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Understanding Screenwriting #27: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #27: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Up, Summer Hours, A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Easy Virtue, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, but first…

Fan Mail: Brandon suggested I may have missed some details of How I Met Your Mother, and he certainly has been a little more perceptive about the show than I was. He’s right that the significance of the meeting with Stella is the connection to Tony and that it leads Ted to teaching. I will also buy Brandon’s point about the story being told the kids over one day, but I was getting in a dig that has bedeviled series television from the beginning: the set-up that is difficult to sustain. Here are three examples from different decades.

Racket Squad was an early fifties show, first in syndication, then on CBS. As I wrote in my book on the history of television writing, they dropped an interesting approach: “In the first episodes, [Captain] Braddock [of the Racket Squad] narrates the stories, but in the second person, addressing the victim of the con. This supposes that Braddock knows everything about the con before the victim tells him, which makes him rather obnoxious.” They changed the narration to third person.

In 1963-64 there was a ninety-minute series called Arrest and Trial. In the first 45-minutes, the cop (Ben Gazzara) arrested somebody. In the second 45-minutes, the defense attorney (Chuck Connors) proved they were innocent. As Sy Salkowitz, who wrote a couple of episodes, said, “If Ben Gazzara made a good arrest, Chuck Connors couldn’t get him off. If Chuck Connors got him off, it made Ben Gazzara look like a stupid ass.” The show died after a year, and it took another 25-years for Dick Wolf to figure out the simple solution to make it work: the lawyers in the second half of the show are THE PROSECUTORS. Duh.

In the first season of Crossing Jordan in 2001, Jordan solved crimes with the help of her ex-cop father by acting out what they knew about the crimes. It was obvious and clunky, and it was dropped fairly quickly.

Up (2009. Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Peter Docter, story by Peter Docter, Thomas McCarthy, Bob Peterson. Yes, in the onscreen credits, they avoid the “and” and “&” completely; it’s known as collaboration. 96 minutes): Nobody cared.

Up has been driving me nuts. In my book Understanding Screenwriting, I made the point in writing about Finding Nemo that the GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar) make a point of writing films that can only be done as animated films. You could not do a live action film about fish having those adventures. You could not do a live action film about cars with those personalities. You could not do a live action film about Monsters, Inc. In the book, I gave the 2003 animated film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas as an example of an animated film that could have easily been done live action (except for Eris’s hair, which was beautifully animated). So here’s the story of Up: Carl, a cranky 78-year-old man, decides to fulfill his late wife Ellie’s dream of going off to Paradise Falls in South America. Being a former balloon salesman, he attaches hundreds of balloons to the house and with the Wilderness Explorer Russell as a stowaway, they fly off. In South America they discover Charles Muntz, the aged explorer who originally inspired both Carl and Ellie as kids, but he turns out not to be very likable. Carl and Russell protect a bird Muntz is trying to capture, and then new best friends Carl and Russell return to civilization to eat ice cream. Anything in there that requires animation? No. CGI effects for the house flying maybe, but not animation. The characters are real human beings, not fish, rats, or trash compactors. The locations could be found. It could have easily been a live action film.

But it isn’t. And it’s a brilliant ANIMATED film. How the hell did they do that? O.K., I know it’s the GAPS, but how the hell did the GAPS do that? Let’s take care of the obvious things first. As usual with the GAPS, there is a strong, strong story. Danny Munso’s excellent article in the May/June 2009 Creative Screenwriting will tell you how much work went into the process of developing the story. They spend a LONG time developing the story at Pixar, going off to help out on other films as a way of refreshing their brains. The effort shows in the final product. Near the beginning there is a four-minute montage of the life of Carl and Ellie that has received great praise, and rightly so. An article in the Los Angeles Times mentioned that as they originally laid out the montage, it ran twenty minutes. They cut it back to just what they needed. Pay attention to the details in the montage; EVERYTHING in it comes back throughout the picture, sometimes in surprising ways. Meanwhile, it works because you are so caught up in the story and the characters.

Also as usual with the GAPS, there is great characterization. Carl is not just a cranky old man, although he is that as well. Having seen his life with Ellie, we know what all of the adventures he goes through mean to him. Ellie essentially disappears early in the film, but her presence stays with Carl and us. And, as the writers told Munso, the character of Russell calls to mind the character of Ellie, so we can see why, in these circumstances, Carl puts up with Russell, however grumpily. And Ellie’s character pays off beautifully at the end when Carl once again opens up her “My Adventure Book” and gets a surprise.

Writing about WALL-E in US#2, I mentioned that the GAPS are great at writing for the performance of the designers and animators as well as the voice actors, and that is true here. We get the house (and look at how much they get out of the house), the balloons, the scenery, and Muntz’s dirigible.

O.K., all of those things (story, character, visual look) could be done in live action, so we are back to the central question of today’s seminar: why animation for this story? A friend of my wife’s was for many years a medical illustrator at UCLA. Why have a medical illustrator when you can have photographs? Photographs give you so much more detail. Yes, but a good illustrator can draw only what the surgeon, for example, needs to see. How many times have I mentioned that as a writer you only should write what you NEED in a film? The GAPS have used that ability of animation to isolate only what you need to tell THIS story, which in turn focuses our attention on the essentials. They have done this because for twenty some odd years they have been working as a team refining their understanding of their medium (animation) and the stories they bring to it. I doubt if they could have brought off Up when they started, but that they can now is a tribute not only to their talents and collaboration, but to the institution of Pixar. Sometimes individual geniuses are great, but in filmmaking sometimes collaborative genius is essential.

Oh, one other thing. When my wife and I went out to see Up, our intent was to see it in 3-D. The 3-D showing was sold out, so we figured we’d see it in 2-D, since that show was only ten minutes later. Neither we nor the rest of the audience seemed to be bothered by the 2-D version. I am sure the 3-D version has some stunning visuals (mind the GAPS), but our audience was so caught up in the story and characters it gave it a round of applause at the end. In other words, Jeffrey Katzenberg, nobody gave a flying fuck it wasn’t in 3-D.

Summer Hours (2008. Written by Olivier Assayas. 103 minutes): An auteur film, but not really.

As French producers have discovered over the last several decades, you let an auteur director make the film he wants and it is usually a mess: lots of jump cuts, fancy camerawork, people sulking, and not very interesting scripts. So while Assayas is definitely an auteur (he directed as well as wrote this film), he has written a brilliant screenplay for himself, much more coherent than those for some of his other films. Tony Rayns, one of Sight & Sound’s regular critics, described the film in his August 2008 review as “Not exactly plotless but with no clearcut structure.” Which is what you get when you let auteurist critics try to deal with screenwriting.

The plot is very simple on the surface: When Hélène, the 75-year-old mother dies, her three adult children must decide what to do not only with her house out in the provinces, but with the artwork in the house. Frédéric, the oldest and the only one still living in France, would like to keep the house and artwork together and in the family. Adrienne, a designer who lives in New York, and Jérémie, who is living in China and about to move there permanently, would just as soon sell everything and split the money. In an American film you could see this quickly turning into a raging melodrama with lots of yelling and screaming and family secrets spilling out all over the place. It will surprise you to learn that there are only a couple of scenes in which voices are raised in this film. It is obvious the siblings disagree, but equally obvious they love each other.

That plot may justify Rayns’s “not exactly plotless,” but the structure is very rich and complex. This is not just about the family, this is also about France, French culture, and globalization. At the family get-together in the beginning, before Hélène dies, she goes over with Frédéric what is in the house and what she would like done with it. We can’t follow all the names and art pieces, but we get enough. Later, we see the representatives of the Musée D’Orsay and others going through the house and evaluating what is there. This scene works beautifully because we know what these things MEAN to the family. And that scene is matched near the end when Frédéric and his wife are “visiting” several of the objects on display at the Musée. American films tend to look more at individuals rather than the culture, but Summer Hours is as much about culture as character.

Assayas also beautifully structures the characters. In addition to the siblings and their stories, there is Frédéric’s wife Lisa, who is a classic example of someone who has married into the family and as a partial outsider sees it a lot clearer than the insiders. You know someone like that in your family. We first see this during the family gathering, then it pays off in the scene in the Musée.

Frédéric’s and Lisa’s daughter, Sylvie, the oldest of the grandchildren, is first seen in an informal treasure hunt at the family gathering. Then she disappears from the film, only to come back when Frédéric has to pick her up after her arrest for shoplifting. I thought this was an extraneous scene, but it’s not. The three siblings have figured out that the kids are not really interested in the house and therefore are not part of the discussion on what to do with it. Sylvie’s attitude in the police station would seem to confirm that. Then in the final sequence Sylvie and her younger brother and a group of their friends have a last weekend party at the house. You can see what’s going to happen. Only it doesn’t, as Assayas the screenwriter pulls off two or three twists, including a final one that provides the most sublime ending of a film since Julie Delpy’s lack of reaction to Ethan Hawke’s “I know” in Before Sunset.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009. Screenplay by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon, based on characters created by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon. 105 minutes): Bigger, better, but not necessarily funnier.

One thing before we start: Not only does Charlie Dickens need to get a new agent (see US#26), but so does Milan Trenc. And who’s he when he’s at home? He wrote the book that the 2006 Night at the Museum was based on. He was credited on that film, but not on the sequel, while the two screenwriters get credits not only for screenplay but for the characters. O.K., O.K., they did elaborate on what was essentially a children’s book, but since I am required by blood oath to defend writers, I’m just saying…

I was mildly amused by the first film, but it struck me as somewhat underdeveloped. While generally I am not in favor of sequels becoming bigger, this is something of an exception. The original focused on Larry Dailey, who ends up working as a night guard at the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibitions come to life at night and hi-jinks ensue. Some of them were funny, but I felt more could be done with the idea.

When Garant and Lennon were asked to do the sequel, they decided to take some of those characters they created for the first Museum to the Smithsonian in Washington. The setup for the sequel is that the old exhibits are being shipped off to storage in the Federal Archives, which for purposes of this film are under the Smithsonian. Larry, who has kept up his friendship with the exhibits, learns that the tablet that enables them to come to life has been shipped with them and could cause harm if it falls into evil hands, which of course it does. Since the Smithsonian is several different museums spread out over the Mall, this gives the writers a lot more to play with. The brother of the boy Pharoah in the first film plans to use the tablet to bring to life the most evil characters in history, including Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible, and Al Capone, to help in his plan to take over the world. He tries, Larry tries to stop him, hi-jinks ensue. Sounds like a plot to me.

What is it with reviewers and scripts? Both the reviewer of the film and columnist Peter Bart in Weekly Variety (May 25-31), complained, with Bart commenting, “Most important, this is a film that displays a truly surreal sensibility in that it has no tenable plot.” What they were both thrown by is the fact that structure in gag comedy is not as crucial as it is in other genres. Look at the reviews of the “early, funny” Woody Allen movies and they all complain about the lack of plot. Look up the original reviews of the Marx Brothers movies and you will find the same thing. The plot in the new movie is a very simple framework upon which to hang the gags. A picture like this depends on the gags, and they are as surreal and off-the-wall (literally in the sequences when paintings and photographs come to life) as anything in Duck Soup. The ratio of hits to misses is very high in this movie.

Yet I was not laughing, and usually I am an easy laugh. But I was not laughing because I was so charmed by surrealism of what they came up with that I did not mind not laughing. I have that response sometimes to Buster Keaton’s stuff as well. The way they use the famous photo of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square at the end of World War II is just plain ingenious. Watching one of Jeff Koons’ balloon pieces come to life is charming. The quick meeting of Amelia Earhart and the Tuskegee Airman comes with a throwaway line that contains more social comment that most films manage in two hours. A comedy can work if it makes you laugh a lot. It can also work, as this one does, by making you enjoy what you are, if not laughing at, smiling at.

The writers, who are performers as well as writers, have also written great parts for the actors, which help hold the film together. I think this may be Ben Stiller’s best work, surprisingly subtle in his reactions to the craziness going on around him. The evil Pharoah is Kahmunrah and is played by the great Hank Azaria. Azaria is imitating the voice of Boris Karloff, who starred in the original The Mummy. Bill Hader is as good a General Custer as Errol Flynn was in They Died With Their Boots On, but in a very different key. (Hader was equally good a few months ago in a more realistic role in Adventureland. I am not sure he is going to be a star, but he’s already a better character actor than his work on Saturday Night Live would lead you to believe.)

I love Carla Gugino, but she was not particularly memorable in the first Museum film. The equivalent part here is Amelia Earhart, played by Amy Adams as a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, and Claudette Colbert. Garant and Lennon have given her some great thirties dialogue and she runs with it. She more than holds her own against the great CGI effects. Shawn Levy, the director, was quoted in the June 1 New Yorker on what he discovered about male members of the audience, “I spent two years working on this highly complex movie, loaded with FX and C.G.I. [sic. Somebody tell David Remnick that Industry Standard is no periods] stuff, the most memorable visual turns out to be Amy’s, uh, rear in her jodhpurs.” Would you consider that writing for performance?

Easy Virtue (2008. Screenplay by Stephan Elliott & Sheridan Jobbins, based on the play by Noël Coward. 97 minutes): It’s Coward, but not as funny.

While Noël Coward’s great plays such as Private Lives, Design for Living, and Blithe Spirit (currently on Broadway; Congratulations to Angela Lansbury for her Tony for it; Geezer Power Rules!) are often revived, the 1926 play this film is based on is not, and with good reason. As Stephan Elliott told Peter Clines in an interview in the May 22 Creative Screenwriting Weekly, what we think of as the great Noël Coward wit simply is not there in this early drama. Coward himself did not think much of the play and those who have seen Eliot Stannard’s 1927 film adaptation are not that crazy about it, either. (Yes, yes, I know, the 1927 film was directed by the fat little kid Stannard was teaching everything he needed to know to make movies; see Charles Barr’s elegant English Hitchcock for details of Stannard’s importance to the kid’s career.)

When Stephan Elliott, who also directed, and his writing partner took on the project, they decided to bring some Coward-like wit to the story. There is some, some of it probably from the play, which Elliott found rather vicious, but the melodrama aspects of it keep crowding it out. In the play Larita is an older woman who marries a young British man, John, and goes with him to his parents’ country house, which she finds absolutely stifling. The play is set entirely in the house, but Elliott and Jobbins have opened it up, although that is not entirely the word for it, since they have made sure that even in the exterior scenes Larita is hemmed in by others. Though they have made Larita closer in age to John, there are still a number of lines that suggest a greater age difference than we can see. The writers have brought the period forward to 1929, to judge from a reference to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and Larita has now become a race car driver cheated out of winning the Grand Prix at Monte Carlo because she is a woman. She is first cousin to Night’s Amelia Earhart, but the writers here have not given her great dialogue Garant and Lennon have given Earhart. The costumers here have also not given Jessica Biel the formfitting jodhpurs the other costumers gave Amy Adams.

I have not read the original play, but it is obvious from its production history that Larita is the star part. The film is written that way as well, with the writers picking up and expanding on Larita’s wish to be rid of the stuffy upper-class English society. Jessica Biel has given some good performances (The Illusionist), and she gives a good performance here. Unfortunately, it is not the required movie-star performance. She does not come in and command the screen the way she needs to do. She is not helped by the platinum blonde hair, the makeup and the cinematography. Biel is not as physically luscious here as she usually is, which is too bad, because that could have given her performance an interesting texture. Kristin Scott Thomas does take command as John’s mother, who is determined to keep up appearances. Thomas knows her way around a bitchy line, and while Biel holds her own in that department, we have to score it advantage Thomas.

The drama sort of works, and there is a nice moment when John’s father, played by many women’s definitive Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth, does the tango with Larita when John won’t. Which nicely sets up the very satisfying ending.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009. No writing credit. 101 minutes): Collaboration.

Robert (lyrics) and Richard (music) Sherman came to work for Walt Disney as the only songwriters on staff at the studio. They not only wrote the songs for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, but “It’s a Small World” for the exhibit of the same name at the 1964 World’s Fair and the later rides at the Disney theme parks. The pre-credits sequence establishes most of that and then gives us the kicker: the two brothers couldn’t stand to be around each other when they weren’t working together. The film is made by Gregory V. Sherman and Jeff Sherman, two cousins, each one the son of one of the brothers. They had not spoken to each other for nearly forty years when they met up and decided to do this film. They were not able to reconcile their fathers, but they have come up with a terrific film that shows you how the brothers managed to create such terrific songs while not otherwise speaking to each other.

As we have talked about on many occasions, documentaries can give us wonderful characters, and the brothers, who are still alive, are definitely characters, in every sense of the term. They are surrounded by other interesting characters as well, many of whom we see interviewed for the film. We get not only interviews with actors like Julie Andrews and Haley Mills, but musicians like John Williams (there is some wonderful footage of a much younger Williams hanging out with the brothers; who knew the composer of Star Wars used to be a hippie?), Randy Newman (no slouch at doing songs for animated films himself), and Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin).

What is at the heart of the film is the collaboration of the brothers, and especially their collaboration with Walt Disney himself. I am not the only person to point out that John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, who is also interviewed, is the closest thing we have to Disney in his sense of story and his belief in the collaborative process. See the comments on Up above for details. Seeing this film the day after Up gave me a real sense of connection between the past and the present in animation. And quite frankly, it also made me appreciate how much better the animation is in some Pixar films than it is in some of the Disney classics.

As I mentioned in US#2 about The Order of Myths, one question that nearly always comes up with documentaries is what was left on the cutting room floor. One person who is never mentioned in the film, and who appears only briefly and unidentified in one clip, is Michael Eisner. Eisner took over Disney in the early eighties and revived the studio, bringing back animated musicals. He was the Emperor and Pope of the studio, appearing on television to introduce Disney shows. Why isn’t he here?

One possible answer to that comes from Alan Menken, who talks in the film about coming to the studio to do The Little Mermaid. He was told the Sherman Brothers had an office down the hall, but the person telling him said it in a rather dismissive way. That may have come from Eisner, since the Pope and Emperor sets the tone, in this case a deep lack of respect for tradition.

I was thinking about this after I saw the film and I was reminded of a visit I made to the Abbey at St. Florian, outside of Linz, Austria, in 1998. We were shown around the apartments that had been grandly decorated for potential visits from Popes and Emperors (you didn’t think I was just being snarky about Eisner, did you?). Nobody was particularly impressed, especially when we learned the Popes and Emperors almost never visited. But down at the end of the same hallway, there were two little non-descript rooms. One had a small bed, the other had a table, chair and piano. We were enthralled. These were the rooms when Anton Bruckner lived and composed.

Power fades, talent abides.


Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Review: Skin Confronts White Supremacy from a Dubious Point of View

The film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like attempts at masking a certain conventionality.

2.5

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Skin
Photo: A24

In 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt identifies the early adherents of the Nazi movement in Germany as belonging to a “mob,” which she distinguishes from the “mass” as a motley group of the disaffected who felt themselves in various ways betrayed by the dominant institutions of society—in essence, the outcasts from the masses. Guy Nattiv’s Skin finds this mob of resentment thriving in the American Rust Belt, where neo-Nazi leader Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) recruits young runaways to his organization, baiting them with hot meals and a simulacrum of family warmth. He and his wife, Shareen (Vera Farmiga), indoctrinate young drifters into their disciplinary, Oedipal clan, with Fred as the fearful father figure and Shareen as the mother whose affection they must earn.

A remake of Nattiv’s Oscar-winning short of the same name, Skin is based on the true story of Byron “Babs” Widner (Jamie Bell), who grew up under Fred and Shareen’s tutelage but is beginning to harbor doubts about the group’s cause. The film opens with a confrontation between a march of allied neo-Nazi groups and a counter protest headed by the activist Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter), in which Babs and other skinheads corner and assault a black protestor, disfiguring the young man and running off. Babs has a conscience, and he slowly comes to regret this assault. Early on, the film gives us another example of his cloaked sense of right and wrong: At a rally where Fred announces his congressional candidacy, another white nationalist verbally accosts a trio of young girls singing a folkish—or rather, völkisch—tune, and Babs defends them, beating up the much larger man with a mic stand.

In Nattiv’s film, the face-tatted Babs’s practiced, neutral expression becomes an ambivalent mask hiding wounded insecurity, explosive rage, or both. His violent defense of the young girls earns him gratitude from their mother, Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), a legacy member of the white power movement who’s decided to begin to removing herself from her family’s milieu. As Julie and Babs’s connection becomes romance—and as Jenkins pursues Babs, thinking he might be able to convince the neo-Nazi to become an informant—the couple puts more and more distance between themselves and Fred and Shareen’s perverse surrogate family, placing themselves in direct conflict with a dangerous mob.

To symbolize Babs’s gradual break-up with his violent family, the film periodically flashes forward to the grueling, years-long process of removing the racist tattoos plastered across his body. Close-ups on ink being pulled out through skin, accompanied by Babs’s fraught screams, suggest that the pain his skin causes him in these scenes is just recompense for the crimes he committed and endorsed on behalf of an ideology built around the color of that skin.

Skin offers some insight to the appeal and functioning of white supremacist groupings, but after a while, the film’s not-strictly-linear structure and handheld camerawork come to feel like self-conscious signs of “gritty” realism, attempts at masking a certain conventionality. This is, in the end, the story of a bad man being redeemed by the love of a good woman, and it’s worth questioning why Babs, rather than Jenkins, is at the center of the film. As Skin illustrates in an early, exposition-heavy scene, Jenkins has facilitated the turning of around a half-dozen Nazis. That a black man would dedicate so much time, at great personal risk, to penetrating the minds of avowed, violent racists seems the much more interesting—and relevant—story here. It’s not that anything in Skin runs egregiously contrary to the facts, or that Babs’s story isn’t moving as presented, but one may be justified in contemplating why his turn away from Nazism is presented primarily as a personal redemption arc, and not primarily one of tireless activism and resistance by the opponents of fascism like Jenkins.

Cast: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Kamp, Vera Farmiga, Mike Colter, Louisa Krause, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett Director: Guy Nattiv Screenwriter: Guy Nattiv Distributor: A24 Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Odessa IFF 2019: The Cossacks, Queen of Hearts, Monos, & Projectionist

The festival feels like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

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Monos
Photo: Neon

At first glance, Odessa recalls the Algeria of the 1980s as described by playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, a place where local “currency has no value and there is nothing to buy anyway.” Odessa seems coy about offering a fantasy version of itself to those who aren’t already confined to it and to whom displaying the city—in the shape of superfluous possessions or souvenirs—would amount to a perverse redundancy. It’s a city coherent to the brutal honesty of its human faces, a city virtually without store windows to hawk unessential goods to passersby—unless one traverses its center, where a McDonald’s and a Reebok shop appear as reminders of a glossier elsewhere. Perhaps the way Cameroon, as one Cameroonian once told me, is a country without sidewalks, “unless you go to Douala.” This is, of course, a respite from the capitalist assaults of places where to experience the city is to stack up on its mementos. It’s this context that made the Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) feel like a long-awaited apparition in a place where events of its magnitude might be scarce.

By the Lermontovskiy Hotel, where the international journalists covering the OIFF stay, only food seems to be for sale. There’s a 24/7 supermarket that closes when the security guard sees fit, a “Japanese and Thai Asian Café,” and a regal restaurant named Aleksandrovskiy, which sits inside a garden full of Versailles-esque fountains and statues, and where a select few can feast on a scrumptious leg of lamb on a bed of polenta for 12 euros. Perhaps the same select few who show up for OIFF’s outdoor screening of the 1928 film The Cossacks at the Potemkin Stairs but don’t use the steps as bleachers, like the rest of us, instead taking their seats in the large cordoned-off VIP section close to the live orchestra for a few selfies and then dashing off.

A brief video pleading for the release of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison preceded the film, eliciting passionate applause. Those actually using the steps as seats seemed to truly savor the event, which took the shape of what film screenings were probably more like in the early 20th century: raucous fair-like happenings with lots of talking and where the film was only one of many multi-sensorial elements. In many ways, The Cossacks is about how the production of a nation is entwined with the production of gender norms. Lukashka (John Gilbert) is seen as a softie. He’s derided as being a fraction of a man, or a half-Cossack, because he would rather spend his time reading than fighting, to the horror of his entourage. He ends up going to war in order to legitimize his status as a man for his family and his beloved Maryana (Renée Adorée). In the world of the film, becoming a man involves killing at least one Turk or two, and becoming a woman means marrying a man who has killed Turks.

The Cossacks was a fascinating selection to screen at the Potemkin Stairs because it wrapped a critique of normativity in some of the most sexist of cinematic languages, female ass shots as gags and all, making it hard to know what kind of selective reading of the film the audience might be making. The men on the screen are always either accosting, harassing, molesting, or trying to rape Maryana, which might be what triggered Rose McGowan, one of the festival’s celebrity guests, to leave just a few minutes into the screening.

As much as watching a film such as George Hill and Clarence Brown’s silent drama at the place where one of cinema’s most iconic sequences was shot feels like the crossing off of a bucket-list item we didn’t realize was on that list until we experienced it, the off-screen drama was just as enticing. There was, for instance, the blatant spectacle of Ukrainian income inequality with “the people” huddled up on the uncomfortable steps for two hours eager to engage with a silent film while Ukrainian socialites decked out in animal prints treated the event more like a vernissage. There was also the impossible quest for a public bathroom mid-screening. This involved walking into a half-closed market across from the Potemkin Stairs and interrupting a loud quarrel between a mother and her adult son, who worked at one of the market stalls.

It’s difficult to guess where queerness goes in Odessa. Maybe it only lives as disavowal, as in The Cossacks, which ends with Lukashka, after anointing his masculinity by slaughtering 10 Turks, stating to Maryana heterosexuality’s mathematical logic in its simplest form: “I am your man. You are my woman. I want you.” And the anointing is never final, the film seems to say. Indeed, as his father lies dying in his arms, Lukashka asks him: “Father, am I Cossack?” The question of where queerness might live, in this context, would be finally answered a few days later when I visit the only gay club in Odessa, Libertin, and meet a trans woman name Jalala, who confides that there’s a “place” in Odessa where straight men can go to to have sex with women like her. “Is it an app?” I ask. Jalala smiles and says that it’s a park. “But it’s dangerous,” she tells me. “It’s very exciting and very dangerous.” Because there are skinheads, she says. “Do the skinheads want to kill you or fuck you, or fuck you and then kill you?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she responded. “That’s why it’s dangerous.”

The festival main grounds, in front of the majestic Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy, aren’t unlike London’s Southbank Centre in the early days of summer, where visitors and locals are both sold the idea that the city is this fun all year long. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, with Nina Simone remixes or early Erykah Badu playing in the background, food trucks, a Mastercard stall, and outdoor sitting poufs. There’s also no stress in the air, no suffocating crowds, and as such no anxiety about being turned away from a screening.

When looking at the festival’s program, one may scoff at the apparent lack of diversity and, more specifically, queerness. After a few screenings, though, one may get the sense that queerness does live at the Odessa International Film Festival and, per Jalala’s account, in Odessa more generally—it just isn’t publicized. In Queen of Hearts, for instance, director May el-Toukhy takes the age-old narrative of the stranger who turns up to disrupt domestic bliss, or ennui, and gives it a daring incestuous twist. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and Peter (Magnus Krepper) live an idyllic life in a mansion somewhere in Denmark with two young, and creepily angelic, twin daughters (Liv and Silja Esmår Dannemann). There’s something eerie about this setup even before Peter’s problematic teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), from another marriage is shipped from Sweden to live with his dad and unsettle everything.

What’s uncanny about Anne and Peter’s home is, of course, the way it gleams a kind of speckless completion of the heterosexual project, which could only ever be possible as a mirage. Theirs is the home of dreams bound to become nightmares by the introduction of even the most vaguely foreign element. Such as reality, that most irksome of registers, or a long-lost son. The house of Queen of Hearts, whose drama is so latent you’d only have to snap your fingers for chaos to erupt, evokes the house of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the kind of immaculate luxury that could only be sitting on top of some macabre bunker full of roaches and well-fed zombies. The drama that links these homes is the notion that the epitome of the heterosexual family bliss borders its very obliteration, with the unruly resurfacing of all the gunk that had been swept underneath, as the very foundation for its habitat.

When Gustav arrives, then, and ends up having an affair with his stepmom, a trench coat-wearing lawyer for young victims of sexual abuse, we’re only surprised at how careless they seem to be about being found out. El-Toukhy is smart to avoid sensationalizing the taboo-breaking premise of the narrative with a camera that sides with Anne: her sexual hunger, her contradictions, her stretch marks. This isn’t a film about roundabout incest, but one about the impossibility of satisfaction even for the most privileged woman, one with a high-powered and socially engaged job, money to spare, and a mansion by the lake in a Scandinavian country.

Queen of Hearts focuses on Anne’s paradoxes: She’s a savior and a monster, a middle-aged mother and a horny teenager, unabashedly exposing the inconvenient pores that remain underneath even the most beautifully made-up Nordic skin. And the film is about skin, ultimately. In the way Anne and Gustav have raw sex and the marks on Anne’s stomach are filmed with purpose, sincerity, and no apology. The affair begins when Anne walks into Gustav’s bedroom and gives him a handjob without bothering to lock the door. This comes soon after he brought a girl his own age home and Anne had to sit in her living room, staring at her laptop and drinking a glass of wine, while listening to the teenagers having sex. By the time Anne goes to the lake with Gustav and one of her twin girls, and Anne decides to get in the water, we know the deal is done. “But you never swim,” says the girl. Water in Queen of Hearts bears the same prophetic sexual force that’s appeared in many films, queer or not, from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake.

The affair isn’t about love, of course, or passion. It’s not even about the sex itself. The affair is a settling of accounts, a vampiric attempt to deny the passing of time, which, by virtue of having passed, feels like it’s been wasted. For Anne, the culprit is Peter, who becomes a cock-blocking nuisance. The film, a melodrama with a superb final shot that offers no closure, at times tries too hard to provide a cause for Anne’s passage à l’acte. When Gustav asks Anne who she lost her virginity to, she answers, “With someone it shouldn’t have been,” which makes it seem like the film is suggesting that predatorial behavior is a sort of damned inheritance. The Queen of Hearts is much more successful, and courageous, when it follows the logic of sexual yearning itself, not worrying about rational justifications.

The first few sequences of Alejandro Landes’s Monos evoke Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, except it isn’t only men training in the deserted landscape. A few young women join them, which, inevitably takes the narrative elsewhere, even if the films’ basic premises are similar. In Monos, teenage guerilla fighters are supposed to guard a foreign hostage, Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and a conscripted cow named Shakira. Intrigue and sexual tension ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The only thing that never finds any respite is the flow of violence, which increasingly loses its metaphorical sheen, becoming gratuitous toward the end. What starts out like a social critique gains the aura of an unnecessarily grisly horror film, more about overtly visible chains than the allegorical slaughtering of cows by paramilitary children named Rambo, Lady, Bigfoot, and Smurf.

It turns out that queerness lives even in the faraway mountaintops of the Colombian jungle, as one of the guerilla girls makes two boys kiss at the start of the film, which brought a discrete discomfort to the screening room I was seated in. By the time Nicholson’s character shares a brief lesbian kiss with a reluctant fighter who’s supposed to watch over her, later in the film, queerness is no longer a conceptual surprise hinting at meaningful registers beyond the narrative’s surface, but a kind of desperate attempt to make the plot seem cryptic. Like The Cossacks, Landes’s film is also about the impossibility of maintaining complete control over one’s claim of masculinity, or power more generally. In moments of crisis, the line between predator and prey get very thin, and even the most well-armed warriors have a way of becoming disarmed, naked, and sentimental.

Yuriy Shylov’s Projectionist follows the frailty of all flesh, hawkish accessory in hand or not, through the portrayal of the end of a film projectionist’s 44-year tenure at one of Kiev’s oldest movie theaters. It’s an end that coincides with the crumbling of projectionist Valentin’s own coughing body, and that of his bedridden mother. It turns out that the movie theater, too, is reaching its expiration point. Soon, its doors will close and its employees will be fired, and there’s a sense throughout Shylov’s documentary that analog cinema will be dealt a major blow with the theater’s closure. What will become of the space? Perhaps a Reebok or a McDonald’s. Perhaps a derelict muse for a Nikolaus Geyrhalter portrait of decay.

“You think you’re loud, but in reality you can only hear yourself,” Valentin tells his mother at one point. Her futile yelling of her son’s name from her bed is one of the most haunting motifs in the film. An uttering for uttering’s sake, a demand without expectations of an actual response, a mantra to remind oneself that one is, for now, still alive. Valentin has installed a whistle next to the bed, which he would actually be able to hear when she called if only she’d use it. But the mother mostly refuses to blow in the pragmatic apparatus, instead finding solace in the calling that won’t be heard and, thus, will need to be repeated ad nauseam.

Projectionist can feel a bit aimless, but it’s a welcome reminder of how the materiality of film, and thus its finitude, has something in common with our own—a kinship of frailty that the flawlessness of the digital image erases. Analog is the only technology that Valentin knows, whether he’s sewing, as he’s seen doing in the film, fixing a neighbor’s straightening iron, or projecting old home videos on filthy kitchen tiles. There’s pleasure to be found, for Valentin, not just in the stories, concepts, and metaphors of cinema, but in the very stuff that supports his craft, the paraphernalia of cinema that’s bound to crack, to dry out, to turn to dust, to disappear forever: film stock, Movieolas, spools, and so forth. Cinema, we’re reminded, is necessarily a tool of exposure, not just of the human condition in the face of death, but the human condition as an always gendered affair. It’s a tool that’s never settled, never comfortable, and never forgotten. “Men are cowards, didn’t you know that?” is how Valentin puts it toward the end of Projectionist. In his world, one would know, by looking at the projector, at the very stuff of cinema, how much longer a film would last. The remainder of the film’s “life” is perfectly real, perfectly tangible, and alive because it’s in constant danger of being jammed up and torn by the very engine that ensured its running.

The Odessa International Film Festival runs from July 12—20.

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Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War

The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

2.5

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Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.

Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.

The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.

If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.

As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.

Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him

Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.

3

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Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.

Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.

Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.

Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.

At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.

Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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