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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: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment

It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.

3.5

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Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Photo: Utopia

In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.

Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.

The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.

Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.

Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.

Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.

While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.

Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.

Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family

The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

2.5

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Relic
Photo: IFC Midnight

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.

Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.

Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.

The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.

But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.

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Passing Strangers
Photo: PinkLabel

One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.

The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.

That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.

Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.

Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.

Newly restored from the original negative in a 2K scan, Passing Strangers is now available to stream on PinkLabel as part of The Bressan Project.

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Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters

With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.

1.5

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Greyhound
Photo: Apple TV+

With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.

Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.

Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.

This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.

Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.

Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13

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Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization

The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.

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The Beach House
Photo: Shudder

Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.

The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.

That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.

Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.

There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.

Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.

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The Old Guard
Photo: Netfflix

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.

The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.

Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.

The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.

That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.

In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.

That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief

The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.

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We Are Little Zombies
Photo: Oscilloscope

Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”

Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.

With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.

Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.

The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.

For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.

Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com

The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.

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Palm Springs
Photo: Hulu

The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.

Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.

The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.

Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?

This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.

Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.

As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once

The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.

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Hamilton
Photo: Disney+

The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.

Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.

Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.

Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.

And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.

The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.

Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.

But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.

Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide

Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.

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Family Romance, LLC
Photo: MUBI

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.

The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.

The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.

We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?

Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.

Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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