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.
Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7, While Timely, Exudes Movie-of-the-Week Vibes
It pulses with relevancy in a time when debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America.2.5
Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulses with relevancy in a time when high-stakes debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America. Sorkin uses an ensemble approach to tell the story of the anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot after the street fighting that ripped through Chicago in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. While necessary, given the number of key characters involved, the approach also allows Sorkin to establish different factions among the defendants who are debating the merits of their wildly varying methods to the same cause even as they’re fighting to stay out of federal prison.
The result feels like a melding of the straight-forward courtroom narrative that Sorkin delivered in A Few Good Men and the fuzzier political complexities he explored in The West Wing. Cutting quickly to the courtroom, The Trial of the Chicago 7 lays out the lengthy 1969 trial as a politically motivated showcase, later inserting recreations of the protests as they come up during cross-examination. While lead federal prosecutor Richard Schulz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is given some room to hem and haw about how far he’s being asked to bend the law, the Justice Department (under new management that year with the election of Richard Nixon) is shown as fully intent on making an example of the hippies. Clearly eager to help them out is Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose shutting down of any dissent becomes so rote that the defendants take to shouting “overruled!” before the judge can whenever defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) makes an objection.
The grab-bag of defendants serve as a handy cross-section of the factional, squabbling anti-Vietnam War movement. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), serve as the starchy and serious counterpoint to the puckish and prankish Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), members of the Youth International Party (Yippies), while middle-aged conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) serves as a kind of father figure to the group. Some dark comic relief is provided by John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), the film’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, baffled as to why they’re even there. But the true odd man out is Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who had no connection to the rest of the defendants and no part in any of the protest planning, having only been in Chicago for four hours to give a speech. (A plausible theory that Sorkin puts forth is that Seale was there as a token black radical to scare the jury.)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is most urgent when showing Seale’s at first infuriated and later desperate attempts to be separated from the seven other defendants or at least be allowed to defend himself. When Judge Hoffman’s glowering authoritarianism causes Seale to be handcuffed to his chair and gagged to stop him from speaking (which actually happened in an American courtroom), a sense of fulsome outrage finally grips the story. But the film, which moves on too quickly from the side plot involving Seale’s connection to Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), feels far more at home in the heady, emotive debates that spark between the white defendants. Abbie Hoffman, whose performative clowning is given thoughtful coloring by Cohen’s vulnerable performance, sees culture as just as important as politics and thinks Hayden is naïve and something of a square. “I don’t have time for cultural revolution,” Hayden hits back. “It gets in the way of actual revolution.”
That back and forth isn’t only an evergreen debate for the left but one that particularly engages Sorkin, whose better episodes of The West Wing limned the clash of idealism and realism. While Abbie Hoffman, who knew just how ludicrous he was being in court but saw the attention-getting as vital to the Chicago Seven’s cause, often gets the better of these exchanges with Hayden, Sorkin’s heart seems to be clearly on the side of practicality. At one point, frustrated by Rubin’s complaints that nobody on the jury “looks like us,” Kunstler slyly replies, “Any of you ever show up for jury duty? No? Then shut the fuck up.”
Unfortunately, the film has relatively little of that kind of punchiness. As a director, Sorkin hasn’t yet grasped how to meld personal drama and historical sweep into a cohesive whole. Although the strong cast helps the film through some of its weaker segments, Sorkin’s attempt to bring a Spielbergian fluidity to the flashbacks to convention riot chaos often fall flat. But while The Trial of the Chicago 7 ends on something of a movie-of-the-week note, given the timing of its release as a current Department of Justice gins up spurious charges against political enemies, it nevertheless carries a certain past-is-prologue immediacy.
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin Fitzgerald, Alice Kremelberg, John Doman, J.C. MacKenzie, Damien Young, Wayne Duvall, C.J. Wilson Director: Aaron Sorkin Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 129 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: On the Rocks Is a Screwball Comedy with a Twist of Unresolved Tension
Sofia Coppola captures how our idealized, movie-fed ideas of “night life” reflect our longing for adventure as well as our loneliness.3.5
Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks opens with a series of gestures that establish the film’s entire emotional framework. In a voiceover against a backdrop of darkness, a man tells his daughter—playfully but with an unmistakable edge of seriousness—that she will always be his, even after marriage. We then see Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) getting married, and soon descending an elaborate spiral staircase into the cavernous pool of an elegant hotel. Coppola then cuts to Dean already in the water waiting for Laura, who takes the plunge to join him, before then cutting to toys on the floor of a New York City loft—years of marriage compressed into a heartbreaking handful of seconds, as a relationship has evolved from storybook infancy into a romantic partnership that’s enriched by and freighted with obligation, while haunted by an obsessive father’s influence.
Like many Coppola protagonists, Laura and Dean are casually affluent, living in a glass cage of designer parties and restaurants. Yet this is the world that Coppola knows, and her films don’t feign pretense of understanding working-class universality, whatever that may be to begin with. In fact, guilt over this rarefication complicates Laura’s encroaching not-quite-midlife crisis. She feels relentlessly average next to Dean’s chic collaborators, yet she senses that it’s unseemly to feel the pain of the struggling, and such anxieties are embodied by the myopic, comically self-pitying droning of a fellow mom, Vanessa (Jenny Slate). Jones’s body language communicates this anguish vividly, nearly subliminally: Laura is a poignant lump who stands and dresses in order to vanish, coming to see herself only as a supplicant to her children. And she suspects that this behavior might lose Dean’s attention.
In On the Rocks, Coppola utilizes the comic-melancholic tone that she perfected in Somewhere. A shot of Laura lying on her bed, as one of those little robot vacuums buzzes about in hapless circles, instantly evokes Laura’s ennui. And Coppola is particularly adept at expressing the growing confusion between Laura and Dean, who isn’t the cartoon of the inept husband in Lost in Translation but a realistically distracted man too busy to see that he’s ignoring his wife’s needs. One moment is especially strange, even a little dangerous: Dean plops down in the bed in the middle of the night exhausted from work, kissing and touching Laura hungrily until she speaks and ruins the moment, killing the spontaneity of pure sex, the “fucking” that’s referenced in a Chris Rock special that Laura was watching earlier in the night, with the ongoing reality of the work of their relationship. Coppola never over-emphasizes any moments or symbols, particularly a moving motif with wrist watches, cultivating a growing tension that’s intensified by fraught close-ups and passages of pointed silence.
As Laura becomes convinced that Dean is having an affair, her father, Felix (Bill Murray), eases back into her life after returning from a trip to Paris. Rarefied even by Laura’s standards, Felix is an art dealer and womanizing bon vivant who sucks the oxygen out of every room. Felix’s thoughtfulness is somehow selfish, as he showers Laura with the sort of attention that Dean should pay her, except it’s suffocating and vainglorious. He isn’t quite the paralyzed lonely rich man that Murray played in Lost in Translation and Coppola’s 2015 Netflix holiday special A Very Murray Christmas; this character’s loneliness is subtler, hidden under extroversion and revealed fleetingly in startling moments, such as when Felix, feeling a sudden desolation, asks his driver to take him home. There was glamour to Murray’s earlier lost men, who were so quiet that you could project yourself onto them, but Murray renders Felix pathetic even as the character abounds in his distinctively curt and caustic charm.
Laura and Felix work their way through New York, with a side trip to Mexico, in order to find out if Dean is cheating on her—a screwball adventure that Coppola invests with richly unresolved, contradictory undercurrents. Felix has a penchant for absurdist sexism (one of the best bits in the film finds him convinced that he’s growing deaf only to female voices), and he displays undisguised glee at the prospect of proving Dean’s infidelity, which might normalize his cheating on Laura’s mother years ago. Laura might initially be rooting for Dean’s betrayal as well, as it offers a pat answer to her feelings of stagnation.
Their adventure is dotted with lovely curlicues, such as Felix prattling on while recklessly driving a sports car around New York until he’s pulled over by police offers whom he readily charms with his hail-fellow-well-met routine. Coppola, Jones, and Murray capture how such charm is both real and fake, affirming and demoralizing all at once. No wonder Laura feels eclipsed by everyone, including her husband. She was taught early on by Felix to be a spectator, and her latent rage erupts in a moment of reckoning in Mexico.
There are few modern filmmakers who possess Coppola’s gift for capturing how our idealized, movie-fed ideas of “night life” reflect our longing for adventure as well as our loneliness. On the Rocks has the same piercing, hazy, noir-esque beauty as Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and A Very Murray Christmas, as quite a bit of it is set in dimly lit hotels and bars that allow people to be anonymously captivating while getting loose on expensive cocktails.
Sitting across from one another, talking of their own relationship while pretending to speak of Laura’s marriage, Felix and Laura make for an enchantingly odd couple, their energies redolent of a classic movie duo, merged with the despairing yet droll preoccupations of a filmmaker who appears to be cutting to the heart of her own demons. Yet On the Rocks has a bounce—a swing and sense of hopefulness—that’s new to Coppola’s work. As Laura implies, endless passion is exhausting, expected only by the selfish. Somewhere on the sliding scale between combustible heat and resignation is something like grace, where communion is likely.
Cast: Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate, Jessica Henwick, Jules Willcox, Nadia Dajani, Barbara Bain, Musto Pelinkovicci Director: Sofia Coppola Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola Distributor: A24 Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Interview: Miranda July on Kajillionaire and the Malleability of Movies
The multihyphenate artist discusses why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas.
Prior to chatting with Miranda July last week, I was assigned homework—a first in my experience as an interviewer. The multihyphenate artist’s team sent over a copy of her decades-spanning monograph (titled, perhaps naturally, Miranda July), which is both a compilation of her output across mediums and a clear line of sight into her creative and collaborative process. And if you’ve had the chance to read the tome, released by Prestel in April, you will know that July’s continued artistic endeavors have rendered it outdated.
July’s third feature, Kajillionaire, only represents the tip of the iceberg of her recent interdisciplinary efforts. Over the course of November and December 2019, she crafted a “movie” on Instagram with actress Margaret Qualley. In March, she curated the “Covid International Arts Festival,” a celebration of art during quarantine. That was followed by a more self-contained short film, Jopie, edited together from footage she crowdsourced from her Instagram followers during pandemic-related lockdown. And her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, joined the Criterion Collection this year.
While Kajillionaire might be July’s most expensive feature to date, the extra bells and whistles don’t come at the expense of her singularly off-kilter perspective. The premise alone, about a family of eccentric thieves living in the margins of Los Angeles, makes the film feel of a piece with a recent wave of cinematic scammers both real (Fyre Festival and Theranos) and imagined (Parasite and Shoplifters). Yet, as filtered through July’s unconventional lens, the grift is never the goal of the narrative. The film goes in surprising and poignant directions once the tight-knit team welcomes an affably green newcomer, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), into their fold, exposing long-simmering tensions between the emotionally stunted Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her eccentric parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger).
I spoke to July over the phone as Kajillionaire prepared for a theatrical run prior to hitting VOD in October. Our conversation covered the porous boundaries of what constitutes a movie, why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas, as well as why she’s confounded by reactions to her latest feature as a work of “genre.”
You’ve been on my side of this exchange before, interviewing Rihanna for The New York Times. I watched the video in the profile where you talked about worrying you might start acting like her? I have a lot of fears when interviewing, but that’s not one of them. Where does that stem from exactly?
You’re used to watching someone who’s such a star like that without them being able to see you. You’re just unclear on what you look like, or what you might unconsciously do in front of their face. I sing along to her! Obviously, I’m not going to do that in the moment, but I guess it’s just a way of describing the fear being looked back at by someone who really should only go one way.
Cinema as practiced in the traditional model of a narrative feature like Kajillionaire is very much a one-way conversation between you and the audience. But the Instagram project you did with Margaret Qualley is a little more of a two-way conversation because it allows the audience to become a part of it. Especially as so many American cinemas remain closed, do you think this kind of social media cinema could start to kind of supplant or substitute what we traditionally think of as cinema?
Yeah! I feel like we have such insane tools, our phones are really such good cameras. And the means for sharing things. I’m sort of surprised more hasn’t been done. I remember right before the pandemic actually saying to someone, “No one’s using Live stories [on Instagram]. Like, that’s weird! Why is that feature not being used more? Because there’s so much that can be done!” Now, that’s an example, the pandemic has pushed that forward. I mean, it’s a terrible time politically for a pandemic. But in terms of filmmaking and tools [laughs], we are better equipped than we would have been even a few years ago.
As an artist, you seem ahead of the curve in recognizing that social media is a venue for entertainment and storytelling as much as it is for messaging and advertising. As someone who’s created art for both social media platforms and traditional cinema, how do you regard them in relation to each other as audiovisual entertainment?
I guess one thing to keep in mind is I’m working in so many mediums. I mean, I used to call my performances “live movies,” so I’m not a purist. I’m sort of the opposite of that as far as cinema goes. What I loved about doing that project with Margaret was that it was very immediate and spontaneous. It allowed her a little more agency than an actor would usually have on a set. I couldn’t have, like, perfect control over her because she was also living her life. And I would ask, “What are you doing?” She’d be like, “Okay, I’m gonna be at Paris Fashion Week,” and we were kind of building things around her real life to some degree. And then, also, it’s porous. Like, Jaden [Smith] became involved because I noticed he was following it. He had commented on posts. So I just DMed him, and I said, “Do you want to be part of it? Imagine that, that’d be like a Purple Rose of Cairo-level of cinema if that happened!” It’s amazing.
The way you have described your process makes it seem almost cyclical—as if you could never follow making a movie with another movie. What’s behind that impulse?
I should say, actually, I do often want to make another movie right away. I think the Margaret thing was a little bit like my muscles are still warm from this. But each of those disciplines is really important to me. And if I don’t write another book, I won’t keep growing as a writer. I’m really interested in figuring out how to write. It sounds so boring but, like, I don’t want to do another movie because that’s too long. It’s too many years in between, and I’m aware of how finite this life is. I’m really just trying to get to do both.
Is the medium you want to work in where the germ of a project starts? Or does the idea itself determine how it’s going to be expressed?
Usually it’s the medium because, in a dumb way, I know I need a movie idea when I’m done with a book. So, I’m just kind of a mercenary or something. But then, also, the mediums themselves have different energies and capacities, and they inspire me. If you think of Instagram as a medium, I’m having fun thinking, “What can you actually do there that I couldn’t do just now in Kajillionaire?” Or, “What can I do in fiction that would be just terrifying to do if there had to be real people involved?”
I was struck by a quote about Kajillionaire in your monograph that was attributed to Richard Jenkins, but apparently you repeated frequently: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be right, it just has to be alive.” What does “alive” mean in the context of this film or your art in general?
I think he partly said that to me because I, as a writer-actor, get pretty hung up on my words [being] said exactly how I pictured them. Because I’ve already acted out all these parts, and I think they know it and can feel it on some level. But that can also go both ways. It makes me really precise, clear, and able to communicate to my crew. I know what I want, but at the same time, there’s something that has to be out of your control, free, and kind of unhinged to take flight. I know that even as just a writer: You gotta let go, even of yourself. That was that was so powerful because it’s not like I changed my process from the day he said that on, but it emboldened to me to do things that were almost counterintuitive. Just to see what would happen if I could be more alive.
Your previous features have been explicitly about lonely or isolated humans interfacing with technology and contemporary society. That element isn’t entirely absent in Kajillionaire, but it seems a little more in the background. Were you consciously trying to approach these themes in a more oblique way?
Well, I’m never thinking that there’s a theme that I have interest [in]. But I had become a mother since my last movie, that was influencing me and making me a little more conscious of what parenting means, the sort of inherent tyranny within family structures. I think I was influenced by writing a novel that, while it wasn’t like a heist story, did have sort of twists, turns, and reveals. I knew I wanted to do that in a feature film.
You’ve talked about the narcissism of the Dyne parents being one of their defining characteristics, and it got me thinking about how the trait seems to be generational. When people say millennials are narcissists, for example, that’s largely a reflection of the fact that they were raised by boomers, who are often categorized as narcissists. Was that something you were looking to explore through the film?
When you’re only a daughter, if you’re not yet—or are never going to be—a mother, then you just have this sense of parenting as almost like God or something. It’s only something you can shake your fist at. And then, once you’re on the other side of it, it’s like, “Well, hold on this thing that’s your whole childhood, this was just like a series of decisions I made because I was in a weird place in my life—some of them conscious, some of them accidental.” The whole thing doesn’t hold water so tightly as it does when you’re on the other side of it. That seemed kind of criminal to me. I mean, not to be too literal. And then also it seems like the child’s job is to betray the parents, like that’s inherent and will always happen. Yes, all these things are made more explicit and heightened in the movie, but I think I was feeling them in a gut, new way in the years that I was conceiving of the movie.
I’ve noticed a repeated sticking point of yours: female directors are so often asked about whether their work is autobiographical because people, consciously or not, presume that men create while women just reflect. With Kajillionaire, where you aren’t in front of the camera as a performer, has that experience changed at all?
Yeah, maybe it helps that I’m not in it. But people love saying I’ve made a genre movie, and that seems really male. Which, to me, is so funny because it’s a pretty emo heist movie. It becomes abundantly female by the end. But, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think I’m getting asked probably a lot more about, like, “Is that my family?” than the Ocean’s 11 people are being asked that. The funny thing is it’s not that I don’t think personal stuff is interesting. You just want men to be asked the same thing.
Review: Beginning Is a Transfixing Study of a Woman’s Faith Being Tested
The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film.3
Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. After seeing and hearing nothing for a minute or so, except the sound of a woman whispering, apparently in prayer, we glimpse congregants entering a small chapel. A sermon plays out in a static, unbroken shot from the rear of the room, before being interrupted by petrol bombs thrown through the chapel’s doors, eventually sending the building up in flames. Abruptly transitioning from reflective, communal peace to shock and panic, the scene casts a long shadow over the subsequent events, suffusing even the calmest, most intimate scenes with a sense of uncertainty and tension.
The attack also functions as an indirect representation of the senseless violence at the core of the Old Testament story of Isaac, which is the passage being discussed by the congregation before they’re forced to flee. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. As the children of the community learn Bible stories and verses in preparation for their upcoming baptism ceremony, their carefree attitude and weak grasp of the basics of their religion is contrasted with the heavy moral burden that Yana and her husband have placed upon themselves. As seriously as Beginning treats their faith, we’re also given a sense of the apparent futility of their mission, and the sacrifices they have made for it.
The aftermath of the burning of the chapel leads to more personal trauma for Yana, who faces an uphill struggle against various abuses of power, institutional failures, and societal prejudice, while seeking a new purpose in life and trying to stay true to her religious convictions. Holding together many of the film’s long, often dialogue-free scenes is an impressive performance by Sukhitashvili, who balances vulnerability with a kind of opaque self-possession, never allowing us to grasp the full extent of Yana’s motivations. As traumatized as the woman is by what befalls her and her community, she also appears frustrated by her victimization, by her husband’s inaction in the face of injustice, and by her own diminished prospects since she abandoned her former career as an aspiring actress. A visit to her mother also reveals a family history of male neglect, which is a particular type of behavior that she apparently feels obliged to overcome by whatever means necessary.
Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Early on, Beginning introduces its main antagonist, an unnamed detective played by Kakha Kintsurashvili, in the extreme foreground, appearing unexpectedly from the right of the frame after a nighttime shot of the still-smoldering church fire gradually goes out of focus. He then walks off toward the fire raging in the distant background as Yana’s son and the other local children curiously follow him. The eerie religious symbolism here is subtle enough to keep the film grounded in the material world, while still hinting at an undercurrent of spirituality and superstition beneath its austere surface.
The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film, most obviously in one extended scene of a rape whose sounds are completely drowned out by the gentle burbling of the river shallows where it takes place. The idea of a god whose silence both challenges and affirms religious faith is driven home forcefully here. Indeed, the sensorial environment that Kulumbegashvili builds with a rich, naturalistic sound design, as well as the feeling of stasis created by the film’s glacial pacing, could qualify it as an example of what Paul Schrader has referred to as the “transcendental style.” And though Beginning is a lot less ostentatious than Schrader’s First Reformed, it does share that film’s intense focus, and a central theme of faith being tested. Both even conclude with a surprising tonal shift, accompanying a pivot in their protagonists’ behavior from a tightly controlled precision toward a mystical catharsis.
The introduction of a kind of magic realism at the end of Beginning is simultaneously jarring and strangely logical, following from its ambient mood of quiet spiritual intensity and haunting dread. A harrowing final narrative development is left ambiguous and unresolved by Kulumbegashvili, after which the filmmaker abruptly cuts to an uncanny sequence in which holy retribution seems to be delivered by the landscape itself. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force.
Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili Screenwriter: Dea Kulumbegashvili, Rati Oneli Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Tragic Jungle Turns a Woman’s Exploitation into a Potent Allegory
It operates in an ambiguous register, suggesting that a woman is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation.3
Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle begins with Mexican chicleros scaling and notching huge trees in order to collect their sap. As the men hack away with their machetes, the zigzagging patterns they leave on the trees bring to mind injuries of flesh and blood, an impression underscored by the pinkish living part that’s revealed beneath the surface of the bark. Though this practice of collecting gum sap dates all the way to the Aztec and Mayan empires, the sight of the workers silently and miserably toiling for their boss feels like a demonstration of the unfettered agency of colonial capitalism, and as the milky sap trickles down the paths carved by the machetes, the trees suggest victims crying out for justice.
Set in the 1920s on the border between Mexico and Belize (at this time still part of the larger British territory of Honduras), the film then jumps across the Rio Hondo that divides both nations to track the clandestine movement of Agnes (Indira Andrewin), who’s running away from an arranged marriage to a white settler with the help of her sister, Florence (Shantai Obispo), and a guide, Norm (Cornelius McLaren). Dressed in virginal white, Agnes stands out against the greens of the jungle, and while all three characters are Belizean, they exist at a remove from their immediate surroundings, as they all speak perfect, unaccented English.
The film’s first act concerns itself with Agnes’s attempted escape and the power differentials at play in this world. When the woman’s prospective husband, Cacique (Dale Carley), shows up to her home for the wedding, he does so flanked by guards toting shotguns, as if he already expected some kind of resistance. And though Norm instructed the women to cover their tracks, they’re quickly found, and the juxtaposition between Norm arduously rowing a canoe and Cacique and his men arriving suddenly on the scene via motorboat speaks volumes about the hopeless futility of escaping this man and the imperial might that he represents. Furious at Agnes’s betrayal, Cacique doesn’t even attempt to retrieve his runaway bride, instead having his men open fire on her, killing Norm and Florence and leaving her for dead.
This narrative arc plays out as a vicious critique of colonialism, but Tragic Jungle takes a dramatic turn when the unconscious Agnes is found by the chicleros. The sight of the sleeping beauty flanked by the hard laborers suggests an image out of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the initial scenes between the English-speaking woman and the Spanish-speaking men make for awkward, amusing interactions, albeit ones also charged with sexual tension, as some of the men aren’t devoted to protecting her virtue. Agnes herself, who earlier acknowledged her sexual inexperience and curiosity to her sister, is at once apprehensive and receptive to the callous advances of the more aggressive workers. The convoluted sexual politics that arise from her excitement and fear complicate subsequent scenes where sexual violation becomes indistinguishable from fantasy.
As if sparked by Agnes’s ambiguous responses to her sexual encounters, the film foists itself into a mythic realm in its final act, with the chicleros who get closest to her falling ill or dying under mysterious circumstances. As a result, the men start to regard Agnes as the female demon Xtabay of Yucatec Mayan myth. Sofia Oggioni’s cinematography up to this point stressed the verdant hyperreality of the jungle and the ways that the characters at once mesh with their environment and are in conflict with it; an earlier shot of Agnes asleep under the chicleros’ mosquito netting is lit in such a way that she appears encased in spiderwebs, in a limbo state until she’s devoured. But the visuals become even more hypnotic as the men start to fret over their new ward, with colors growing brighter during the day, and nighttime shots losing a bit of their sharpness as Agnes’s interactions with the men, once marked by obvious menace, become more difficult to parse. In one jarring moment, an imaginative use of CGI distorts the woman’s features to acknowledge the extent to which the film has been turned on its head into a work of horror with no easily identifiable foe or hero.
Andrewin, too, modulates her performance in fascinating ways, lacing Agnes’s indeterminate passivity with hints of smirking malice that challenge all preconceived notions of the character. Tragic Jungle never becomes a full-on horror film, but Olaizola engages with indigenous legends and colonial history across a story where misogyny is turned against the patriarchy in ways that recall recent genre offerings like The Witch. Compared to that film’s turn toward the outright macabre, though, Tragic Jungle operates in a dreamier, more ambiguous register. It suggests that Agnes is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation against men who second-guess their fears and superstitions until they realize too late they should have trusted their instincts from the start.
Cast: Indira Andrewin, Gilberto Barraza, Mariano Tun Xool, Gabino Rodríguez, Eligio Meléndez, Eliseo Mancilla de la Cruz, Dale Carley, Shantai Obispo, Nedal Mclaren Director: Yulene Olaizola Screenwriter: Yulene Olaizola, Rubén Imaz
Review: Kajillionaire Whimsically and Sincerely Reflects on Family Ties
Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents Miranda July’s first real flirtation with genre.3
Early in Kajillionaire, the third feature by Miranda July, a building manager explains that “I have no filters!” as he tearfully confronts the cash-strapped protagonists to ask for the rent that they owe. This line works as both a mea culpa and a defiant declaration from July herself. The willfully naïve sincerity of her work has as many detractors as devoted fans, and her choice to give such quirky emotional openness to an incidental character like this is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. However, July’s latest effort also shows potential elsewhere to convince a few of her more world-weary cynics, who might have previously seen cloying self-consciousness where others see a broad humanist perspective.
Kajillionaire is notably more driven by narrative than July’s previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, which were mostly content to observe slices of life, searching for transcendence in the everyday. Here, a more contrived story concerns a dysfunctional family composed of disheveled, small-time grifters Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their introverted daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who see their fortunes change slightly when they encounter worldly and assertive Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). The thirtysomething Melanie finds herself drawn to their criminal lifestyle, as laughably low-key as it might be, and helps them with a new set of scams.
Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents July’s first real flirtation with genre, and it’s also the first occasion that she hasn’t given herself a leading role. The multi-hyphenate artist has explored a multitude of perspectives and personalities throughout all her work, but this feels like the first time, at least in her films, that we’re seeing characters who aren’t projections of some aspect of her psyche.
This new focus succeeds in putting her considerable storytelling talents on display more clearly than ever before. Instead of blowing up mundane quandaries to an existential scale, July shows us people who are doing their best to maintain the unconventional daily grind they’ve found themselves on. We’re only given glimpses of their internal conflicts, and they’re all the more relatable for it. And while it would perhaps be a stretch to say that the clan’s comical grifting has any real-world political relevance, they do seem to be a reflection of their times, particularly in repeated scenes of them going to absurd lengths to avoid the aforementioned building manager’s demands for rent.
Indeed, the financial precarity and itinerant lifestyle of the central figures in Kajillionaire can be seen as a logical next step in July’s filmmaking trajectory, from neurotic suburban eccentricity and confused sexual awakenings (Me and You and Everyone We Know), through urban millennial angst and impending mortality (The Future). There’s a sense of real-world responsibilities and necessities progressively encroaching on innocence and insularity, and the conflict between these two poles also proves to be the emotional core of Kajillionaire.
Childhood, and particularly immature sexuality, has always been a key theme of July’s work. Here, she adopts an interesting alternative perspective, imagining a character who was denied this whole phase of their life. Old Dolio was part of Richard and Theresa’s money-making schemes since before she was even born (one of the film’s best throwaway gags reveals that she was named after a homeless man who won the lottery, in exchange for an inheritance that never materialized). She received none of the traditional trappings of parental affection, being treated more like a respected accomplice and business partner than a beloved child.
Wood’s hilarious, affecting performance convincingly sells this slightly on-the-nose premise. She depicts a woman with a niche set of skills and a shaky sense of pride in her independence, who has nevertheless struggled to break free from her parents after almost 27 years, and whose repressed emotions are peeking through the surface at almost every moment. When Old Dolio reluctantly redeems a gift voucher for a massage, following an unsuccessful effort to claim its cash value, there’s a memorable shot of her face seen through the hole in a massage table, as this rare instance of physical contact causes a single tear to fall from her eye. Here, July’s underrated visual sense serves to bring us closer to a character, in contrast to the distancing effect of her more Michel Gondry-esque flights of fancy (such as the nightly stream of pink foam that comes through the wall of the office space where the family crashes).
Toward the end of the film, there’s some more unintentional provocation to the haters, when Melanie points out that “most happiness comes from dumb things”, in a more plainspoken version of the soul-searching aphorisms that usually pepper July’s dialogue. It also reflects the atypically conventional way that she concludes Kajillionaire, as Old Dolio finally opens up to a cathartic, hard-won moment of intimacy with another person. Whether you can allow yourself a similar embrace of July’s indigo child honesty is still a matter of personal taste. But, almost two decades on from the heyday of the early-2000s whimsical bohemia that she epitomized, her latest at least functions as a nostalgic reminder of a time when a lot of us could.
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Tate Taylor’s Ava Doesn’t Lack for Star Power, Only Narrative Thrills
Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.1
Action thrillers don’t get much more generic than Tate Taylor’s Ava, which tells of a veteran assassin being hunted down by the shadowy organization that employs her. If there’s a twist here, it’s that Ava (Jessica Chastain) is a recovering alcoholic trying to mend her family relationships while fending off attackers after she becomes too careless in the field. But even this thread of family drama is as uninspiring as the film’s thriller trappings. Because Ava never bothers to articulate how its eponymous character’s secret professional life affects her personal life, and vice versa, or even the emotional and psychological toll that such a delicate balancing act must take on her, it’s difficult not to see Ava’s alcoholism as a superficial affectation, a transparent means of making her seem “complicated” as a character.
Ava’s interactions with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), are marked by a sassy repartee that feels inconsistent with the film’s otherwise gritty atmosphere, though the relaxed nature of these moments gives the impression that Taylor is more at ease handling this aspect of the narrative. A music-free and exhausting fight scene between Ava’s handler, Duke (John Malkovich), and their superior, Simon (Colin Farrell), where the sound is amplified to emphasize the brutal physicality of every punching, bone-crunching hit, would make for mesmerizing cinema if not for the fact that the film’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, all frenetic camera movement and erratic editing.
Chastain, at least, proves to be a compelling presence, as she admirably tries to elevate the flimsy, one-note material—most notably in later scenes where her subtle expressions convey Ava’s failing attempts to fight back the emotions that are getting the better of her projected stoicism. But the performance isn’t worthy of the film, which is likely to leave audiences wondering how it even managed to attract so much A-level talent. For Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Diana Silvers, Joan Chen Director: Tate Taylor Screenwriter: Matthew Newton Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Time Is an Oblique Look at Black Lives Undone by the Prison System
The film reminds us that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.3.5
If you want to argue that the law enforcement, criminal justice, and penal systems in the U.S. are badly in need of reform, a first instinct may be to point to the hundreds of felony sentences that have been overturned in the last few decades due to wrongful convictions. Arguing that a man was justly convicted but nevertheless victimized by the carceral state—getting people to accept a guilty man as a locus of sympathy—is a taller order, but it’s just what Garrett Bradley does, in plain but morally forceful terms, in her documentary Time.
The man in question is Robert Richardson, convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana on the morning of September 16, 1997. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole.
Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, their boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school.
At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of Robert and Sibil’s boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. The camera performs an act that for Sibil and her family is impossible, rolling back the lost years, completing the story’s happy ending. Matching the black and white of Sibil’s home movies, Bradley’s new footage captures the culmination of the herculean efforts that eventually get Robert released after 21 years. But, of course, Robert’s return can’t restore lost time, like the camera seems to.
Bradley’s film gives us glimpses into the status of the family as it stands in the weeks leading up to Robert’s release. Now living in New Orleans, the boys are in the process of striking out on their own. The youngest, twins Justus and Freedom, are diligent college students, and at one point we catch glimpses of one’s poli-sci debate and another’s dedicated French study. An elder brother, Richard, is on the cusp of graduating medical school. “Success is the best revenge,” Sibil muses at one point, as she waits in her office for a call from a judge.
The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Robert’s mother avers to the camera. It’s a statement that could serve as a succinct summary of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, though it’s delivered with the extemporaneity and subdued anguish of lived observation rather than with muted scholarly precision.
Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.
Director: Garrett Bradley Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins
10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen
9. 1922 (2017)
In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen
8. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
7. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh
6. Session 9 (2001)
As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins
5. Before I Wake (2016)
Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen
4. The Evil Dead (1981)
The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez
3. The Guest (2014)
The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen
2. Poltergeist (1982)
Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das
1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen
Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Is the Eraserhead of Animal Documentaries
In Kossakovsky’s latest, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.2.5
On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals—a mama pig, two cows, a one-legged chicken—may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead.
The newborn piglets in Kossakovsky’s film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. As in his prior work, Kossakovsky trusts his audience to stick with the film through lengthy shots where nothing in particular seems to be happening until, gradually, a miniature narrative begins to emerge. But while ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Aquarela played out largely in a series of breathtakingly composed long shots that allowed the audience to drink in the scenery of various international locales, in Gunda, Kossakovsky follows the opposite impulse: pulling his camera in as close as he can get to these animals and keeping their environment largely out of frame.
In the film’s harrowing and unusual opening shot, a hog that’s lying down and seemingly in pain is framed by a barn door. Kossakovsky’s camera closes in with a slow Kubrickian zoom, but we don’t quite understand what’s happening here until a tiny newborn piglet emerges from behind its mother. She’s been giving birth, but Kossakovsky treats this usually joyous moment as if it were a death scene. Only by the film’s end do we truly understand why.
Sadly, the rest of Gunda is rarely so meticulously composed. The film’s meandering sequences tend to grow repetitive, only rarely crystallizing into meaningful or memorable form. There’s a tedium to much of Gunda that may be true to the lives of its animal subjects but makes for dull watching after the first hour. The scenes involving the mother pig and her children exert a fascinating pull—particularly the mother’s sometimes brutal parenting tactics, such as when she stomps on the runt of her litter—but the sequences involving the chickens and the cows feel like filler and a distraction from the pigs, who are the emotional core of the film.
As Gunda lurches toward its close, an impending sense of doom starts to hover over it as we begin to realize just how much these animals’ lives are directed, controlled, and circumscribed by human hands. But there’s an unfortunate lack of specificity here that’s rare in Kossakovsky’s work: Though shot across three different countries (Norway, Spain, and the U.K.), the film feels as though it’s all taking place on a single farm, one that could be located almost anywhere. That universality is undoubtedly the point, as Gunda isn’t simply an observational documentary, but one with a message about the cruelty of livestock agriculture. Though the creatures at its center live in relatively pleasant free-range environments, a far cry from the industrial hellscapes denounced by documentaries like Food, Inc. and vividly depicted as essentially a death camp in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, they’re ultimately objects of exploitation. The human use of animals for livestock is, the film suggests, inherently brutal. If Gunda never subjects us to gruesome images of slaughter à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, it nevertheless closes with a prolonged single-shot sequence that’s more heartbreaking than any depiction of the goings-on in an abattoir ever captured on film.
In this sequence, a truck pulls up to the barn where the pigs live and drives off with the piglets, leaving the mama pig in a state of grief-stricken perplexity. For minutes on end, we watch her pacing around, clearly distressed and unable to fathom why her piglets have been taken from her. It’s the kind of viscerally upsetting moment that, as Orson Welles said of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, would make a stone cry. And if this conclusion doesn’t quite make up for Gunda’s fundamental monotonousness, it does at least lend some shape and significance to the rambling sequences that precede it, calling into question how free these free-range animals really are. By the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths.
Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera Distributor: Neon Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
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