Of Gods and Men (2010. Scenario by Etienne Comar, adaptation and dialogue by Xavier Beauvois. 122 minutes.)
A great train movie: Religion is a very difficult subject to make a film about. Movies are a very concrete medium. We photograph things and record sounds. Religion is very internal: what we believe and what we feel. How do you show that? With Hollywood it usually involves people looking up into the light with beatific smiles on their faces (see below for a notorious example), which hardly does the job.
Comar and Beauvois (the latter directed) have found a good way to do it. The film is based on a real incident that occurred in Algeria in the mid-‘90s. A group of French monks in a monastery in Algeria are threatened by anti-government rebels. The monks must decide whether to leave or stay. So we are going to watch the pressure on the monks and see what they finally do. The opening scenes alternate between the monks at prayer and the Algerian village they are part of. In the first few scenes with the monks, we do not see their faces, a smart move on Comar and Beauvois’s part, since we will eventually spend a lot of time with their faces and we don’t want them to wear out their welcome. The monastery scenes are quiet, and the village scenes are full of life and color. As we see the monks dealing with the village (giving medical treatment, attending Muslim ceremonies, etc), we learn how intertwined the monks and the villagers are.
The rebels arrive and want to take the medical monk to treat one of their own, but the monks insist they bring the patient there. The rebels are not happy, but you can see they respect the monks’ courage in standing up to them. Then the monks begin to deal with the issue of whether they should leave or stay. Each one has his own reasons, but the way the writers handle it, it is not just a series of checklists. And the monks we thought we knew turn out to have sides we never guessed. We get their faces and their characters. Then the federal government asks the monks to leave. Well, it makes sense. The government is not sure they can protect them. But the villagers want them to stay. What do you do? What is your calling? Is it better served here and possibly dying, or going to continue your work elsewhere? But your work is here, with these people. So for now they stay. The government sends in some troops nominally to protect the monks, but the military is just as dubious about them as the rebels. After all, the monks give medical treatment to everybody, including the rebels. The writers are very subtly revealing the attitudes of all their characters, not just the monks.
The monks decide to take a final vote (there has been at least one before). They all decide to stay, a couple of bottles of the good wine are opened (they are French after all) and Luc, the medical monk, puts on, well, what music would you put on in that situation? Luc picks Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. We watch their beatific faces, looking at each other and not up into the light, and, thank God, Natalie Portman does not dance through. What, you thought I was too classy to make a Black Swan reference? Guess again.
In real life the monks just disappeared, probably killed by the rebels but possibly by the army. Even though this is a fictionalized version, we also do not find out exactly what happened to these versions of the characters. But the fadeout comes after they have been taken away from the monastery by the rebels. If you are going to show that, and at the length they do, then they should show at least the filmmakers’ version of what happened.
When I wrote in US#64 about Unstoppable, I said it was a great train movie, but not necessarily a great movie. Of Gods and Men is a great religious movie, but I am not sure it is a great movie. As much as I love the closeups of the monks, the script doesn’t get into them as deeply as it could. And the ending, as noted above, is rather problematic. Still, the film is better than most in the field.
Rango (2011. Written by John Logan, story by John Logan, Gore Verbinski, and James Ward Byrkit. 107 minutes.)
Quality time with a nine-year-old: There was no way I was going to see Rango. I had seen the trailer several times and it just looked UGLY. The characters are not only reptiles, but reptilian in every sense of the word. Who wants to watch ugly, warty things for 107 minutes?
Then the reviews came out and they were very good and made a point of how the film paid homage to westerns like High Noon (1952). Well, you know I love westerns, but how many scaly things can you watch? Then my daughter called and offered some quality time with her and her family, including my nine-year-old grandson seeing…Rango. The fates were conspiring against me. But my grandson and I got off to a good start when we started elbowing each other in the ribs at the beginning of the trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. He got in the first nudge from the first shot; it took me until the second shot. Do I have to tell you what summer movie he and I are most anticipating? Although I will leave it to his parents to explain Penélope Cruz’s “pointing things at me” line to him.
The opening is very smart. We see Rango, a chameleon (although he is never identified as such in the film, but only referred to as a lizard), pretending to be many different characters. He is playing off the other elements in his dry tank, as we come to realize. And we find out he wants to be an actor. So before we have time to get all icky about his ugliness, we are being brought into his character in the kind of detail that the trailer cannot provide. And the fact he wants to be an actor sets this up as a very self-reflexive film, but in a much more subtle way than is often the case movies today.
Rango flies out of his tank, which is in the car his owners are driving. He is in the desert. So yes, we get him coming through a mirage like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Obvious joke. But then everybody keeps asking him “Who are you?” just as people did in Lawrence of Arabia. So the references are not only visual, but carried through in the script. Yes, the music is very Ennio Morricone-Sergio Leone, but there are four balladeers out of Cat Ballou (1965), with recurring lyrics about the upcoming death of the hero, something one might find in a Sam Peckinpah musical. The lyrics about death get a great payoff at the end. When Rango gets to the small western town, we get a whole flock of “redneck peckerwoods,” to use Peckinpah’s favorite term for them. And the town has no water, but Beans, a crusty girl who could be Mattie Ross’s BFF, finds water flowing out of a pipe. In the desert. So it does not surprise you that the town boss sounds an awful lot like Noah Cross. And there are not only references to Leone, but several shots that almost duplicate ones in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). So when Rango is thrown out of town and finds, with the help of an armadillo that looks like Don Quixote (yes, it’s that kind of a movie), the Spirit of the West, the Spirit is standing by a movie studio golf cart with several awards in it. And talking in Clint Eastwood’s voice. According to the credits, the voice is Timothy Olyphant, but it is dead-on Eastwood. Everything connects.
But the film is not just a western lover’s dream. Because those elements are used to tell the story, the film works even if you don’t get the references. My grandson and I were often laughing at different things throughout the movie, but we both enjoyed it enormously. The director and one of the writers is Gore Verbinski, and he uses animation to do gags, get angles and camera movements he could not do with all the live action talent on the Pirates movies. Maybe he was born for animation.
As for my grandson and me, we can’t wait for Tides. No, Verbinski is not directing it, but the script is by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who did the first three, so the youngster and I know we will be in good hands.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010. Written by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. 114 minutes.)
A Thai Plan 9 From Outer Space?: Unlike with Rango, I was really looking forward to this one. It first came up on my radar when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. The title is amusing, and the story sounded like it had potential: a dying man is visited by his late wife and son, the latter currently in monkey form. Uncle Boonmee recalls his past lives a water buffalo and a catfish, among others. His wife has come to guide him through the dying process. As the film worked its way around the world, the reviews were always positive. It finally showed up here in LA in early March, heralded by a great review from Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. So I went to see it. A few weeks later a letter showed up in the Times from a woman saying she and her friend had gone to see it based on the Turan review and it was a measure of the depth of their friendship that the friend was still speaking to her. She added, “For years I thought Plan 9 From Outer Space correctly deserved the sobriquet of worst film ever, but compared with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Plan 9 looks downright Oscar-worthy.”
Well. I don’t think it is that bad, but it was certainly a disappointment for me. Some of that may have come from having read almost a full year of rave reviews which any film would have trouble living up to. Mostly I think it is that while Weerasethakul had a great idea, he has not developed it very well. The film starts off with a series of shots of a water buffalo. They go on and on. I think the shots are supposed to put us in a contemplative mood, but after a while you need a little more help. Is the water buffalo one of his past lives? How did he feel about being a water buffalo? Was it fun? Then we get the setup for the story. Boonmee’s sister-in-law Jen (the sister of his dead wife) and nephew show up at his farm to help out. We get a lot of practical detail about the injections he needs, etc. And then they all sit down to dinner. And the ghost of the ex-wife sits down alongside them. I like the way they all accept that this is the sort of thing that happens in this world. But then nothing happens with the wife. She comes to him after being dead for several years and has nothing much to say to him? I am not asking for the Thai equivalent of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, but Weerasethakul is missing a lot of opportunities here. Even more so when the son shows up briefly in his monkey reincarnation. Weerasethakul misses opportunities there as well. There are a couple of lines about a worker on the farm being from Laos, but not much is done with that, either. One of the most widely discussed scenes is where a catfish performs oral sex on a princess. Now you know the picture is not working on all cylinders when I am beginning to doze off in a scene where a catfish is going down on a princess. Presumably the catfish is Boonmee, but we get no indication of that. If he is, how did he feel about that? Maybe he was the princess? Or the gorgeous waterfall. Maybe it is just the screenwriting instructor in me, but I kept wanting Weerasethakul to go beyond just putting the idea up on the screen.
The ghost of the wife leads Boonmee to a cave that is obviously—too obviously—death. We get a bit of Boonmee’s funeral, and then the sister-in-law and nephew sitting around watching television. About the time I was about to doze off again, the spirits of those two leave their bodies and go out to a fast-food place. The end.
Joe Daugherty, a thirtysomething writer I interviewed for my book on television writing, said that among the people on the writing staff of that show, he was in charge of Plot and Plot-like Substances. OK, I can get along without a conventional plot. See my comments on Fellini and Resnais in the item I did on Inception in US#52 if you don’t believe me. But a few Plot-like Substances can be a help sometimes.
The Crusades (1935. Written by Harold Lamb, Waldemar Young, and Dudley Nichols. The IMDb lists three other writers who contributed to the treatment but are uncredited; Robert Birchard in his definite book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood does not mention any of them. 125 minutes.)
Speaking of religion: We have talked about DeMille and his house style of screenwriting before, in US#30 about Union Pacific (1939) and US#62 about The Plainsman (1936). Here the pontificating dialogue C.B. seems to have insisted upon takes over the movie, and DeMille makes it worse by having everybody play it very florid, in the 19th-century stage tradition. Which is too bad, because there are some interesting elements in the script. But first of all, kick any notions of there being any historical accuracy in this film out of your pretty little head.
The film sort of deals with the Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart of England. Yes, he did marry Barengaria of Navarre, but for political reasons, not to get supplies for his army, as in the film. Yes, he did conquer Acre, and yes, he did not get to see Jerusalem after he made a treaty with Saladin. And that’s about it. What is interesting about the script, and not entirely inaccurate, is that Richard was much more a warrior than a king. In the film he goes on the Crusade to avoid marrying Alice, the sister of the King of France, which has a tiny basis in fact, but he goes more for the adventure than for any religious reasons. Richard here is a very buff fellow, and if he were better played, he could be a compelling character. Unfortunately DeMille cast Henry Wilcoxon, a very stolid actor. He had been Marc Anthony in DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934), which had been a success. The Crusades ended up losing money, and Wilcoxon never played a starring role in a major film during the rest of his long career.
Richard’s marriage to Barengaria in real life was purely political, but the writers here have made her a devout Christian whom Richard grows to love and who leads him to a conversion. That’s a potentially interesting story, but it gets lost in the verbal bombast. Loretta Young is Barengaria, and she spends a lot of time looking up into the light. For all the script problems, DeMille, as usual, fills the screen with, well, everything. Every shot is full of all kinds of detail. Sometimes it is action, sometimes it is a tableau out of late 19th-century sentimental religious art, and sometimes it is just Travis Banton’s costumes for Young and DeMille’s daughter Katherine, who plays Alice, badly.
What is surprising to us watching the film today is that Saladin, Richard’s Muslim enemy, is a cultured, intelligent man, and Ian Keith, who plays him, manages to avoid the excesses of the other actors. DeMille was proud of the fact that Saladin was shown in a positive light. That view of Saladin shows up in other films about the Crusades, most recently in the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. DeMille said his film was successful in the Middle East, but Birchard’s look at the accounts shows it was banned in several counties in the area and did not make much money in the countries it did play in. I saw the film at a screening as the UCLA Archive Festival of Preservation. One of the staff members introducing the film said that DeMille’s granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley, who was unable to attend, had told him that DeMille had told her this story. When DeMille was trying to get permission to shoot some of his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments in Egypt, he came across a bureaucrat who had seen The Crusades and had been impressed with the characterization of Saladin as a Muslim. The bureaucrat gave DeMille permission to shoot in his country.
Imitation of Life (1959. Screenplay by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, and, uncredited, Sy Gomberg, based on the novel by Fannie Hurst. 125 minutes.)
Anything for a friend: Sam Staggs is a friend of mine and a first-rate film historian. He specializes on books about the making of individual films, such as All About ’All About Eve’, Closeup on ’Sunset Boulevard’ and When Blanche Met Brando. His research is remarkable. Only Sam would track down the woman who was the model for Eve in the short story that became the film. His 2009 book Born To Be Hurt is about the 1959 version of Imitation of Life. I saw the film when it first came out and I must admit it did not overwhelm me. Sam’s book is good, although he gets more into meeting with the surviving cast members and the events they attend than I am sure he needs to. Having read the book, I figured I would give the film a chance the next time I had the opportunity. It popped up on TCM a few weeks ago. I struggled through it.
The 1934 version of the film is a more realistic version of the Fannie Hurst novel, with the white woman working with the black woman’s recipe to become a success in the food business while their two daughters grow up to be trouble of varying kinds. The 1959 version was produced by Ross Hunter, who never met a bit of excess he did not like. So the story was changed. Now the white woman, Lora, is a struggling actress, and the black woman, Annie, is her maid. So we get a lot of details about the Broadway theater scene, nearly all of them wrong. When Lora tries out for a playwright, David, he tells her she didn’t find the comedy in the scene. She suggests he cut the scene. That’s gall, not cheek. And he cuts it. And gives her a bigger part than the one she was trying out for. But wait a minute. He writes comedy, and she couldn’t…find the comedy in the previous scene. So he goes on writing plays, comedies no less, for her, one a year (who writes that fast?) and in spite of her being comically challenged, they are all hits. Yeah, right.
Meanwhile, Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane, keeps insisting she is white. Well, she is played by a white actress, so she may have a point. But Annie seems totally clueless about her daughter’s feelings, although we are supposed to take her as a saint for her devotion to, well, everybody. Just once she ought to slap her daughter, and some of the others, upside the head. Lora’s daughter, Susie, is a spoiled twit (although Sandra Dee’s chirping hides it) who falls in love with Steve, her mother’s boyfriend and surrogate father to her. Fortunately, that does not end as badly as it might. The final scene between Annie (Juanita Moore) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is a real tearjerker, as is the movie as a whole, if you get into it, I suppose. As for me, the wretched excesses of the script, matched by the wretched excesses of the Ross Hunter production (try to keep your jaw from dropping during Annie’s funeral) were simply too much.
Yes, I know that we are supposed to see director Douglas Sirk’s take on the material as satire on American commercialism, but I have never quite bought that view of Sirk. Imitation of Life is funny because it is emotionally excessive, not because it’s satire.
Some Late Winter/Early Spring Television 2011: I’ve been rather slow the last several columns at dealing with a lot of television shows I normally write about, so here is a potpourri from the last couple of months, with some comments in general on certain shows and some on specific episodes.
When last we left White Collar, I was aghast that they appeared to have killed off Mozzie, but I was only half-aghast since I figured they were just fooling with us. I was right, and Mozzie lives! The best episode of the recent season was “Forging Bonds,” written by Jeff Eastin & Alexandra McNally. It is the kind of flashback episode you can really only do well in the second or third season, since a lot of the fun comes from watching the characters we know fall into place. Eight years ago Neal meets Mozzie when they are both street hustlers, and Mozzie realizes Neal’s talent for forgery. With bonds that Neal forges, they try to run a con on Vincent Adler, whom we have come to know in the present. Neal meets Kate, one of the loves of his life, who works for Adler. In one of their scams, Kate and Neal pretend to be cops arresting Mozzie, and as they take him away, Kate tells him she hates the wig he has been wearing. She says she thinks he looks better without it. Well, if a beautiful woman like Kate tells you that…so now we understand why Mozzie has been bald as long as we have known him. The plotting introduces the music box that Neal has been chasing since the series began. As Adler escapes, Peter arrests Neal, their first meeting. Very satisfying.
When Harry’s Law premiered, Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon was less enthused about it than I was, and I think he may have been right. It is preachy, with those long David E. Kelley political speeches. Kelley seems to have fallen in love with the rich lawyer Tommy Jefferson, and we get more of him than we really need. But we already had Denny Crane, and we don’t need another one. In my comments in US#69, I said that Jenna, the receptionist, was not well-defined as a character, and that has only gotten worse. In some episodes she seems reasonably bright, in others dumb as a box of rocks. And I am not sure they are giving their star Kathy Bates enough to do. She seems to be working on about four cylinders instead of eight. Still, four cylinders of Bates is worth looking in on.
Fairly Legal, on the other hand, is moving along well, and Kate has not put her finger in her mouth once in the rest of the episodes. The “David Smith” storyline (he was in her father’s will and nobody knew who he was) has not been as interesting as Kate’s mediation cases. That’s really not a bad sign, since it suggests the franchise (her cases) have a lot of potential.
Justified is having a great second season, and not just because Timothy Olyphant seems more at ease in the role of Raylan than he did in the first season. The writers are also willing to do something very few series do: let a good scene go on more than a minute or two. In the season opener “The Moonshine War,” written by Graham Yost, there is a scene near the beginning between the 14-year-old Loretta and Jimmy Earl Dean. He’s got a thing for her, and a record as a child molester, but she’s three times as smart as he is and talks him into leaving. The length of the scene makes it more suspenseful than a shorter version would, and it also introduces us to Loretta, who will pop up in the rest of the season. This episode also introduces us to the wonderful Bennett clan, lead by Mags Bennett. The sons are halfwits who always screw up, but Mags, the matriarch, knows how to keep them in line. In a great scene in this episode, she comes to Loretta’s father Walter to apologize for her sons beating up Walter for growing pot on her land. Isn’t that nice of her? Meanwhile she has poisoned the cup of moonshine she’s given him and casually watches him die. In the next episode “The Life Inside,” written by Benjamin Cavell, she takes in Loretta, telling her she sent Loretta’s father on a trip and apologizing for not protecting her from the pervert, “Like I promised.” As the scene progresses, it is clear to us, but not to the smart Loretta, that Mags is trying to find out how much Loretta knows about, well, everything.
Another aspect of this second season I like is that they have got Raylan back with his ex-wife Winona, even though she is still married to Gary. Winona is a much better match for Raylan than Ava, the Crowder woman who has now taken up with Boyd. The writers get a lot out of how well Raylan and Winona know each other. Winona is also smart…oops, maybe not. In “Blaze of Glory,” written by Cavell, Winona is putting some files away in the evidence room. She is at an unused group of lockers and finds a pile of money in one of them. A whole pile of money. But it’s old money and she doesn’t know where it comes from. So without telling anybody, she takes one of the hundred dollar bills with her to the bank to find out if it is forged. OK, that’s maybe not so stupid, but she ends up in the middle of a bank robbery and the bill is taken by the robbers. Who are quickly caught by the F.B.I.. She tells Raylan, and he checks the money taken into evidence. He finds three bills that might be hers. End of episode. In the next one, “Save My Love,” written by Yost, Winona tells Raylan that none of the three bills are the right one. The F.B.I. has already scanned it. And, what did I tell you about Winona? She actually took all the money from the locker. Now they have to try to get it back there. Yost creates some terrific suspense as everything that could go wrong with that plan happens. Meanwhile the F.B.I. is checking the evidence and finds the money is not there. Yikes. Except they assume it just got lost, as happens with evidence. And Raylan eventually gets Winona to put the money back in another older locker, in case anybody else comes looking. Winona’s a little more high maintenance for Raylan than I thought, but like Mags Bennett, when she is onscreen, stuff happens. You can’t ask more from characters than that. Well, no, you can, but still.
The Good Wife is also having a good mid-season. My favorite episode so far is “Net Worth,” written by Robert King and Michelle King. Alicia gets involved in a case representing Patrick Edelstein, who is suing a movie studio for making a film about him and the social network website he created. Yes, he is just as arrogant as young Mr. Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010) and the deposition scenes are familiar to anyone who has seen the movie. A more interesting scene is when they depose the screenwriter. Now you would think the screenwriter would be portrayed in a sympathetic way, as screenwriters usually are in other screenwriters’ scripts. Guess again. This guy claims he made it all up, which is obviously not the case, and makes a case for his First Amendment rights, but is an asshole doing it. That’s what I like about The Good Wife: its honesty and realism.
And guess who showed up his ownself on 30 Rock? The real Aaron Sorkin, in an episode written by John Siegel & Dylan Morgan called “Plan B.” Because Tracy has gone off to Africa (although we find out at the end of the episode he’s been hiding in New York) the network is putting TGS on “forced hiatus,” which everybody on the show knows means it has been canceled. So everybody start looking for new jobs. For Liz that involves writing work. One job opening is on a reality show, and in the waiting room she meets Sorkin, who is also applying for the job. So naturally they get up and walk and talk, going around the hallway and ending up where they started. Well, haven’t you always assumed that’s how Sorkin talks?
More than one critic has mention how 30 Rock is very much in the tradition of His Girl Friday (1940) in the speed of its dialogue. I recently watched Friday in my History of Motion Pictures class at LACC, so it was on my mind while watching this episode of 30 Rock. What struck me is that in some ways 30 Rock goes beyond what Friday does. Friday is just plain fast, but Rock doesn’t just have fast delivery of the dialogue. Unlike Friday, the dialogue is filled with non-sequiturs. Friday is linear, but you never quite know where Rock is going. Rock is just as quick to throw in surreal visual as well as verbal elements. Think of 30 Rock as the grandchild of His Girl Friday, moving at computer speed, complete with oddball links, rather than typewriter speed.
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.
Review: Jumanji: The Next Level Finds a Series Stuck in Repeat Mode
The moments in which the film’s blockbuster stars play memorably against type are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action.1
Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: The Next Level visibly strains to justify its existence beyond the desire for profit. The wild success of its predecessor guaranteed another entry in the series, but there’s so little reason for its characters to return to the video game world of Jumanji that this film struggles to orient them toward a collision course with destiny.
Now scattered to the winds of collegiate life, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) keep in touch via group text as they plan a reunion over winter break. Kasdan shoots these moments with excruciating pauses that would seem a deliberate reflection of the awkward cadences of texting were the characters’ in-person conversations not every bit as stilted and arrhythmic. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that Spencer, already so anxiety-ridden, is driven to such insecurity over the possibility that the members of his friend group went their separate ways that he reassembles the destroyed Jumanji game in order to feel some of the heroism he did during the gang’s earlier adventure.
Soon, Spencer’s friends discover what he did and go into Jumanji to get him, the twist this time being that everyone gets assigned to a different player than they were last time, complicating their grasp of the game’s mechanics. But making matters worse is that Jumanji also sucks in Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), who gets assigned Spencer’s old hero, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), as well as Eddie’s estranged business partner and friend, Milo (Danny Glover), who’s placed into the body of zoologist Frankling Finbar (Kevin Hart).
The sight of Johnson and Hart shaking up their stale partnership by play-acting as old men briefly enlivens The Next Level after 40 minutes of laborious setup and leaden jokes. Watching the Rock scrunch up his face as he strains to hear anyone and speaking every line in a high, nasal whine with halting confusion does get old after a while, but there’s an agreeable hint of his tetchy, anxious performance in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales to be found here.
Hart may be even better, tempering his exhausting manic energy by running to the other extreme to parody Glover’s deliberate manner of speaking. The actor draws out every sentence into lugubrious asides and warm pleasantries even in the midst of danger. In the film’s only laugh-out-loud moment, Milo spends so much time spouting asinine facts that he fails to prevent Eddie from losing a player life, prompting a baffled and anguished Milo to lament, “Did I kill Eddie by talking too slow, just like he always said I would?”
But such moments, in which the film’s blockbuster stars play against type, are quickly subsumed by the ugly chaos of the action. There’s no sense of escalation to The Next Level, with each set piece almost instantly collapsing into a busy spectacle of eluding stampeding animals, running across rope bridges, and taking on waves of enemies. There’s no weight to any of these sequences, nor to the game’s new villain, a brutal conqueror (Rory McCann) who embodies all the laziness of the writing of antagonists for hastily assembled sequels.
Likewise, for all the emphasis on video game characters who can be swapped out on a whim, it’s the players themselves who come across as the most thinly drawn and interchangeable beneath their avatars. None of the kids have any real personality, merely a single defining quirk that makes it easy to identify them when their avatars mimic them. And when the film pauses to address some kind of character conflict, be it Spencer and Martha’s ambiguous relationship or Eddie and Milo’s attempts at reconciliation, it only further exposes the film’s meaninglessness. The original 1995 film, disposable as it may be, finds actual pathos in its menacing escalation of horrors and the existential terror of contemplating a lifetime stuck in the game as the world moved on. The Next Level, on the other hand, is a moribund, hollow exercise, dutifully recycling blockbuster and video game tropes without complicating either.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Awkwafina, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann Director: Jake Kasdan Screenwriter: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Chinese Portrait Is a Grand Reckoning with the Passage of Time
The drama here is in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t.3.5
As a recording apparatus, the camera no longer disturbs or announces its presence. It’s a ghost in the room, as banal as a limb. Xiaoshuai Wang restores the exceptional status of that most revolutionary of technical devices in Chinese Portrait, a series of short-lived tableaux vivants for which the gravitational pull of the camera is re-staged.
The simplicity of bodies barely moving before a camera that brings their quotidian temporality into a halt is nothing short of a radical proposition in our digital era—in the context of a culture obsessed with using cameras precisely as anti-contemplation devices, and a film industry still so invested in producing artificial drama in order to tell its stories. In Chinese Portrait, there’s no need for storylines, tragedy, or spectacle for drama to emerge. The drama is in the minutia of the mise-en-scène, in the gap between bystanders who return the camera’s gaze and those who don’t. The drama is in the camera’s de-escalating force, its ability to refuse the endless excitation it could provide in favor of one little thing: elderly people stretching in a park, black and brown horses in a field, two of them licking each other’s backs. This is the camera not as a Pandora’s box, but as a sharp laser beam with curatorial intentions.
The drama here is also in Chinese Portrait’s very concept, which is similar to that of Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, where motion is born out of prolonged stillness, and to that of Susana de Sousa Dias’s works on the effects of Portuguese dictatorship, Obscure Light and 48, where stillness is all there is, photographs namely, and yet so much moves. Wang’s film also bears a kinship with Agnès Varda’s later work, where a human being is made singular in a fast-moving world by standing still and recognizing the device that records them. Both Varda and Wang seem to see sacrilege in taking the camera for granted. A couple of tableaux in Chinese Portrait derail the notion of the individual embossed from their habitat by the camera’s insistent gaze, as in a group of men kneeling down to pray, their backs to the audience, and a later segment of a crowd standing entirely motionless in the middle of an abandoned construction site, sporting scarves and winter jackets, staring at the camera in unison.
Something remains quite alive and oddly “natural” within the documentary’s portraits as Wang’s mostly still subjects inhabit the gap between staging and posing by appearing disaffected. Or perhaps they’re stunned by modernity’s deadlock. Everyone seems perpetually in transit yet perpetually stuck. Wang’s fleeting portraits feature Chinese folk confronting the lens in their everyday environments, but not all of them react to the camera’s might in the same way. Some stand still and stare while others look away, but they’re all largely aware of the recording device singling them out as muses of the landscape.
The portraits offer evidence of differing temporalities in this numbingly fast world, too convinced of its universal globalism. Evidence of conflicting temporalities within worlds, too, as some subjects in the same frame bother to stop and others go on about their lives. In a provincial alleyway, various men sit on stoops from foreground to background. Some stare into the horizon—that is, a cemented wall, the film’s most recurring motif. Others refuse to allow the viewers to be the only ones looking. Several bathers on a sandy beach stare at the off-camera ocean, except for one man wearing a large fanny pack, certainly staring at us behind his shades. At a construction site, an excavator digs while another worker sits on a slab of concrete, gawking at us as we gawk at them. A man rests his hands on his hoe to look at the camera with a half-smile, like someone from the 1980s, who may approach the cameraperson to ask what channel this is for and when he can expect to be on television.
Through the sheer power of blocking, the methodical positioning of elements in the frame, Wang reaches back to a time when there was an interval, a space for waiting and wondering, between an image being taken and an image being seen. Another temporality, indeed, captured by cameras, not telephones. That was back when sharpie scribbles would don the tail end of film reels, which are kept in the frame here by Wang, as one portrait transitions into the next. The filmmaker’s urgent reminder seems to be that it’s not all just one continual flow. Time can actually stop, and we can choose to look or to look away.
Director: Xiaoshuai Wang Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 79 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019