Havana, like most Cuban cities, swelters from more than just the tropic heat. Its buildings, except for the few well preserved landmarks you’ll find on the three or four blocks tourists rarely travel beyond, suggest dreams obliterated by nuclear bombs. The streets are cluttered with people, a huckster on every corner, a spy in every window. Women saunter to black markets when their families have exhausted their allotted food rations. Men will sing as they walk, as if to the ghosts of gringos they entertained in the clubs of yesteryear. Around them, tourists shop for more than cigars and Che memorabilia. Fear and resentment hangs in the air, and the people, like flies trapped in amber, constantly reach out for help, some even for a way out.
Lucy Mulloy is a tourist, but she understands Havana’s complex sociopolitical situation better than most. Granted unprecedented and unbelievable access to shoot in the city, the New York filmmaker uses a small army of nonprofessional actors, the very pawns of Fidel Castro’s revolution, to tell the story of three disillusioned teenagers who make the fateful choice of leaving their homeland behind, to make the treacherous 90-mile journey from Havana to Miami with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a sack full of stolen food. Just as the film realistically reveals the largest city in the Caribbean as a maze of history and discontent, it conveys the struggle of its characters to facilitate their escape from their island prison as a ramshackle puzzle desperately pieced together from a hodgepodge of ill-fitting pieces, some stolen, others acquired through bartering.
Mulloy’s fierce attention to a very specific logistical nightmare illuminates the folly of the Cuban revolution. The attempts by Elio (Javier Núñez Florián) and his friend Raul (Dariel Arrechaga) to piece together their getaway raft is at once sad and comic, which accurately describes everyday life in Cuba. This is nicely articulated in a particularly fraught scene where Elio trades his bike for a motor that he doesn’t even test, partly out of carelessness, but also because time is no longer on his side. When he makes the decision to steal food from work, in a scene that subtly reveals just how much the Cuban government polices its people, it’s understood that Elio—like Raul, who’s now on the run for inadvertently injuring a tourist his prostitute mother brings back to their decrepit house—has reached a point of no return.
Una Noche shines a light on the balseros phenomenon without miring itself in politics, such as discussions of the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy. Given such savviness on Mulloy’s part, it’s unfortunate that this rather novel film is compromised by some very novice moves, most egregiously the breathy, dramatic narration by Aris Mejias from the point of view of Elio’s twin sister, Lila (Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre). Unlike the voice that all-knowingly guides us through I Am Cuba, Una Noche’s narration is scarcely poetic and rarely ties together the plights of the film’s three characters, mostly articulating matters that could easily have been related visually and seeming to exist mostly to beef up Lila’s non-story. Whereas Elio and Raul’s unique reasons for wanting to leave Cuba are strongly felt, or in Elio’s cast strongly hinted at, Lila’s never are; she’s just a girl who catches her father cheating and doesn’t want to be separated from her brother.
Worse, and this is in spite of her considerate depiction of the flashes of joy people in Cuba experience in spite of their grueling everyday circumstances, is Mulloy’s lurid depiction of carnality. Beyond married men sleeping with other women and the anti-gay joshing that even targets ladies-man Raul is how sex is treated as a narrative device: for a piece of cake and a digital camera, Raul allows an older woman to suck on his face; he capitalizes on his girlfriend’s father having sex in order to steal the man’s GPS; and though he’s on the run from police, he takes a timeout to aggressively mack on a honey who’s only too happy to punk him by letting him feel her dick. Even at a hospital, where Emilio goes on the sly to get AIDS medicine for Raul’s mother and supplies for their trip, a nurse sexes the boy up as a ruse when a guard walks in on them.
To this critic who once travelled the same route Elio, Raul, and Lila take toward freedom, albeit under more controlled circumstances, Una Noche tugged at my heartstrings, but the film’s almost phantasmagoric fixation on sex can feel crass and dehumanizing. It isn’t enough that Elio is running because he’s in the closet, that Raul’s decision to leave was sealed by a moment of sexual transaction that led to a tourist being hurt, and that Lila’s affection for her brother borders on the incestuous—even their farewell and journey across the waters between Havana and Miami is colored by sex: Before the trio takes off, a white, rather sickly looking teen cuts off a fish’s teeth so he can use the animal as a masturbation aide while peering at Lila’s ass, and once at sea, Raul spends more time hitting on Lila than he does rowing. To Mulloy’s credit, though, she doesn’t cheaply ratchet up the tension of their journey (at least not to the extent to which she aestheticizes, in a manner reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the squalor of Raul’s living situation), and through a pair of ballsy and poignant confessionals—one a kiss, the other a sort of proposal—she almost justifies her obsession with her characters’ sex lives, suggesting that Cubans, in both matters of sex and politics, are united as brothers.
Cast: Dariel Arrechaga, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, Javier Núñez Florián, María Adelaida Méndez Bonet, Greisy del Valle, Katia Caso González Director: Lucy Mulloy Screenwriter: Lucy Mulloy Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2012 Buy: Video
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay
After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.
Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.
Will Win: BlacKkKlansman
Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman
Review: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Makes the Most of Growing Up
The film is noteworthy for its rumination on the subtle costs of its characters’ newfound prosperity.2.5
Time plays a key role in the How to Train Your Dragon films, with each successive entry following up on the characters after several years in order to trace the impact of actions they took. The third film in the series, The Hidden World, sees these characters and their island in the sky greatly transformed from their humble beginnings. Berk, once a barren village inundated with brutal dragon hunters, is now practically impregnable, a haven for the endangered dragons. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is also now its chief, and his companion, Toothless, is the reigning alpha male of all dragons. As a result, The Hidden World doesn’t lend itself as easily to the showstopping spectacle of its predecessors, which saw Hiccup and Toothless doing battle against stronger and often bigger enemies, but it remains noteworthy for its rumination on the subtler costs of these characters’ newfound prosperity.
Early in Dean DeBlois’s film, much is made of the way that Hiccup and his friends have come to take their dragons for granted; raids to free captured dragons only succeed as a result of the enormity of the freed dragons compensating for sloppy human error. Complacency has made the film’s heroes prone to negligence, and the holes left in their security are quickly exploited by Grimmel the Grisley (F. Murray Abraham), a dragon hunter who, having almost single-handedly brought the Night Fury species to extinction, is now targeting Toothless. Not unlike that of other villains in the series, Grimmel’s motivation is simple, but he differentiates himself from, say, Drago Bludvist in his calm, eerily playful demeanor. He easily slips through Hiccup’s lax defenses, and while he could easily kill Toothless within the film’s first act, he spares the creature for the purposes of playing mind games on humans and dragons alike.
Grimmel’s psychological torment results in short bursts of guerrilla warfare, and much of the film’s action scenes tend to revolve around the heroes contending with Grimmel’s own dragons, garish creatures with retractable tusks, scorpion-like tails, and an equal ability to breathe acid and flame. Their attacks feel truly frightening, in no small part for the way the camera tumbles along with these creatures’ skittering and rapacious lunges. Seeing such vicious, disorienting fights play out amid the vividly colorful world of The Hidden World is jarring, exacerbating the sense that Grimmel has completely upended the characters’ usual understanding of conflict and badly exposed their inability to adapt to new situations.
That struggle to evolve also marks the film’s secondary conflict: the internal debate that Hiccup comes to have over his and other humans’ relationships to dragons. The film’s title refers to a mythical realm of dragons that Hiccup seeks in order to build a new, more secure Berk in perfect harmony with dragons. Gradually, however, his notion of utopia is challenged by the increasing realization that even the well-meaning, dragon-loving citizens of Berk still treat their beasts as subordinates rather than as equals. This comes to a head when Toothless, thought to be the last of his kind, comes into contact with a radiant, white-colored female Light Fury and his erstwhile devotion to Hiccup takes a back seat to his biological drive to hook up. Much of the film concerns Toothless attempting to perform courtship rituals to impress his potential mate and increasingly pulling away from his human master in order to spend time with his love interest. Scenes of Toothless clumsily performing dances and other mating rituals are humorous, but underneath his stumbles is a mildly tragic reminder of how alone he’s felt despite living among so many other kinds of dragons.
The difficulty that Hiccup has in accepting his companion’s independence exposes that, for all that the character has evolved as a leader across this series, he’s yet to fully mature. The Hidden World, not unlike Toy Story 3, is fundamentally about the act of growing up and letting go, of coming to terms with the impermanence of relationships. If the film sometimes feels too small in comparison to its predecessors, it manages to make the most of its quietest moments, acknowledging that some aspects of getting older are scary, and that accepting the sacrifices of growing up is as much an achievement as overcoming any living, breathing villain.
Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Gerard Butler, Kit Harington, Justin Rupple, David Tennant Director: Dean DeBlois Screenwriter: Dean DeBlois Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: Paddleton Is an Unintentionally Creepy Ode to the Man-Child
The film largely plays its scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing its actors to indulge their worst tendencies.1.5
Director Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton owes quite a bit of its sensibility to actor and co-writer Mark Duplass, who—along with his brother and collaborator Jay Duplass—specializes in cinema that fetishizes kindness and decency, sometimes at the expense of drama. The Duplass brothers have perfected a cinema of artisanal mildness that has grown increasingly sentimental, with the prickliness of The Puffy Chair giving way to the platitudes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the HBO series Togetherness. And the wearyingly precious Paddleton continues this slide into self-pleased insularity.
Michael (Duplass) spends all his considerable free time with his upstairs neighbor, Andy (Ray Romano). Like many characters conceived by Duplass, Michael and Andy are enraptured with the cocoons they’ve created for themselves. Each night, they get together at Michael’s and eat pizza, solve puzzles, or watch the kung fu movie Death Punch, which pivots on notions of loyalty that they’ve internalized as representing the steadfastness of their friendship. When the men feel like leaving the house, they play a game they’ve made up called Paddleton, which is basically handball with a metal barrel added at the back of their makeshift court for extra scoring. And that’s pretty much it, as Michael and Andy have no lovers, family, or other friends or hobbies. In fact, they look at one another with such pregnant, hang-dog adoration that one wonders if they’re dating (an assumption shared by one of the film’s few supporting characters), which would be much healthier than the apparent truth of the situation.
Michael and Andy are decent-looking, middle-aged, presumably straight men who’ve decided to play house together. This premise is ripe for satire (of the rigid co-dependency of hetero men) or pathos (pertaining to people scarred by trauma, who’re hiding from life), but Lehmann largely plays this scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing his actors to indulge their worst tendencies. Duplass and Romano are shrewd and intelligent performers, but they have a similar maudlin streak; in their respective careers, they tend to value schlubby inexpressiveness as a barometer of truth and realism. (Two respective TV shows, The League for Duplass and Vinyl for Romano, allowed the actors to channel their inner wolves.) In Paddleton, Michael and Andy are so disinterested in external life they seem deranged, though the actors play this terror for homey cuteness, and Lehmann often lingers on close-ups of their emoting, leaving the audience with nothing to discover for itself. The film’s sanctimonious devotion to these man-children is deeply, unintentionally creepy.
Understanding that this buddy shtick isn’t enough for even a direct-streaming comedy, Lehmann and Duplass have added a tear-jerking gimmick: Michael learns in the opening scene that he’s dying of cancer, and he decides that he will take a fatal medication before his illness becomes too painful. In other words, Michael will commit medically assisted suicide, which Andy objects to. One assumes that this conflict will be the driving force of the narrative, but Lehmann and Duplass aren’t interested in the moral implications of Michael’s dilemma, which never causes a significant problem for his platonic love affair with Andy. This plot turn is here to lend the flabby sketches an unearned sense of import, as every meaningful detail of illness is elided. How does Michael, who works at an office supplies store, afford expensive medications—or even to live by himself? What will he say to his family? Such concerns are irrelevant to the film’s hermetic celebration of Duplass and Romano’s chemistry.
Michael and Andy’s desire to seemingly live forever as teenage boys, gorging on pizza and films during sleepovers, is fleetingly interrogated. There’s a promising scene where a woman, Nancy (Dendrie Taylor), hits on Andy in a hotel hot tub, as Andy’s shyness gives way to sheepish, self-hating terror. Here, Romano finally has an emotion to play other than dorky amiability, and the actor rises to the occasion, suggesting with his cowering physicality that Andy is haunted by sexual failure. But the filmmakers nip this scene just as it bears fruit, moving on to yet another unthreatening stanza of pseudo-comedic communion as if determined to see Paddleton cancel itself out before our eyes.
Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Alexandra Billings, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor Director: Alex Lehmann Screenwriter: Mark Duplass, Alex Lehmann Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2019