrudes on the chatter. So it is more the pregnant pause, the sidelong, tossed-off glance that reveals the profound truths, as when Jones Sr. (ever the bookish fish-out-of-water) lets loose a flock of seagulls to bring down a Nazi fighter plane. He proudly quotes Charlemagne (“Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky”) as he walks past his son with the knowingly smug look of an educating elder, but Indy looks after him with a genuine surprise and a determined love, the gulf of time collapsed, even if only by a fraction.

Abysses abound in The Last Crusade (it’s in one of these very crevasses that Indy comes to his ultimate, life-altering realization). But first: “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe,” says suit-and-tie baddie Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), just before he sends Indy off (a bullet to his father’s gut as blackmail) on the journey’s final leg, which encompasses a trio (a trinity) of challenges—essentially to be humble before, walk in the name of, and leap for the glory of God. Not to say that Indy becomes a blind believer: he’s as secular as they come, but it’s this quality of to-hell-with-it openness that helps him to recognize the mortal realities of the tasks before him, without dismissing their simultaneous otherworldliness. (In Spielberg’s oeuvre, the mundane and the metaphysical feed off of and into each other as surely as do the dual forces of commerce and art.) Indy’s earthbound wisdom and perseverance (in concert with his trust, when called for, in thaumaturgy) grants him entrance to a small antechamber inhabited only by a centuries-old knight of the Crusades and numerous, shimmering chalices (photographed so as to seem both tantalizing and pornographic).

As Hitler was oblivious to the power of the grail diary (seeing only kindling or a blank space on which to scribble his devil’s mark), so Donovan, a more placidly powerful antagonist, is blinded by the Grail’s own purported beauty. He lets Dr. Schneider pick out the supposed cup of Christ (true to the character, a smirk flickers across her face, as if she might intentionally be choosing in error) and then drinks from it without question. His hubris, his unfailing certainty, does him in. Per the old knight’s warning, the false grail takes Donovan’s life from him, drying him to brittle bone, a Nazi button insignia emerging from his ashes as the only enduring remnant/legacy. Indy grasps the implication (the fact, if you will): that myth and spirit are too often couched in glittering terms. Symbols and signs must be brought down to earth, but, befitting the archaeologist’s credo, the mystery must remain intact. So it is: the Grail is actually the humble cup of a carpenter, and its promised gift of eternal life is given with little pomp and circumstance, merely a kindly nod and assent from one in the know (“You have chosen wisely,” says the knight).

Son and father (the latter healed by the Grail’s mystical powers) now connect over the artifact, a fleeting moment, for how can the end of a quest (of even, so it seemed at the time, a film trilogy) compare to the journey itself? What it begets is one last challenge. For Indy’s immortality, even if canceled out by Dr. Schneider’s selfish removal of the Grail from its sacrosanct resting place, is assured on the level of cinema. The character will live on, even if he, now hanging over that aforementioned abyss, reaches for the Grail and dies the death of an object-besotten conqueror. These too, it would seem (the Grail and Indy both), belong in a museum. Father breaks the spell, addressing his son on terms both reel and real:

“Indiana… Indiana… let it go.”

The choice to live on, even beyond the borders of the current quest, is the better one. So the family reunites, connected in bliss, in transcendence, in—per Jones Sr.’s own words (his bookends)—“illumination.” But old habits die hard: Indy’s moniker, no longer needed for redemptive purposes, is brought down to the level of dogs (as long as life courses through us, we tread both great heights and great depths). The prickly status quo returns, but the just-passed, irrevocably etched experience remains—even if only, for the immediate moment, below the skin, hidden from view.

Now only twilight and sunset. Illumination fades; the self annihilates in silhouette. And all (father, son, and spirit) is one. Uhlich

Migration and Exodus: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

“The writer is too well acquainted with the laws of narration to be unaware of the nature of the pledge given by this brief preface; but, at the same time, he knows enough of the history of the Thirteen to feel confident that he shall not disappoint any expectations raised by the programme. Tragedies dripping with gore, comedies piled up with horrors, tales of heads taken off in secret have been confided to him. If any reader has not had enough of the ghastly tales served up to the public for some time past, he has only to express his wish; the author is in a position to reveal cold-blooded atrocities and family secrets of a gloomy and astonishing nature. But in preference he has chosen those pleasanter stories in which stormy passions are succeeded by purer scenes, where the beauty and goodness of woman shine out the brighter for the darkness. And, to the honor of the Thirteen, such episodes as these are not wanting. Some day perhaps it may be thought worth while to give their whole history to the world; in which case it might form a pendant to the history of the buccaneers—that race apart so curiously energetic, so attractive in spite of their crimes.” —Honoré de Balzac, from the Author’s Preface to History of the Thirteen

The Thirteen in question in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are a so-called “hive mind,” a race of beings that the mad-as-a-hatter Professor Oxley (John Hurt) might describe, quite seriously, sans irony, as “interterrestrials.” Call them—in deference to the late-‘50s setting of this fourth Indiana Jones adventure—fellow travelers, those creatures that move around, per Oxley again, in “the space between spaces.” Alien life forms not from without, but within. To some they are gods; to Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford) they are the supernal means to a seemingly fateful end (for the immediate moment, at least).

An end needs a beginning: here it is a Nevada desert molehill, wittily juxtaposed with the snow-capped Paramount Pictures logo (returned to a rough ’n’ ragged two-dimensionality, circa-1981), then destroyed, dually, by joyriding teenagers and a “Hound Dog”-bleating Elvis Presley. Roll opening titles. What’s past is past and time waits for no one, not even Indiana Jones, currently locked in the trunk of a car driven by stoic KGB agents, who lighten up long enough to engage the fresh-faced Presley fanatics in a friendly bout of vehicle-to-vehicle combat (the white picket fence vs. the Iron Curtain). Nobody wins, they only diverge, the lonely Atomic Café marking the spot that leads either away from or toward the purported mother lode: Area 51. (But whichever way we go, we have to always, always be looking.)

Every Indiana Jones film tells us, upfront, how to read and experience it. It’s clear now (if it wasn’t already) that each installment, whatever the shared similarities, has its own tenor, rhythm, and approach. As compared to what has come before, the dissonance of Crystal Skull’s credits sequence and the immediately following chase through, around, under, and out of a government facility cosmopolitan enough to contain both the Ark of the Covenant and the Roswell UFO remains is bracing and beautiful, the Spielberg shorthand (oft-profound, as often piteous) in full-on, awe-inspiring bloom. A bloom of another kind climaxes Crystal Skull’s prologue as Indy—betrayed by his wartime buddy ’Mac’ McHale (Ray Winstone) to a Russkie mafia led by the Garbo-cum-Brooks-sculpted sword-swisher Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett)—races around a plasticine ‘50s suburbia, a horror show of brightly colored homes and gaping, gawking mannequins (several of whom, in their jaw-dropped countenances, recall Raiders of the Lost Ark’s awestruck, flesh-melting Nazis). It’s a brilliantly banal pantomime of watering lawns, walking dogs, and watching Howdy Doody. It also happens to be an atomic bomb test site, and the countdown’s already begun.

In conception, Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp’s analogy is bludgeoning (the nuclear family laid literally, brutally to waste), but in execution it is thrilling and, in retrospect of the film entire, deeply moving. This is no world for Indiana Jones, who climbs into a lead-lined Frigidaire (brushing aside, at the last second, an obstructing container of Crisco™) and is then launched miles through the air, deep into the barren desert, expelled from Ike-era Eden. Nary a surface scratch, of course, when he finally emerges (shaken, not stirred), but the pluming mushroom cloud wreaks havoc with the heroic iconography. Was a time when Spielberg might have had Indy rising into frame full-face and body, the blast behind him merely a source of Slocombe-superintended backlight. But here, in concert with his visual Herrmann—from Schindler’s List on—Janusz Kamiński, he makes sure to dwarf Indy, obliterating him (as per the final sequence of The Last Crusade) into silhouette, forcing character and audience alike to bear witness to the glory and the horror, to reconcile the realities of mankind with its no less tangible myths.

Note Indy’s placement in the image—frame-right, diminutive, photographed, with Antonioni-esque remove, from behind. It will find its mirror opposite at Crystal Skull’s end when he comes face-to-face with another icon of ‘50s-era fascination, this one fictional, though still carrying the heady, expansive weight of metaphor. The hemisphere-traversing journey between these visual bookends is best explicated by an offhand order the soon-to-be-blacklisted Indy gives to his university class: to study and then expound on “the difference between migration and exodus.”

The Indy series’s push-and-pull between the secular and the spiritual is as strong as ever, though it takes on a more labyrinthine resonance here what with primary characters’ quotations of Oppenheimer (“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”—itself a sadly knowing invocation of the Bhagavad Gita) and Milton (from Comus: “To lay their just hands on that Golden Key/That ope’s the Palace of Eternity”), to say nothing of the thematic meta-mix of practical sets and locations (expected) with Computer Generated Imagery (unexpected). The lie of CGI (one at times perpetuated by Spielberg and his peers) is that it is meant to extend reality, when the truth is that, in its best uses, it is a falsity that helps us to see, feel, and experience more clearly.

There are points, few and far between, when Crystal Skull’s effects distract (mostly in regards to animals, one scene in particular conjuring up memories of executive producer George Lucas’ sad bit of monkey-on-the-back graffiti in the re-released THX-1138), but Spielberg’s sheer talent for everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink-and-more momentum pretty much smooths out the rough patches. More often, the effects work/production design helps to sell this particular installment’s immersive, illusory sheen. It’s probably the “falsest” looking Indiana Jones film, but to a degree that near-entirely enhances the fantasy and its signifiers.

More than once, Jones and his companions—among them Shia LaBeouf’s switchblade-wielding greaser Mutt Williams and Karen Allen’s Raiders of the Lost Ark-returning love interest Marion Ravenwood (she of the infectiously beatific smile)—engage in ingenious semiotic play. Marion and Indy have a hot-blooded reunion (piled on high with acerbic remarks and familial revelations) while sinking in quicksand, the sequence climaxing with an extended gag involving a snake that Indy hilariously insists on calling a “rope.” The wordplay extends to the primary quest (a search for a lost Mayan city to which Indy and his companions must return an oblong-shaped and psychic mind-melding Crystal Skull), which hinges on the multiple meanings inherent within a long-dead language (“gold” equals “knowledge” and vice-versa).

A particularly memorable Kaminski composition has Indy and Spalko placed on opposite sides and varying regions of the ’Scope frame, their shadows cast onto a foreground scrim so that they are encompassed within their own outlines. The implicit query: Which is the true self before us—the flesh-and-blood, walking-and-talking facsimile or the dark-night projection? Do the characters, like the movie they inhabit, contain worlds, or are they empty vessels fed by a potent mix, from Creator and viewer alike, of nostalgia and memory?

Tempting to call Crystal Skull Spielberg’s own Youth Without Youth (a perfect subtitle for this enterprise in more ways than one). It shares with Francis Ford Coppola’s unjustly maligned time-traversing romance an elder man’s world-weary sensibilities (“We’re at the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away,” says Indy’s academe confidante Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), paying homage to the story-deceased Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) as well as a penchant for refracting era-specific fears and proclivities through the prism of pulp fiction. Yet this Indiana Jones distinguishes itself, too, as the first film in the series to take place during a time of which Spielberg has actual recall. No longer solely couched in a movie-geek’s distanced obsession with old-time serials, Crystal Skull is a simultaneously multifaceted ode to an artist’s formative years, to an imagination stoked as much by the possibilities of destruction as by the worlds out of sight.

It is the collision of such extremes that results in Professor Oxley’s “space between spaces,” though even this observation has its grounded, mortal corollary, as the suddenly sane Oxley is later heard to express (during a sublime moment of long-delayed sanctification, complicated by its numerous parallels to the prologue’s nuclear suburbia) “how much of human life is lost in wait.” As befits Spielberg’s artistry, the statement resonates at once backwards and forwards: back to Irina Spalko’s ultimately self-destructive desire to possess all the knowledge of the ages (a Thirteen-bestowed “gift” no one human being could ever hope to retain); forward to, in the final shot, Mutt’s raw, instinctive presumption to assume, via Indy’s chapeau, a singularly iconic mantle. It’s a pure John Ford setup (jokey and profound all at once, touched—deliriously, irrevocably—by both glee and loneliness) with the added benefit of Spielberg’s inimitable hovering camera, which acts as an expressive “god’s eye” conduit. Is this the artist’s perspective, the viewer’s, the Thirteen’s—all of us, whether fictional or actual, inhabiting some nonpareil form (sometimes harmonized, as often discordant) of inner space?

Final thought, on that note, from Indy: “Depends on who your god is.” Uhlich

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

3

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing

Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.

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Jessica Haustner
Photo: Karina Ressler/Magnolia Pictures

With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.

The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.

Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.

Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.

I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.

The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.

Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.

One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.

Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.

I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.

I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.

I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.

No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.

You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.

Absolutely.

This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.

I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.

What do you mean male and female? The design?

The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.

I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]

The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.

Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.

It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.

Yes.

Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.

I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…

Yes, social coding.

I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.

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Review: The Wolf Hour Is Dubiously Content to Watch Its Protagonist Squirm

The film is all surface, and its depiction of trauma becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.

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The Wolf Hour
Photo: Brainstorm Media

An air of decay and discomfort pervades the dingy Manhattan apartment where nearly all of The Wolf Hour unfolds. An agoraphobic recluse, June Leigh (Naomi Watts) languishes in the unit, overwhelmed with guilt from a past misdeed. The cramped, underlit apartment, full of dusty old books and overstuffed trash bags, takes on an increasingly oppressive quality as the door buzzer continues to go off with unnerving frequency. Despite June’s pleas to whomever is on the other end, all she gets in response is an ominous, crackling static. It’s an unsettling sound that’s a fitting approximation of the feminist icon and writer’s brittle mental state, which is inextricably tied to the decrepit state of a 1977 New York City plagued by sweltering summer heat and the Son of Sam killer’s reign of terror.

From the limited perspective of this tiny apartment, writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin constructs an aura of danger and alienation, filling out the broader scope of the citywide upheaval with street scuffles and snippets of news coverage that June overhears on the radio or television. It’s a provocative setting, which could have served as a compelling backdrop for June’s mental unraveling, but the acutely detailed portrait of this specific time and place never extends to that of the muddled, half-baked characterization of the woman who inhabits it.

Watts has made a career playing the most brooding and agitated of characters, and with a practically unparalleled visceral depth. Here, her subtly skittish gestures and facial expressions lend June a raw, nervous energy that suggests a woman on the verge of losing her mind. Strange, cathartic scenes, such as when June abruptly lets loose and feverishly dances to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” gives a strong sense of how far she’s strayed from the person she once was. But such unexpected character beats arise too infrequently throughout the film, and for all of Watts’s efforts, the roots of June’s anguish are never more than vaguely explored.

In an attempt to flesh out June’s interiority, Griffin’s script works in a handful of people who visit her apartment. But none of these characters, from her sister (Jennifer Ehle) to a grocery deliveryman (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a compassionate gigolo (Emory Cohen), offer much insight into the celebrated genius that June used to be. In fact, it’s only through June’s viewing of a contentious TV interview that she gave when her first book was released that we get any sense of the catalyst for her downward spiral. It’s a remarkably contrived manner of inserting much-needed backstory into The Wolf Hour, but even worse, it hints at a story far more intriguing than the miserabilism that quickly reveals itself to be the film’s default mode.

That interview reveals that June had a tumultuous fallout with her family due to her leftist screed’s thinly veiled criticism of her businessman father. It’s a turn that suggests something akin to the complicated father-daughter antagonism between Shiv and Logan on HBO’s Succession, yet Griffin does nothing with this bombshell, simply returning to June as she continues to drown in her paralyzing guilt. An abrupt and woefully misguided deus ex machina attempts to do some heavy narrative lifting, but it changes our perception of June without laying the sort of groundwork needed to make such a twist land with any gravitas.

In the end, June remains an enigma and the film’s finale only solidifies the notion that Griffin never had any interest in plumbing June’s emotional struggles. Like the sweat covering June’s face at all times or the dust that coats her apartment, The Wolf Hour is all surface, and its depiction of trauma only becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.

Cast: Naomi Watts, Brennan Brown, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Emory Cohen, Jeremy Bobb, Maritza Veer, Justin Clarke Director: Alistair Banks Griffin Screenwriter: Alistair Banks Griffin Distributor: Brainstorm Media Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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