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The Studio as Author: An Introduction to Pixar Week

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The Studio as Author: An Introduction to Pixar Week

Among the certainties in the world of film criticism—there will be a series of pieces bemoaning critics’ inability to stop a terrible summer film from becoming a blockbuster; Armond White will often stake out a position in opposition to many of his fellow critics; movies about middle-aged men having their mid-life crises sorted out by women well out of their league will always receive mostly kind notices; etc.—there’s one that stands above all others. Every year, Pixar will release a new film, and every year, it will garner exceedingly kind reviews, often competing to be the best-reviewed wide release of the year on review aggregating sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. The reviews will contain some variation on the phrase, “Pixar does it again!” and champion the studio’s ability to come up with children’s films that also hold appeal for adults and tackle bigger themes than your usual computer-animated monstrosity. At the end of the year, said critics will often pen a few words about how Pixar can never get any love at the big races at the Oscars, even when their films win big critics prizes (as did WALL-E). And then the topic of Pixar as reliable geniuses, practitioners of a kind of ruddily American innovation, will be put back in the box until it is dragged out all over again the next time a Pixar film is released, to be repeated with much the same series of beats.

I would find it hard to disagree that Pixar is the best and most consistent creator of traditional narrative film within the Hollywood system, and, indeed, they’ve produced many of my favorite films of the decade. They have ten films at this point, and all ten of those films have their virtues, with at least five or six of them having such virtues as to be genuinely worthy of far deeper critical discussion than they usually receive. At least one would number among my favorite films of all time (The Incredibles). Even something like Cars, which has its problems when examined as a typical three-act, Hollywood narrative (the mid-section sags), is more interesting from a thematic point of view. What it’s saying is something that’s been stated time and again, but it’s rare for a computer-animated film to express such a weird nostalgia for outdated technologies and things that have gone on before. Pixar’s dedication to the old ways of movie storytelling, to the idea that things used to be better when story went before all else, dammit, provides such a weirdly compatible partner for its cutting-edge technological feats that both halves of the equation strike an odd tone of harmony.

Among modern movie magnates, Pixar and Clint Eastwood seem to stand alone for getting critical credit for their deliberate embrace of old-fashioned Hollywood techniques and tropes. Pixar movies, while innovative on a visual level, are definitely throwbacks on a storytelling level. Unlike Eastwood, who deliberately seeks out material that has a classical Hollywood feel to it, Pixar is also structured much like a studio would have been in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Like most animation studios, the production staff at Pixar is much closer to the way a production staff on a television show might work, with a large variety of voices contributing a variety of notions to the finalized product. While it’s easy to tell a Brad Bird film from an Andrew Stanton film at the directorial level, both are still readily recognizable as Pixar products in a way that a Warner Brothers film is not necessarily recognizable as a Warner Brothers film. Pixar reignites that old debate over whether or not a director, screenwriter, producer or studio is most responsible for a film’s content and argues indirectly for the idea that a studio can be an author, that a group of people working together can forge something approximating a thematic identity. Oddly enough, for a studio that so often embraces stories about individuals working alone to change the world, Pixar’s films almost always provide occasional glimpses of an individual voice but then speak up more forcefully, in the end, for the collective. But where other studios might be trapped up by ego in this process, Pixar uses it to turn all of its films into at least solid pieces of craftsmanship, if not miniature masterpieces.

What’s even more interesting is that Pixar has a decided thematic throughline to its films. Though multiple themes are present in the films, three have risen to dominate the nine productions released so far, even going so far as to create a neat evolution of the Pixar thematic ideal. For its first five films (save the intriguingly different Bug’s Life, which I’ll examine in more depth in a bit), the studio made films about the relationships between young children and their parents and the way those relationships shifted, changed and warped as children aged. For its next four films, the studio made films about how individuals do or don’t fit within their communities and the ways that communities struggle to encompass the exceptional individuals who pop up within them. And now, with Up and leaked plot details from Toy Story 3 as evidence, the studio is overwhelmingly concerned with mortality.

What’s even more interesting is how these themes intertwine most thoroughly in studio creative chief John Lasseter films, while Stanton’s films close out each rough “section” of Pixar’s filmography with the ultimate statement of that particular theme. Pete Docter’s Up, meanwhile, is almost a refutation of the four films that precede it (its villain could have easily been the hero of any of those four films), while it seems unlikely that Brad Bird—who’s uniquely obsessed with the ways society ostracizes individuals—could have made a film as good as The Incredibles or Ratatouille at any other point in the studio’s history. What’s even more interesting is how these four men, who comprise Pixar’s main creative “brain trust,” have somehow meshed together to create a unified authorial voice for the studio that rarely seems in conflict with itself.

Pixar’s first film, Lasseter’s Toy Story, is the earliest expression of all of these themes. Sheriff Woody is the laid-back cowboy archetype of a leader of a small community of toys, always ready to figure out how best to serve the other toys in his community. He’s also the beloved plaything of a young boy named Andy, and he feels an almost fiercely paternal love for the boy, even as he understands that his relationship with Andy necessarily gives Andy all of the power. And lurking at the back of his mind (though not so acutely as it will in Toy Story 2) is the idea that he will eventually be replaced in Andy’s heart by something.

In Toy Story, that something is the outsider the community struggles to incorporate, Buzz Lightyear, a confidently swaggering archetype of his own, who arrives to adulation from the other toys and the disruption of Woody’s normal routine. Fittingly, the movie’s other major narrative arc has Buzz accepting, thematically, that he will die. He is not an almighty space ranger. He is merely a toy. And while his plastic will not literally decay, his usefulness to the boy who owns him will. In its first film and simplest narrative structure (really, the film is essentially a classic buddy film), Pixar is already laying out everything it will be obsessed by. (Even more interesting is how the short in the studio’s filmography that most resembles Toy StoryTin Toy—finds children a source of horror more than gentle, paternal affection, perhaps a sign that it comes from a bunch of men who have not yet had children themselves.)

A Bug’s Life, directed by Lasseter and Stanton, is the least thematically pure film in the Pixar canon. It incorporates other old Hollywood tropes—like the idea of the country boy going to the city and finding great adventure—and never quite subsumes them into the studio’s formula in the way other films in its filmography did. That makes it pleasantly iconoclastic viewing when watched in, say, a Pixar marathon, but it stands out as being the only film among the studio’s first five that is not dominated by parental fears of a child moving past them that give way to gradual acceptance. The ants in A Bug’s Life have lifespans so short that they essentially have to accept that they will, inevitably, be replaced. Their main goal is to work to build a better community, to protect it from the greedy grasshoppers, who think only of self and take whatever they want. (We’ll have other pieces about Pixar’s politics later in the week, but it’s striking how A Bug’s Life also lays out the studio’s political views so handily—there’s a kneejerk liberalism there, but also a creeping dread that all of the good liberals do in trying to build a community can be easily undone by freeloaders.) More than any other film, A Bug’s Life defies easy categorization into the categories I’m laying out here.

Not so Toy Story 2, which takes everything Toy Story was obsessed with and heightens it. Directed by Lasseter, Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich, the film pounds into Woody the notion that he is a toy, with a shelf life, that he will inevitably outlive his usefulness and have to watch his surrogate son lose any interest whatsoever in him as the son necessarily grows up and moves on. The film is not about finding a way for Woody to preserve the feeling of being a loved and special toy forever (as the original Toy Story treatment, available on the DVD, was), but, instead, about him learning to accept that he will both lose his son and metaphorically die. The film’s notions of community are less pronounced than they were in Toy Story, but they’re present, especially as the ad hoc community undertakes a rescue mission to free Woody from a toy collector.

Monsters, Inc., directed by Docter, David Silverman and Unkrich, is the first film in Pixar’s canon to make explicit notions of parent-child love and concern. While most of the praise for the film stems from its ability to invent a wholly separate world that runs parallel to our own and intersects with it at key points (namely, children’s bedroom closet doors), it deserves equal consideration for how it turns a surrogate parent-child relationship into one that feels like a real one by the end. Despite the fact that young Boo spends what seems like several days in Monstropolis, we never get any indication that her parents in our world are terribly concerned about her disappearance. Instead, big, blue, furry Sully is the one who gets to experience the realization that the proper place for children is in a position where they are guided by their parents but eventually grow apart from them, as he eventually must do the right thing and place Boo back in her proper place. Monsters, Inc., doesn’t have much in the way of mortality concerns on its mind, though it does have occasional thoughts on community, namely because the one at its center is dying, needing to find a new way to beat an energy crisis. The dominant theme for the first time is that of parents realizing their children will outgrow and even replace them.

If Docter, Silverman and Unkrich were the first to let that theme dominate a film, by the time Stanton and Unkrich’s Finding Nemo came around in 2003, their playing up of that theme and Toy Story 2’s subtle raising the volume on that theme had come to make it seem like Pixar could only make films about how parents don’t want to see their children go but realize they must. Finding Nemo, about a lonely clownfish with just one son who embarks on a voyage throughout the entirety of the ocean to find him when he is snatched by an aquarium collector, is a lovely farewell to that theme, both playing it up to a point that no prior Pixar film had and finding a way to gradually lay it to rest. When the film begins, Nemo, with his one fin smaller than the other, is solely the responsibility of his father. When it ends, he is the responsibility of an entire community of friendly fish, an ad hoc family, and while that family’s presence does not lessen Nemo’s father’s pain at the fact that his son will recede from him, growing murkier the further he pulls away (the film’s lovely final image), it certainly helps him realize that he has a place within the world other than “father.”

Pixar would evolve to find more interest in those themes of communities and individuals’ places within them in its next four films, starting with 2004’s The Incredibles. That film would also bring the studio its first arguable auteur in Bird, whose favorite themes nicely coincided with Pixar’s new bent. Bird was responsible for the best non-Pixar, non-Disney American animated film of the ‘90s (and arguably THE best animated film of the ‘90s), The Iron Giant, but that film’s gentle liberalism and send up of Cold War paranoia didn’t really prepare audiences for the weird liberal elitism Bird’s two Pixar films espouse (a philosophy that would earn him comparisons in pieces to everyone from Ayn Rand to fascists).

While I appreciate that this theme pops up in both of Bird’s films, Bird’s films are also uniquely obsessed with how communities combine lots of talented individuals in a system that creates something bigger than all of themselves—a metaphor for filmmaking, most likely. It’s also not solely unique to a film like The Incredibles—where Bird’s fretting that attempting to make everyone feel exceptional would sand the edges off the truly exceptional somehow became picked up by conservative commentators as a bludgeoning bat against the long-dead corpse of political correctness. The Incredibles is interested in family issues, yes, but they’re more the issues of parents with children who are growing older and firmly asserting themselves as independent individuals. What it and Pixar are most interested in at this point is the idea that communities need to be built up and nurtured, yes, but not at the expense of the individual.

By forcing superheroes underground, the world of The Incredibles also forced them into unexceptional lives where they were of less use than they would have been more fully expressing their talents. Bird’s films are messily personal (one always gets the sense that he feels like a misunderstood genius), which makes them the most fascinating Pixar films to dissect, but The Incredibles and Ratatouille are of a piece with the films Pixar was making at that time. If either film is elitist or fascist or Randian, it’s not because Bird is any of those things but because the studio itself had taken a turn in that direction at the time, perhaps indeed believing itself to be truly exceptional when compared to Hollywood morass at some subconsciously collective level.

Of the major Pixar creative voices, it’s Lasseter who’s always been the most interested in old-time American iconography, the traditionalism that gives Pixar the base it neatly skews with its highly technological filmmaking style. He and the late Joe Ranft created Cars next, the film in Pixar’s canon that has easily the least support. What’s interesting about the film is how it inverts the themes of the other three films of this period of Pixar’s filmography. Lightning McQueen is an exceptional racecar, yes, much, much better at racing than everyone else around him, but he has much to benefit from listening to everyone else he meets in the tiny town of Radiator Springs, even learning lessons about how to be a better racer from them. Cars remains a pretty weird film on a conceptual level—while it’s obviously a piece of highly personal filmmaking, it also occasionally feels like one of those ‘80s animated shows designed to sell toys—but where Bird’s films and Stanton’s WALL-E elevate the individual at the expense of the community, Lasseter’s portrayal of the death of Radiator Springs suggests that there should be a limit to this sort of thing, that the community should come first in some instances. Weirdly, the film in Pixar’s filmography it most resembles is A Bug’s Life.

Pixar’s next film was to be the directorial debut of short director Jan Pinkava, a film about a rat who learns to cook with a highly comic tone. When the film was determined to not be working, it was handed over to Bird, who played up the extreme physical comedy of the concept (which involves the rat master chef literally turning another chef into his puppet) and the weird ickiness of seeing a rat in a kitchen into what may be Pixar’s most highly personal film. He also ramped up the inherent elitism of the concept. The kitchen is a community, yes (as outlined in a lovely scene where the ghost of a dead master chef shows rat chef Remy that everyone has a place in the kitchen and should not be looked down on), but it’s a community designed to serve the head chef’s vision. The idea here is that when someone comes along with a certain degree of talent, it’s necessarily good to help them achieve that talent if your job runs parallel to theirs. (It’s not just Linguine who becomes a puppet here. The film’s one major female character, Colette, throws aside all of her own ambitions to be alongside Linguine and, eventually, to serve Remy, the film’s single biggest flaw.)

While this is necessarily the case on a film set (and it’s worth pointing out that Bird’s prickly, individualistic voice may have been reacting somewhat to the collaborative voice of the Pixar studio system), it’s not really the best way to run a society. The central debate over Bird’s two Pixar films (which, again, there will be more of in the week to come) is over whether he literally believes this is the way society should be run or whether he just worries that placing too much of an emphasis on the community shuts down individual voices. The Iron Giant suggests that Bird has an old-school liberalism that believes in communal values, but his Pixar work suggests it’s not as set in stone as even he might like.

On the other hand, maybe Bird was just picking up on something in the water at Pixar at that time because the following film, Stanton’s WALL-E, easily the most acclaimed Pixar film, is all about two exceptional individuals who literally remake the world around them into the image they want it to be. Much has been written about the lyrical loneliness of the film’s opening 45 minutes, when the almost impossibly cute robot WALL-E courts the sleekly efficient EVE throughout a post-apocalyptic Earth that has fallen into environmental catastrophe. Again here, classically liberal notions of protecting the community—here, expressed through surprisingly biting satire as an environment fallen into disrepair because greedy humans took and took and took and didn’t think about the consequences of their actions—eventually turn into a story about how the ways communities fix themselves and work best is when they get behind the leadership of a great leader. WALL-E is not the genius talent of Bird’s films. He’s just a likable guy who wants to do the right thing, but in a selfish, infantilized world, that becomes nearly an act of revolution, as he eventually leads back a big baby humanity to reclaim the world it abandoned. WALL-E, being about robots and all, is positively full of scenes where first the robots, then the humans, throw off the programming that society puts on them to express their individual spirit, but the film ends with the humans trading in one kind of programming for another, and it’s not immediately clear Stanton sees the cynicism in that.

Docter was less involved in Pixar’s mid-period films than the other three members of the studio’s brain trust. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that he would usher in what appears to be another period for the studio with Up, released earlier this year and co-directed with Bob Peterson. Up takes perhaps the predicted thematic route for a bunch of men who started out as young and suspicious of domesticity, moved into considering their roles as fathers and then began to consider their roles as leaders within their community: Now, they’re taking time to think about death. (Toy Story 3, which is all about what happens when Andy goes off to college, seems likely to continue this theme from what little we know of it.) Up takes as its protagonist a very normal, average old man, who’s spent his whole life with a little girl he met when he was 9 and now finds himself facing the end of a lonely life without her. While there are community themes here—the hero, Carl, eventually becomes an active part of his neighborhood by becoming involved in the life of Eagle Scout Russell—the predominant one is that of looking back at life and seeing what good it was, what you did to make other people’s lives better. Perhaps interestingly, the villain here is an elitist—an explorer who retreats from society when they fail to recognize him as the great, shining example of humanity he believes himself to be—and he’s defeated by a very common man. This is, in essence, the previous four Pixar films flipped on their ears.

I don’t necessarily think that this overview of these films suggests the studio had a grand, master plan. Nor do I think that some of the criticisms of Pixar’s themes—particularly its community themes—are all that accurate (something I hope to wrestle with another writer over later on in the week), but I think detecting the presence of this evolution of thematic intent in the work of the studio (even if this piece oversimplifies some of this to a degree and even if I’m still not sure how to plug A Bug’s Life into this whole schematic) allows a starting point to begin to consider the studio’s output more critically. In the days to come, other writers will look at the roles of things like religion or politics in the studio’s films, while still others will dissect some of the films in detail. Most of us love Pixar (including myself), but we have a few skeptics who are going to present their concerns. Regardless of how you feel about the studio, I’ll hope you’ll stick around and share your thoughts in comments. Pixar’s place in the American film scene is so singular at this point that I’m kind of surprised there hasn’t been more close critical examination of who and what they are. In the week to come, we’ll try to right that balance.

An addendum: We have a week full of provocative pieces (as described above), but it’s not too late to get in on the action. I’d particularly like people who’d want to dissect one of the studio’s shorts, as that’s something we’re a little, uh, short on. So if you’d be interested in writing about Pixar in the next few days, please e-mail me at [email protected] Thanks!

House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark and co-host of the podcast TV on the Internet. His writing also appears at The A.V. Club.

Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.

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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion

The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.

1.5

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.

For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.

As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.

Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.

Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

3

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.

The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.

Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.

Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria

Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.

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The Cave
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Wade Muller’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?

Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is despite decades of degradation and overgrowth speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.

By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.

Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.

Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.

Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, however, that work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the documentary is preceded by a languid opening drone shot of the skyline of Al Ghouta, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost beautifies or poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool and distanced perspective conflicting sharply with the later embodied close-ups of the suffering victims of the bombings.

As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.

Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Addams Family Is an Ooky Show of Confused Messaging

Throughout, the film tirelessly hammers home the point of being true to yourself.

1.5

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The Addams Family
Photo: United Artists Releasing

The Addams family has always proudly embraced its otherness with a mix of confidence and indifference to the opinions of judgy neighbors. And Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan’s animated The Addams Family is no different in that regard, setting up its fish-out-of-water scenario as soon as Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) take off to New Jersey and settle into the Goth mansion where they’ll raise their two children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). All, of course, with the help of their loopy Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and loyal servant, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), whose rocking out on the mansion’s giant pipe organ constitutes the majority of the film’s score.

With the family’s strict adherence to ceremonies steeped in their vaguely Eastern European roots, particularly the saber dance that Pugsley prepares for throughout the film, the metaphor for the immigrant experience writes itself. But The Addams Family’s targets are ultimately not the seemingly resentful bigots who fear the Addamses’ presence in their neighborhood, but an outmoded notion of suburban conformity that harks back to the 1950s. MAGA-esque indignation, which occasionally creeps in through a comment spewed from within an angry mob, is dwarfed by a distaste for, of all things, tract housing and HGTV-esque renovations.

In fact, the film’s villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), doesn’t fear the Addamses for their cultural differences, but rather for the devaluing affect their eyesore of a house, perched on a hill, will have on the community of homes she’s building nearby and planning to market on her hugely popular television show. While Margaux’s town is called Assimilation, the lockstep conformity demanded here isn’t one that requires the Addamses to reject any deeply held beliefs or cultural norms, merely to apply a quick slap of paint to their home and endure a wardrobe change or two. This leaves The Addams Family feeling pretty toothless, even for a family film, as it’s unwilling to even pinpoint the true roots of the townspeople’s fears. Its eventual forgiveness of their thinly veiled jingoism, passing the enraged residents off as otherwise friendly, well-meaning people who simply fell victim to the manipulations of the greedy Margaux, only further dilutes any potentially relevant commentary.

In a subplot involving Wednesday’s venturing into Assimilation Middle School and befriending Margaux’s daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher), The Addams Family offers an intriguing twist on the idea of the Addamses as a perfect family. When Wednesday shows signs of accepting Parker’s fashion advice, she finds in her family, particularly Morticia, the very same intolerance they’re confronted with around town. But this nugget of wisdom is soon lost in the wind when Wednesday returns home to protect her family in their hour of need. Until the finale, the film tirelessly hammers home the importance of being true to yourself, yet its ultimate resolution, one of relatively uneasy compromise, confuses even that simple point. You be you, but eventually everyone wants to fit in one way or another, so maybe change just a bit?

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Elsie Fisher, Tituss Burgess Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan Screenwriter: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Mister America Is an Essential Addition to the On Cinema Universe

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called OCU weighs heavily on Eric Notarnicola’s film.

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Mister America
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Equal parts absurdist satire and ambitious serialized melodrama, Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola’s online comedy series On Cinema and its extended universe—including Decker and The Trial miniseries—together comprise one of the brilliant multimedia projects of the decade. Originated in 2011 as a rambling podcast featuring the inane and unenlightening movie chatter of fictional amateur reviewers also named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, the show has since blossomed into an elaborate Siskel and Ebert-style pastiche that has increasingly focused on the ongoing drama playing out between the hosts at the expense of any critical insight, all while intersecting with and commenting on the real world in ever-elaborate ways. As a self-contained enterprise completely produced and financed by the fictional simulacrum of Heidecker, the various twists and turns of the show’s content over the course of its now 11 seasons come as a direct extension of the showrunner’s ego and overreach, with Turkington, the self-described “expert,” more often than not a misery-ridden victim of his tyrannical partner’s outrageous whims.

The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called On Cinema universe (or OCU)—far too head-spinning a metafiction to summarize in a few sentences—weighs heavily on Mister America, the first theatrical release to emerge from the Adult Swim-sponsored fictional world. But Heidecker and company have taken steps to extend the subject matter beyond its niche audience. In a shrewd maneuver that marks a first within the OCU, Mister America is framed as the work of an outside creator: Josh Lorton, a documentary filmmaker (played by series director Notarnicola) drawn to the peculiar case of Tim’s run for district attorney of San Bernardino county—a bit carried out for several months this year on Heidecker’s real Twitter account. In presenting itself as an unbiased, third-party view, Mister America allows itself the luxury of recapping critical pieces of the fictional timeline without coming across as monotonous filler for the devoted fans, since Lorton’s position as a neutral observer simply curious about a local eccentric brings a new angle on familiar absurdities.

Playing journalist, Lorton fills in the context behind Tim’s district attorney campaign with clips from recent seasons, ersatz local news clippings, and social media posts. As part of season nine, Tim ran the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, an EDM bacchanalia funded by scam money and fueled by suspicious vape oil that left 20 teenagers dead and put Tim on trial, facing a life sentence. This string of events led to the OCU’s most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the aesthetically exacting five-hour mock-broadcast, courtesy of the fictional Apple Valley News, of this weeklong trial (the judge of which, Curtis Webster’s Edward Szymczyk, appears in Mister America to provide shell-shocked commentary). One mystery member of the jury was responsible for the trial’s inconclusive verdict, and Mister America picks up with Tim having hired this person, a reactionary single woman named Toni (Terri Parks), as his campaign assistant on the basis of her dubious former ad experience.

The shady and ill-advised people Tim aligns himself with on the show—including Axiom and Manuel, the members of Tim’s nü-metal band Dekkar, and Dr. San, the spiritual guru responsible for the Electric Sun’s lethal vape oil—provide ludicrous counterpoint to the ongoing toxicity of Tim and Gregg’s relationship. Likewise, the Tim-Toni dynamic proves to be Mister America’s richest vein, as Toni’s guileless support, which verges on idol worship, if not romantic interest, periodically softens Tim’s autocratic harshness, and the scenes between the two in Tim’s Best Western “office” offer a compelling push-pull between dictatorial behavior and collaborative stupidity. In the film’s funniest scene, a boozed-up Tim tries to dictate an impromptu social media press release about his D.A. opponent, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), while Toni struggles to open a Word document, with Tim’s sudden rhetorical adrenaline gradually yielding to a resignation over his partner’s incompetence.

The wishy-washy campaign run by Tim and Toni suggests the kind of misguided political adventure many impassioned Trump supporters might theoretically embark upon in the wake of their leader’s success: an emphasis on eradicating crime, getting things back to the way they used to be, and leveraging personal vendettas for political gain. In this case, the outsized target is “Rosetti the Rat,” Tim’s moniker for the prosecutor who went after him in court, for whom he harbors such hatred that it leads to the campaign slogan, “We Have a Rat Problem.”

An uproarious montage follows Tim, fancied up in a bargain-basement beige suit and wraparound shades, as he plants signs with this slogan throughout his community, and the film’s trajectory hinges on an imagined showdown with Rosetti that’s almost guaranteed to never happen. Rather than going toe-to-toe with Rosetti on the campaign trail, Tim must instead contend with Gregg, whose participation in Lorton’s documentary throws Tim into one of his tantrums, as his On Cinema co-host knows the truth and wants nothing more than to spoil the bogus campaign—at least when not showering Lorton with unwanted movie trivia.

Just as it’s intriguing to watch Tim present himself for Lorton’s camera, outside the usual venues over which he exerts control, Gregg, too, winds up a more complex character by virtue of being observed in the film’s real-life setting. Already established within the OCU as a deeply troubled figure who medicates his loneliness via a fetishistic collector mentality, the neurotic ambassador of the rinky-dink Victorville Film Archive comes across even more sad and socially inept in Lorton’s presence. Several times, spurned by the camera crew, Gregg wanders off into the strip-mall anonymity of San Bernardino with no destination in mind. These shots, simultaneously haunting and amusing, color Gregg’s involvement in Tim’s personal affairs as the compulsions of a man with no other prospects in life beyond his cardboard boxes of useless VHS tapes—an impression created in On Cinema but given palpable heft in Mister America.

All of this may seem preposterously overcomplicated to the uninitiated, but the film is actually rather safe and inclusive in its comedic approach, leaning toward upbeat cutting and broad punchlines at the occasional expense of the drier, thornier documentation of psychological warfare on display in The Trial and On Cinema. The film’s streamlined form is justified by the journalistic framing device, of course, but Heidecker and Turkington’s combined improvisational genius is best served in the more open formats of the shows, when they have the free reign to be long-winded and dig into their characters’ respective pathologies.

That’s not to say that Mister America entirely lacks such antics—the climactic town hall meeting, which rapidly escalates toward hysteria, plays out in a convincing approximation of real time—but that it retrofits the pricklier excesses of Heidecker and Turkington’s comedy into a more recognizable mockumentary shape. In any case, what’s so fascinating about the world of On Cinema is the way each creative outgrowth expands and deepens the lore, and Mister America’s universe-specific innovations, including the introduction of Lorton’s outside observer, renders the film indispensable in context.

Cast: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Don Pecchia, Curtis Webster Director: Eric Notarnicola Screenwriter: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Eric Notarnicola Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Gemini Man Erects a Cardboard World Around Its Special Effects

Whatever new technology facilitated its genesis, the film is just another assembly-line reproduction.

1.5

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Gemini Man
Photo: Paramount Pictures

In centering its action melodrama around the confrontation between its main character and a duplicated version of himself, Ang Lee’s Gemini Man joins some dubious company: the forgotten Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Replicant, the late-pre-governor-era Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Sixth Day, and Richard Lester’s abortive superhero sequel Superman 3. These films relied on split-screen techniques and misleading cuts to split their respective heroes in two—tricks that had, in essence, existed since Georges Méliés. New digital technologies appear to have spurred this old Hollywood hobbyhorse back into action, as Gemini Man’s preternaturally gifted, recently retired secret agent Henry Brogan (Will Smith) confronts not just a clone, but a younger clone, logically dubbed Junior and also played by Smith, de-aged via facial scanning and semi-automated digital animation.

If the special effects industry has devised some new tricks, however, Gemini Man is hardly evidence that Hollywood screenwriters have. Co-written by Billy Ray, Darren Lemke, and David Benioff, the film never successfully redirects our attention from its naked exhibition of advanced CG and toward some sort of meaningful conflict. The broadly sketched attributes that define Brogan are either totally utilitarian (he has a bee allergy, which comes into play in a manner so haphazard that one suspects that the payoff was added at the last minute) or completely unexplored (such as his insomnia). Sometimes, the script’s sense of characterization also betrays its undercooked thinking about its ostensible main subject. To wit, the film dwells both on how Brogan’s traumatic upbringing shaped his psychology and on how different Junior’s youth has been, but then it has Brogan assemble a precise and specific psychological profile of Junior based on his own mind. Nature or nurture? Whichever one, apparently, is convenient to producing a teary-eyed Will Smith in a given scene.

Given Benioff’s writing credit here, it’s also hard not to draw a connection between the phony female badassery of HBO’s Game of Thrones and how Gemini Man treats Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the agent sent to surveil Brogan in his retirement. When Brogan, attempting to relax and do some boating, outs the attractive young woman working at the dock as an undercover D.I.A. agent (definitely not C.I.A., for whatever reason), he observes, ostensibly impressed, her distinguished record: how she never received a single demerit despite her expansive resume of operations throughout the globe. Brogan then spends the remainder of Gemini Man explaining standard spy procedures to her, like going on the lam, as if she were a rookie. (Lee, Benioff, and company also stage an egregious scene that sees Danielle the seasoned spy strip for an awkward pat-down from Junior.)

Junior has been sent to kill Brogan by Clay Verris (Clive Owen, doing his best to menacingly hit those American diphthongs), Junior’s surrogate father and the head of Gemini, a private military contractor. Brogan, it seems, constitutes a proverbial loose end for both the D.I.A. and Gemini, which cloned him in 1995 and now has his replacement ready to go. The seeming arbitrariness of Verris choosing Junior to assassinate Brogan is hardly accounted for by the film’s explanation, which has something to do with Brogan being Junior’s “darkness” that he must vanquish in order to…become a real man? It’s unclear, particularly as it appears that Verris didn’t want Junior to discover that they were actually the same man.

Perhaps appropriately, Gemini Man suggests a hybrid clone of Bourne, 007, and Terminator flicks. An internecine conflict between shifty agency types divided over what to do about Brogan plays out in dry cellphone exchanges, a pursuit through mostly random places around the globe provides the film with exotic backgrounds for motorcycle chases and extended fisticuffs, and a late-film revelation about Gemini’s ultimate goals raises the specter of a post-human world. Throughout, the action is underwhelming, as Lee uses rapid cuts and tight angles to disguise faulty CG—but to no avail. The problem is less Junior’s digitally altered face—which, while not perfect, can actually emote—and more the rubber bodies that bounce around the frame, rolling out of car accidents and flipping into karate kicks.

Gemini Man is an action movie whose attempt to carry emotional weight is betrayed by the utter weightlessness of both its spectacle and its narrative. There’s a story here about middle age and the loss of youth, the uncanniness of knowing you were once a person you no longer are—the existential discomfort of looking in a mirror and seeing someone else looking back. Occasionally one gets a glimpse of the film Lee thinks he’s making: Brogan avoids mirrors, as he avers on a few occasions, and interestingly, Lee frames close-ups almost frontally, the actors nearly staring into the camera, as in a mirror (or a Yasujirō Ozu film). There’s a self-reflexive element to Gemini Man, concerning the illusory preservation of youth in the cinema and the way Hollywood reflects ideal selves back to us. But Lee can’t do much with this idea, and even a soulful pair of performances from Smith can’t enliven the cardboard world erected around the special effects at the heart of the film. In the end, whatever new technology facilitated its genesis, Gemini Man is just another assembly-line reproduction.

Cast: Will Smith, Clive Owen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong, Douglas Hodge, Theodora Miranne, Linda Emond, Ralph Brown Director: Ang Lee Screenwriter: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 117 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: The Dead Center Is an Atmospheric Study of Human Futility

The film is in tune with the need to remain lucid and empathetic while in the maw of human extremity.

3

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The Dead Center
Photo: Arrow Films

People who work in intense environments, such as police stations, social services offices, and hospitals, are familiar with the strain of needing to remain lucid and empathetic while in the maw of human extremity. Primarily set in a hospital over a few days, writer-director Billy Senese’s The Dead Center, which follows a handful of medical professionals as they grapple with something that symbolizes their fear of succumbing to their patients’ sickness, is profoundly in tune with this sense of strain.

Senese and cinematographer Andy Duensing capture the hard white and sickly yellow light of a hospital in the middle of the night, as well as the eerie alternation of droning white noise and silence that can define such a setting. The filmmakers allow this hospital, especially the psychiatric ward, to creep into our bones. (It certainly helps that the staff here isn’t composed of actors who appear to be out of central casting, as they suggest truly harried and exhausted members of the working class.) Occasionally puncturing this nocturnal twilight are the piercing sounds of patients in crisis, and Senese expertly captures this ebb and flow between the expectation of violence and weathering it. At its best, The Dead Center exudes some of the concentrated lo-fi intensity of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane.

The Dead Center has a horror-movie hook, which often lingers at the narrative’s margins and screams of Chekhov’s gun. The film opens with an ambulance delivering to the hospital a John Doe (Jeremy Child) who sliced his wrists and chest. Senese films the ambulance’s trip from a god’s-eye view, suggesting a supernatural presence that might not be all that friendly. Later, after John Doe is toe-tagged and bagged, he sits up, and Senese springs an unforgettably creepy sound effect: the crinkling of the body bag, which suggests the crackling of electricity. And this effect is complemented by the poignant sight of the quivering John Doe rising from the bag and wandering the hospital and slipping into an empty bed for warmth. In this moment, Senese grounds resurrection in the textures of a very realistic setting.

John Doe is discovered by the hospital’s staff, and psychiatrist Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) is charged with discerning his identity and illness, though Forrester, a renegade with considerable emotional issues himself, doesn’t get far with this endeavor. Carruth invests a familiar type—the hotdog professional with little personal life—with a haunting and unusually opaque vulnerability. He keys us into Forrester’s desperation to hide his own weaknesses from his staff, though his pain is only partially explained. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative thread, medical investigator Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) investigates John Doe’s origins. This trail leads him to a motel room drenched in blood, and, in another bone-chilling detail, Graham drains a tub of blood to reveal a spiral carved at the bottom. Uncovering John Doe’s identity, Graham discovers a man marked by death, who has become a corporeal Grim Reaper.

The Dead Center is ultimately an atmospheric study of human futility. John Doe might be a monster, but he’s also the ultimate incurable victim, who destroys any degree of control that Forrester and Graham fight to assume over their surroundings. Not unlike H.P. Lovecraft, Senese allows his audience to feel as if it’s only seeing but a tip of a malign iceberg, and that ineffable impression of vastness is existentially frightening.

Cast: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs, Bill Feehely Director: Billy Senese Screenwriter: Billy Senese Distributor: Arrow Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mary Quickly Squanders Its Promising Horror-Movie Hook

Michael Goi’s film comes to feel as if lacks a through line, collapsing into a series of disconnected horror-movie beats.

1.5

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Mary
Photo: RLJE Films

With Mary, whose title refers to an ancient ship with a history of drifting off course and losing its crews, director Michael Goi and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski have settled on a fertile setting for a haunting. This isn’t a grand ship in the vein of either version of Ghost Ship, but a vessel that’s intimate with seemingly little in the way of the sort of nooks and crannies that are integral to games of supernatural hide and seek.

As the latest doomed crew boards the Mary, with the purposes of turning her into a tourist boat along the Florida coast, Goi derives some suspense by implicitly prompting the audience to wonder where the bad stuff can happen, given the constriction of the setting. Intensifying this unease is the film’s one unnerving image: of the boat’s masthead, which is a wooden carving of a beautiful woman with wide, accusatory eyes—presumably Mary, a siren.

At first, it seems as if Mary is going to be a riff on Stephen King’s Christine, in which a young man became romantically obsessed with a vintage vehicle, a 1957 Plymouth Fury. Just as Christine beckoned to its next victim from a junkyard, as a seemingly innocuous antique, the Mary calls to David (Gary Oldman), from a distance as he’s scoping another boat at an auction. Like Christine, the Mary seems impractically beat up, which is a part of the seduction, as they both play into the hero complexes of emasculated men. In David’s case, he’s attempting to break free of a life as a captain for another man’s business, and to help his family rebound from a domestic crisis that isn’t revealed until late in the film. Which is to say that Mary has a promising hook to go with its setting: Initially, it appears that it will tell a story of David’s undoing, of his obsession with a haunted ship that destroys him with promises of redemption.

Astonishingly, Goi and Jaswinski drop that hook immediately. David, who has the most invested in the ghost ship, is shunted off to the film’s sidelines as the Mary works his family over in predictable ways. The man’s wife, Sarah (Emily Mortimer, who’s every bit as game as Oldman), is plagued by nightmares, while their little daughter, another Mary (Chloe Perrin), draws creepy pictures of a mystery woman. Tommy (Owen Teague), the boyfriend of David and Emily’s older daughter, Lindsey (Stefanie Scott), is driven insane almost immediately, while Lindsey is batted around as a victim between various infected parties.

With Goi and Jaswinski unwilling to explore a kinky, psychosexual bond between a man and his demonic lady ghost-boat, Mary comes to feel as if lacks a through line, collapsing into a series of disconnected horror-movie beats. The film’s momentum is further stifled by a framing device—seemingly ported over from a generic cops-and-robbers television show—in which Sarah is interrogated about what happened aboard the Mary. The filmmakers are attempting, via this framing device, to impart a sense of mystery and inevitability upon the narrative, but it serves to make Mary feel as if it’s half over before it even began.

Cast: Gary Oldman, Emily Mortimer, Owen Teague, Stefanie Scott, Chloe Perrin, Michael Landes, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jennifer Esposito Director: Michael Goi Screenwriter: Anthony Jaswinski Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Film

Review: First Cow Aims, and Often Strains, to Illuminate the American Experiment

Its themes are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.

2.5

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First Cow
Photo: A24

The best Kelly Reichardt films strike a sublime balance between character study and socioeconomic critique. First Cow—a mostly 19th-century-set drama co-written by Reichardt and frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, and based in part on his 2004 debut novel The Half-Life—is one of the director’s shakier efforts. The film begins with an especially incisive William Blake quote (“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”), and its themes of systemic exploitation, the enduring vagaries of the free market, and the alternately tender and tempestuous bonds of male camaraderie are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings.

That isn’t to say Reichardt, who’s edited all of her films since Old Joy, has lost the ability to create multilayered, gently provocative imagery. First Cow’s opening scene, set in the present day, is particularly beautiful, visually and thematically. A young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog uncovers a pair of skeletons beside an Oregon river. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frames the bones in a steady, un-showy composition (the film is photographed in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio) so that it takes a few seconds to realize what you’re looking at. The slow-dawning revelation of the moment epitomizes Reichardt’s tendency in First Cow, as well as in many of her other films, to let drama emerge steadily and organically.

How did these bones get here? Reichardt is content to leisurely amble toward the answer to this question, and that approach does intrigue in the early going. In the Pacific Northwest wilderness of the 1820s, a cook named Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) accompanies an aggressive group of trappers as they head toward an Oregon Territory outpost. One night he discovers a Chinese immigrant, King-Lu (Orion Lee), hiding naked in the nearby brush. King-Lu is apparently on the run from some Russian ruffians, so Cookie hides him among the trappers’ belongings. The pair reconnect again at the outpost, where they become drinking buddies and, eventually, partners in fortune-seeking crime.

The outpost’s wealthiest resident, a haughty Englishman referred to only as Chief Factor (Toby Jones), has just brought in the first cow to grace the territory. Figowitz and King-Lu decide to steal the cow’s milk—under cover of night, and as often as needed—which they then use as the key ingredient in artisanal pastries that become a lucrative staple of the outpost’s thoroughfare. Their unwitting benefactor finds out about the treats (though not, at first, about their underhanded procuring methods) and offers them a handsome sum to bake pastries for him personally. And so the cycle of exploitation, righteous and not, continues—until it can’t.

None of that summary quite captures First Cow’s gravelly ambience. The outpost itself is as vividly realized and lived-in a location as the mining town in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film Reichardt nods to here via both Anthony Gasparro’s mud-strewn production design and the presence of Rene Auberjonois as a scarecrow-thin eccentric with a crow always on his shoulder. The sense of a nascent community rising up out of the primordial muck is palpable, so it’s unfortunate that Figowitz and King-Lu ultimately feel outside it all.

This isn’t the fault of Magaro or Lee. Both performers have a pleasing and often very funny rapport, especially whenever they exchange conspiratorial glances over a shared bottle of whiskey. However, Reichardt sees Figowitz and King-Lu, first and foremost, as the bag of bones they will become (abusers and victims both of capitalist injustice), rather than the men they are in each given moment. Their all-too-apparent endpoint supersedes their tragically flawed existence, which has the adverse effect of diminishing their humanity, reducing them to paper-thin symbols. This wreaks havoc with a finale that grasps for a profound elementalism akin to one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lushly ardent fantasias, but instead comes off with the contrived ambiguity and labored didacticism of lesser John Sayles.

There’s more insight into economic, racial, and social inequities in the offhand, unsubtitled exchange that Reichardt captures between two Native American women (one played by Lily Gladstone, the breakout star of Certain Women) as they converse among themselves in Chief Factor’s home. It’s the supporting cast and the side details that really sing in First Cow, both giving a sense of the alternately hopeful and despairing qualities of the American experiment that Reichardt aims, and too often strains, to illuminate.

Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, Alia Shawkat, Rene Auberjonois, Jared Kasowski Director: Kelly Reichardt Screenwriter: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt Distributor: A24 Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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