Equality of the Equals: The Square


The 71st Cannes Film Festival opens on Monday, pitting 21 films against each other to win the affection of a famously prickly audience (and Cate Blanchett). The main competition’s Palm d’Or is probably the most coveted prize in international film. Last year it went to The Square, a satire by the Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund. As it happens, The Square is currently among Hulu’s limited but often surprising library of films, so in preparation for not attending the Cannes Film Festival, you can easily catch up with last year’s winner, as I did last night.

The Square is a smart satire of the contemporary art world, a target that is ripe, even over-ripe, for parody. It targets with precision the pretentious, jargon-filled language of academic art studies; the role of money in high art; and the gulf between the ideals and the actions of bourgeois artists and aficionados. These issues speak to the entrenched hypocrisy of a global art culture that is thoroughly self-reflexive but not at all self-reflective, that in its tired postmodernism is obsessed with “the everyday” but completely alienated from it. The film underlines this hypocrisy in what is essentially a series of comedic, surreally tinged vignettes centered around its main character. But given that the aloof world of high art is hardly a stranger to mockery, The Square walks a thin line between incisive critique and pat caricature, occasionally stumbling onto the easier of the available paths.

The central character is Christian (Claes Bang), the quietly egotistical curator of an art museum in Stockholm dubbed the X-Royal because, in the film’s alternate present, it has taken over the space of the Swedish Royal Palace. Today, in real life, the Palace is still occupied by the Swedish monarchy, but the fictional X-Royal is Östlund’s grandest metaphor for the aristocratic pretensions behind high art’s paper-thin veneer of social radicalism. The “x” in the museum’s title is a transparent ruse, a hollow artifact preserved from when serious art was opposed to the European upper class. Its show of rebellion against aristocracy is just that—a show—as most of what we see go on within its walls are the same kind of grandiose banquets and decadent parties one imagines a Royal Palace would play host to—necessary to court donors, as Christian explains to the American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss) in an early scene. 

(As on-the-nose as it seems, the X-Royal isn't so far off: in Berlin, for example, millions of dollars have been spent over the last several years rebuilding the palace of the Kaiser. One wing of the palace is an art exhibition space dedicated to global contemporary art. This cohabitates, apparently without contradiction, with the reconstructed home of Old Europe’s most nationalistic regime.)

Christian is planning a new multimedia exhibit called "The Square," which is to begin with the installation of an LED-illuminated square in the front court of the palace. “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations,” reads a brass plaque in the center of The Square. The message of the work is self-evident, even naive, as Christian’s millennial social media specialists point out to him. The only way to make it into a museum feature attractive to the public will be to create some sort of sensation out of it. They propose manufacturing a viral video advertisement that dramatises the problem of homelessness in Sweden, by means of staging a terrible injury to a blond beggar child within the square.

As head curator, Christian is required to approve this video project, but he has become a bit distracted: in the film’s first scene, he is conned and pick-pocketed out of his wallet and phone (probably) by a couple who feign a violent fight in one of Stockholm’s public squares. Spurred on by his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø), he seeks out the thieves using his phone tracking app, and delivers poison-pen letters to an entire apartment complex, hoping one of them reaches and frightens the pickpockets. Christian, of course, has the means to recover from the loss of a phone and a wallet, as evidenced by the late-model Tesla he drives, and this desperate, humiliating attempt to reclaim them is more him seeking petty revenge than justice.

Although these major narrative developments are centered around Christian, Östlund’s film does not make his moral redemption its main thematic development; indeed, viewers should not expect Christian to “learn his lesson” here. The film de-centers his perspective by frequently cutting to shots of Stockholm’s beggar population, very much left unaddressed by X-Royal’s socially conscious art and by keeping its distance from Christian in terms both of camera perspective and of tone. By giving us this distance it invites the viewer to reflect critically on the distance between his behavior and his values as articulated in his pet museum exhibition.

That exhibition, the titular Square, is an ideal abstraction, a tidy moral whose straightforward implementation is much easier in the rarified space of the museum than in the chaos of the real world. Östlund’s film is about this chaos entering the complacent squares bourgeois society draws around itself: fallout from Christian’s misbegotten scheme to retrieve his belongings includes a return letter that threatens to make his life “C-H-A-O-S.” Other squares get interrupted in The Square’s loosely connected vignettes: in its darkest and most confrontational scene, a Russian artist (Terry Notary) takes his performance as a primate rampaging through a fundraising dinner to its logical extreme, and reduces the whole room to an animalistic state.

At times, though, the film’s own surrealistic energy can seem as navel-gazing and deceptively simplistic as the culture it satirizes. Its tendency to go after low-hanging fruit is exemplified in scene in which the self-important artist Julian (Dominic West) is giving a press conference at the museum. An audience member with Tourette’s is heard, offscreen, continuously interrupting the proceedings with increasingly obscene curses. After an initial uproar, the artist and moderator calm the crowd down, excusing the man’s behavior on account of his condition, even if they are visibly put off by it. Whether it is their liberal toleration or the man’s outbursts that are meant to be funny, the scene betrays the film’s tendency to pick rather obvious targets for parody, whether it’s the intellectualism of contemporary art or the dehumanizing effects of social media.

That said, in its absurdist humor, The Square addresses in a kind of refractory allegory the problems facing the complacent capitalist West. Drawing a square, like capitalist democracies do around their citizens, is an act of exclusion as much as it is one of inclusion, and the irruption of what has been excluded back into the square disturbs its order. Christian’s fervent belief in The Square exhibition functions as a metaphor for the urban liberal’s blind belief that democratic principles are in effect—and effective—for all persons in contemporary liberal democracies, even while on the street they pass by the excluded victims every day. 

The fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt once justified his ideology by observing of liberal democracy that it has always meant not equality of all people but “the equality of the equal,” leaving out the categories of person not permitted to inhabit its sanctified square (choose one, from throughout our nation’s history: the dispossessed, women, blacks, the undocumented). The Square reminds us that we have never managed to answer Schmitt’s critique, and that, in the age of perpetual crisis and the return of the far-right, our failure to answer it is once again in danger of turning us all into animals.

Review Round-Up: May 4


Happy May the 4th, everyone! It’s so nice that we have decided to reserve this day each year to celebrate Disney’s Lucasfilm’s sprawling Star Wars franchise. Otherwise, throughout the year, we would have only the eight weeks its major films dominate our attention and the eternal accessibility of its other properties. This is a well-deserved holiday we have bestowed upon the world’s most omnipresent corporation.

Speak of the devil—Marvel, the other stone in Disney’s own Infinity Gauntlet, has a movie out, just weeks after its previous film, it seems. You’ve probably seen that already, and all I have to say is: don’t worry, they’re all okay.

What dares challenge Marvel this week? Some mid-budget counter-programming, of course. We’ll have to wait another week for a superhero/space movie. First up is Tully.


I soured on Juno (2007) over time, but I remember rather liking Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s other collaboration, Young Adult (2011). Maybe it’s simply that I adore Charlize Theron and have a soft spot for Patton Oswalt, but I thought the film, while offering nothing unconventional in the morals department, featured a couple of very good performances and some deep laughs. Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot does not agree with me about the previous Cody/Reitman/Theron film, and boy, does he have some bombs to drop on this latest one:

One way to look at this conscientiously mature, strategically magic-realist movie is as its creators’ most ambitious joint effort to date, yet it’s actually this same, superficial “daring” that points up their work’s underlying lack of real imagination. 

A word of warning: Nayman’s review spoils the movie’s major twist (yes, this dramedy about motherhood has a major twist), so only read if you’re immune to spoilers.

Elsewhere, Tully is doing a bit better in the reviews department, though overall it’s mixed. Jesse Hassenger praises Theron’s performance at The AV Club; David Edelstein’s review at The Vulture starts negative but ends appreciative. One other sceptical voice, though, is Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, who not only agrees with Nayman’s assessment of the film’s obviousness, but also connects its shortcomings as a drama to its lazy and regressive gender politics. 


Overboard, a remake of the Goldie Hawn/Kurt Russell rom-com I used to change the channel from on TV all the time, explains why I’ve recently seen Anna Faris tell-all interviews blaring at me in the grocery store checkout line. It’s not supposed to be very good.


But the movie I’ll be watching this weekend—because if somebody made a couple good movies thirty years ago, I’ll never give up on them, I guess—is the surprising new John Woo-directed movie on Netflix. Manhunt is Woo’s return to the kind of balletic action flick that made him famous in Hong Kong in the late 1980s. Simon Abrams has a middling review of the film over at Rogerebert.com, but one paragraph, intended as a critique, convinced me to set aside time for this movie:

Parts of the over-the-top finale of 'Manhunt' bring to mind the loosey-goosey, punch-drunk Woo that made 'Face/Off,' another campy exercise where he tried to go back to his roots after a couple of relatively impersonal projects left him feeling more like a hired gun, and less like an artist. Ironically, 'Manhunt' loses momentum whenever its already fast-paced narrative gets a frenetic 'Face/Off'-style energy boost from distracting father/son squabbling and a prison break-style sub-plot involving a secret drug lab.

Sorry, but if this movie has the frenetic campiness of Face/Off, I’m 100% there. It was the odd melding of Woo’s style with the budgets and dramas of Serious Hollywood Movies that ultimately ruined his films. Face/Off was peak Woo, just before he was dragged down by the expectation that an action film be, you know, psychologically coherent. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club has his reservations, but writes that “when Manhunt gets to its actual action scenes, it delivers with aplomb the kinetically choreographed decadence that has been Woo’s forte since the 1980s.” That’s enough for me. Eat your heart out, Cannes. I’m staying in and watching Netflix this weekend.

Avengers: War Infinitem


Avengers: Infinity War is a movie on the model of a mid-series episode of Game of Thrones: a massive cast of characters is paired off in new combinations and sent on quests, and the story jumps between these dispersed quests, presuming that, for the most part, you already know each character’s motivations for driving forward. This should be a problem for a film—sequels have always had to re-exposit some of the previous films’ backgrounds for new viewers—but in the age of media convergence, giving a feature film the dramatic structure of the most serialized of serialized stories does gangbusters.

The film picks up where about six or seven films (or their post-credit stingers) left off: 

  • in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Asgard, the home of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) had been destroyed, with residents escaping on a giant space-ark; 
  • Dr. Strange ended with the eponymous wizard using a “time stone” to defeat the big space entity Mads Mikkelson works for
  • at the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016), the superhero team The Avengers had broken up (“Broken up? Like a band? Like the Beatles?” Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, who’s been in space for two years, asks when updated); 
  • in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Banner and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) had created a transcendent form of A.I. (The Vision, played by Paul Bettany) using a magical, glowing stone;
  • in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), the titular ragtag guardians had left a similar magical stone with an eccentric space-person named The Collector (Benicio del Toro);
  • in this year’s Black Panther, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) had opened his isolated country Wakanda to the world; 
  • and in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) … maybe Peter Parker ended up on a bus, on his way to school? (I didn’t see that one. It may not be very important.) 

Those of us who have seen and maybe even revisited all 18 Marvel films will be able to follow the significance of each character’s journey in this film, but just as I wouldn’t recommend with starting Game of Thrones with episode 5 of season 6, it’s hard to see how the uninitiated would have a satisfying experience at this movie.

The figure lurking behind many of these Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) events is Thanos (Josh Brolin), the large purple outer-space man who is designated a “Titan” with no explanation of what constitutes a Titan in the Marvel cosmos. (To be fair to Infinity War, it’s also somewhat unclear what a god is in the Marvel Universe, considering characters like Thor and Loki are literal gods.) Thanos wants to exterminate precisely one half of all the life in the universe because of overpopulation. He’s on a quest to collect the magical stones that have shown up in many a Marvel picture, because once he has them, he will be able to accomplish his ideal genocide “in the snap of [his] fingers,” in a turn of phrase you’ll only think is a trite metaphor.

As usual, one Marvel strategy to appeal to those viewers not closely following its sprawling movie mythology is to make the on-screen interactions fun and poppy. With a charismatic cast and characters who are just similar enough to maintain brand integrity and just distinct enough to buoy interest, Infinity War excels at making its talking bits fun to watch. Given that there are two dozen or so major characters dispersed across time and space, it would make little dramatic or narrative (or even spatial) sense to get them all together; instead, it pairs them up in fun but natural combinations: the space-opera heroes Thor and the Guardians; the New York natives Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange; the globe-trotters Black Panther, Captain America, and Falcon. 

Joe and Anthony Russo, the sibling duo responsible for writing and directing this and a few other Marvel films, know that a movie that just cuts between three or four groups of heroes for three hours wouldn’t, well, cut it. They wisely, then, anchor the film with Thanos, whose inner conflicts and motivations are explored more than any other individual character in this story. The MCU is famously plagued by a villain problem, and in Thanos the Russos seem convinced they have found a solution, crafting a portrait of a hulking purple monster who cries and bleeds for what he believes in. Some of the film’s most interesting scenes, dramatically, come from Josh Brolin’s purple-ified face. 

But Thanos is not as complex as the film needs him to be. For one thing, he lacks the capacity for self-reflection, and in that way, he’s a less complex villain even than Joss Whedon’s Ultron, an abortive attempt to make the MCU talk seriously about artificial life. And as much as the film wants to center Thanos and his mission to exterminate 50% of life, Infinity War presents an outrageously superficial understanding of genocide in order to make its villain relatable. Thanos is worried about overpopulation, which is apparently a literally universal problem. But his concern is not framed explicitly as ecological, because that would make the film political. It is also avowed to be non-eugenicist--even though racism is the primary reason anybody has ever actually committed genocide--because being so would alienate audiences.

As a result, Thanos lacks an ideology, the extreme conviction that should drive a madman to genocide. The movie needs him to be genocidal for its spectacular events and dramatic turns, and so he is, and the film proceeds as you suspect it might, with a couple more onscreen deaths than the average Marvel movie. The character deaths that will probably be permanent (all comic-book deaths are reversible) may be surprising, but they are clearly all calculated from a marketing and actor-contract standpoint, and the film even telegraphs them in advance by the relationships it chooses to develop most strongly. And without truly impactful consequences or a convincing Thanos, the film is reduced to a series of enjoyable skits involving the Avengers and Guardians characters—a mildly entertaining return to characters we haven’t seen in upwards of five months

After the triumph that Black Panther was on almost every level, the dramatic problems of the MCU reassert themselves with overwhelming force in Infinity War. The CG that crowds every image is often distracting, the dialogue mixes quips with rushed exposition, and it ends feeling more like a teaser for the next episode than a completed film. The finale is surprisingly dark, and even the negative reviews of Infinity War have found it effective. But in the age of Internet fandom, both Marvel fans and haters know this is not the final word, that purely for business reasons it could not be the final word on the Avengers. Its events stand to be reversed—they occurred so they could be reversed. 

The second part of this film comes out in 11 months or so—although Disney has stopped referring to the next Avengers movie as a “second part,” in order to hold close to their chest the card they’d already exposed to the world. That film will reverse some of the consequences of this one, institute a new status quo for the MCU, and then end with a post-credits stinger that teases how that status quo will be upended. The true status quo for the MCU is that catharsis is deferred indefinitely so that we’ll see the next picture: Advertisement infinitum.

Review Round-Up: April 13


Friday the 13th! An auspicious day to return to rounding up reviews. While away, I’ve been thinking that the format in this recurring column needs a bit of adjustment, for the sanity of its writer. Starting with the paragraphs below, the Review Round-Up will link its readers to reviews of a few different movies, but it’s going to focus on recommending one movie you should see this weekend, based on those reviews. 

There’s a big ape movie out this weekend, featuring Rock “The Dwayne” Johnson. I am a fan of The Dwayne, and have been since tweenagedom—some day I’ll tell you all about how his wrestling style was truly deconstructive, and not in the way that people usually use that word to mean “analytical”—but I just can’t get behind this project. Rampage wasn’t even that good a video game: it was fine to play at the arcade for five minutes, but I rented it on console once and practically fell asleep on top of my N64. Reviews for the film are middling, but the kind of middling where you can tell that the critic would have panned it if they weren’t trying to avoid seeming haughty and out of touch.

Meanwhile, Jon Hamm, a man beautiful and funny enough that we have forgiven and forgotten this, is making another attempt at big-screen stardom with the spy thriller Beirut. It seems like the kind of film whose politics would probably disgust me but which I might put on to fall asleep to when it’s on streaming in approximately six months.

Movies about bonding with digital apes and topical CIA thrillers handsome Hollywood hunks: is it the mid-aughts again? Maybe time is a flat circle, after all: Lucrecia Martel, the Argentine director who last released a film nearly a decade ago, has a new one out, Zama, and it’s the film I’m recommending this week. It’s an existential parable about 16th-century colonialism in South America, based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto. A Kafkaesque story about a Spanish conquistador born in Paraguay but waiting to “return” to Spain, Zama is being roundly praised for its use of absurdist humor in depicting the inhumanity of colonialism. 

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times shows no reserve in her praise for both lead actor Giménez Cacho and director Martel. As the film is about waiting and therefore has little pushing its plot forward, it operates largely via surprising juxaposition and

meaningful oppositions: freedom and captivity; open, bright skies and closed, gloomy homes. Ms. Martel’s cool approach fits di Benedetto’s story and can be just as devastating, especially when she abruptly flips drama into comedy. 

Zama is probably not playing everywhere, but if you have the opportunity, it’s the film you should be seeing this weekend. If nothing else, it’s probably the only film in theaters this weekend in which you’ll get to see a llama. If it’s not playing near you, though ... go with the giant ape movie, I guess.

A Place We've Been to Before: A Quiet Place


This season’s breakout horror hit, A Quiet Place, is bound to remind you of something—probably a certain something. A suspense thriller about a tight-knit family processing a recent loss in their ranks, living among their cornfields somewhere in the more idyllic section of the East Coast, and coming together to confront the mysterious and intractable alien force destroying humanity: where have we seen this before? The new film finds in its high-concept approach to horror a scenario more productive of sustained suspense, but when one steps back from the intense experience of watching A Quiet Place, it’s hard not to see it as a re-dressing of that earlier, not particularly fondly remembered film.

The concept that underlies the entirety of A Quiet Place—that the family at the center of the film must lead a silent life, as the blind monsters who have killed everyone else on earth respond only to sound—is an inspired extrapolation from a familiar horror scenario. How many times in horror films have we seen scenes in which characters must remain silent in order not to attract the attention of a killer or a blind cave monster (perhaps another source of inspiration)? While turning a single scenario into a feature-length film is a risky proposition, screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck and first-time director (and star) John Krasinski manage to keep the idea fresh, for the most part. The film’s economical script, Krasinski’s methodically paced reveal of the monsters, and the final hour’s constantly intensifying situation makes it easy to stay on board for the run of the film.

Occasionally, however, A Quiet Place can’t but feel a tad contrived, scenarios like its well-advertised “silent birth” scene feeling somewhat like the “aha!” moment of screenwriters’ brainstorming sessions they undoubtedly were. Krasinski and his real-life wife Emily Blunt play the heads of a family who have survived the monster-borne apocalypse in large part, it is implied, because their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf. The entire family knows American Sign Language, which allows them to communicate without making sounds—speech above a barely perceptible whisper is highly dangerous, practically guaranteeing a fatal visit from one of the large, spindly monsters who have ended the world. 

The couple’s children are young, however—Marcus (Noah Jupe) is still prepubescent—and Blunt’s character Evelyn is pregnant. The occasional obliviousness and frequent clumsiness of young children, along with the impending birth, promise the opportunity for lots of noise. The film indulges the spectator’s contradictory anticipation and dread of these moments, teasing us effectively with scares both “false” and real. Both as vague, blurry shapes in the background of shots, and upon their eventual full reveal, the monsters are terrifying—even if they also remind one, perhaps too strongly, of Stranger Things’ demi-gorgons or the monsters in J.J. Abrams’ films. Regardless, as a viewer, I was both kept on edge and made to start repeatedly throughout the film; it was a fun, intense time at the movies. 

In the end, however, I have to wonder whether the film offers much more than that. Learning from M. Night Shyamalan (as he learned from Spielberg) the dubious lesson that the best means of grounding a suspense film is by making it a parable about family, director and star Krasinski makes the relationships the focus of the story. But there’s not much of an interesting twist to the messaging here: parents’ roles are to protect and care—the first is the man’s job, the second the woman’s—and childrens’ roles are to learn by their parents’ examples. Other recent horror films have done far more interesting things with both familial and social relationships in the end-times; the thematically complex, evocatively shot It Comes at Night (2017) also addresses the models of identity and behavior set by parents, but it does so by examining them critically. By means of horror-parable, it addresses themes of paranoia, control, guilt, and repression. A Quiet Place has no interest in such ideas: the patriarch’s paranoia is wholly justified, the mother is happy in her role as provider, “family” is represented as an abstract ideal rather than a relationship between flawed people.

Speaking of those people, the performances from Emily Blunt and John Krasinski are, by and large, commendable. You can see genuine care for their fictional children in their faces and actions, and the couple’s presumably true affection for each other comes through in the film. Insofar as this is the case, the movie’s clear desire to instill its rather schlocky scenario with believable characters is fulfilled. However, A Quiet Place’s too-convenient plotting often gets in the way of the characters’ believability. A glaring example is the whiteboard on which Krasinski’s character has neatly written a few, very succinct facts about the monsters, with the phrase “WHAT IS WEAKNESS?” framed in red. It appears prominently throughout the film, obviously planted to prepare us for that moment in the film when the creature’s one weakness (they must only have one) will be discovered. 

I couldn’t look away from this whiteboard whenever it was onscreen: it was as if Krasinski, the co-writer and director of the film rather than the character he plays, had accidentally left his plotting notes on set. On reflection, a lot of the film is like this whiteboard: it wears its plot machinations—and its numerous debts to previous films (it gently steals from the same Jurassic Park scene twice)—on its sleeve. While A Quiet Place is a good time at the movie theater, I suspect it won’t be one of the suspense movies that is still discussed a few years from now.

Canon Fodder: To Be or Not to Be


What's your favorite comedy about the terror of totalitarianism? It's a bit of a surprising topic: mass murder and state terror are, at least in real life and at least most of the time, not laughing matters. And yet, I found myself thinking while immensely enjoying Armando Ianucci’s new film The Death of Stalin, more than once great filmmakers have proved that it’s also fertile ground for humor. The film that probably jumps to mind is Charlie Chaplin’s famous anti-Nazi satire, The Great Dictator (1940), but my favorite film comedy that turns “concentration camp” into a punchline is Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942).

The farcical backstage comedy of To Be or Not to Be concerns a company of actors in Warsaw on the eve of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 (the film, produced while the US and the USSR were allies, elides the fact that the Soviet Union also invaded Poland, from the East). At the beginning of the film, local Warsaw celebrities Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard) are rehearsing a play called Gestapo, intended to be a searing indictment of the dictator on the other side of the Oder River. With tensions rising with Germany, however, the Polish government cancels the show, insisting that they must do whatever they can to placate Hitler.

Meanwhile, by evening, the couple and their company are performing—as, it is implied, is their wont—a rote production of Shakespeare, with Joseph as Hamlet. Maria is being courted by a dashing young Polish pilot named Sobinsky (Robert Stack), who attends the show every night, and whom she arranges to meet backstage while Joseph performs Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Thus, at every performance, Joseph, egotistical and insecure, has his big moment interrupted by the a man in the second row getting up to leave--unbeknownst to him, this is the same man who continually sends his wife flowers.

Soon, though, Germany invades, and Poland falls. The company’s theater is bombed out, Sobinsky joins the Polish military in exile in England, and Warsaw is put on lockdown by the occupying Nazi force, as signified by a montage of curfew notices and legal declarations. Several months later, Sobinsky is parachuted into Warsaw to prevent a list of Polish resistance fighters from falling into the hands of the Gestapo; begrudgingly putting aside his jealousy of Sobinsky for the sake of his country, Joseph decides to dust off the uniforms from the unstaged play, and hatches a plan to retrieve that list.

The deep, sustained humor of the film comes from many sources. For one thing, the seeming incongruity of the subject matter and the form—totalitarianism and comedy—undoubtedly produces much of the humor in a film like this. Part of our laughter is the release of tension that humor allows us, an almost reflexive relaxation of nerves. When Maria Tura, like her husband an actor with delusions of grandeur, insists to the company’s director Dobosh (Charles Halton) that she wear a glamorous, tight-fitting dress for her concentration camp scene, the laughter is more a nervous titter than a outright laugh.


But this kind of laugh, one that makes light of the terrible, can obviously come off as tasteless. One line from the film, when the Nazi Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) tells Joseph, disguised as the Nazi agent Professor Siletsky, that “what [Joseph Tura] did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland,” was the most infamous line from the film when it was released. Even in the mouth of a Nazi character and even before the full extent of Nazi crimes in Poland was known, the joke was seen as a dehumanizing analogy deployed for a cheap laugh -- perhaps rightly.


But in To Be or Not to Be such jokes also serve its story by accentuating characters. The aforementioned Ehrhardt joke may get a guilty laugh by itself, but it also reminds us that the ostensibly doofy Ehrhardt is callous and evil, and it continues the recurring joke of Joseph facing his own inadequacy, even while saving his country. Moreover, the film never seems to be punching down. Both Ehrhardt and Joseph can be petty, equivocating, and buffoonish, but only one of them does so while signing execution orders.

In the film, as one can expect from a great Lubitsch production, one great bit of business follows another: Joseph must pretend to be Colonel Ehrhardt to get the list from Siletsky; he must pretend to be Siletsky to keep the duplicate of the list from falling into the Nazis’ hands; the company must attempt an escape from the country under the mustachioed nose of Adolf Hitler. Each scene is expertly paced, expertly blocked, almost every joke lands; but what is truly remarkable about the film, what makes it the best comedy about totalitarianism I know, is how it uses humor to analyze totalitarianism itself as a “bit of business.”

What I have not mentioned is the film’s masterful opening sequence, in which a disembodied narrator sets the scene on the streets of Warsaw and informs us that, months before the war, Hitler has arrived. How? “Well, it all started at Gestapo headquarters,” he explains, and the film lap-dissolves into a blandly decorated office, featuring a prominent portrait of Hitler above the desk. But this, we will learn at the end of the scene through a sudden cut to the director Dobosh, observing the action, is not Gestapo headquarters: it is a rehearsal of Gestapo, the play. 

This opening sequence lays the groundwork for the film’s satire of totalitarianism by thoroughly confusing the viewer’s understanding of what is real and what is mere performance. Repeatedly, this boundary is blurred in the film: the conversational banalities produced by Joseph-as-Ehrhardt that tip Siletsky off will be repeated word for word by the real Ehrhardt when Joseph meets him as Siletsky; the real Gestapo members respond just as automatically and nervously to “Heil Hitler” as the actors on stage; the real Siletsky will die dramatically on the stage of the Polski theater, just as the curtain comes up. 

What Dobosh doesn’t get in the opening sequence—and what the film will repeatedly show us—is that totalitarianism works by replacing its artificial, performance-world with the real world. The bearer of authority is less the person than the uniform, the gesture, the name, and the little mustache; one’s every utterance must be simultaneously both sincere and conforming to arbitrary standards; the Jews are criminals, and if they aren’t, we will make them so to prove they were. The Nazis were actors, purveyors of an artificial world that nevertheless murdered millions of real people. The actors in To Be or Not to Be—lightly mocked throughout as egotistical, hammy, scenery chewers—realize that they possess precisely the skillset to hoodwink the Nazis. It’s a brilliant, insightful theme, sophisticated in its understanding of the political and ethical implications of real life and totalitarian fiction becoming indistinguishable.

What the film has in common with The Death of Stalin is its willingness to observe the absurdity of totalitarianism, without dehumanizing its victims. (They both also mercifully let their actors speak English in their natural accents, rather than forcing them to fake Eastern European ones.) While each makes dark humor out of horrible subject matter, and humanizes murderers by making them funny, they never lose sight of the fact that the struggle for freedom from oppressive rule is real; what is absurd in the films is not the struggle itself, but that the farcical ideologies of totalitarianism should be able to put existence should be at stake, to make its victims wonder whether they will be or not. 

P.S. Do not watch the Mel Brooks remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983), directed by Alan Johnson. What that movie does to Lubitsch, the Germans did to Poland.

Review Round-Up: March 16


Tomb Raider (dir. Roar Uthaug)

Hot off a very successful reboot of the franchise in 2013, Tomb Raider publisher Square Enix apparently decided it was prime time to reboot the film franchise, too. And the movie clearly hews closely to the game that revitalized the plan, speaking to a much more controlled corporate-synergy strategy than the one that birthed the first two films, in 2001 and 2003. Anyone who’s played the 2013 Tomb Raider will recognize in the film trailer not just Lara Croft’s revamped look from the game, but the setting and even individual cut scenes that have been appropriated for the film.

Here’s the thing, though: although successful, the 2013 Tomb Raider wasn’t that good. Taking too many cues from adventure and survival games of its moment (of course she has a bow and arrow), it played less like a re-imagined Tomb Raider and more like a simplified Uncharted (2007-2016). Narratively, it may have impressed some, but to me it seemed nothing particularly special, except for the amount of physical abuse it subjected Lara to in order to make her character “gritty.” Knowing how closely this film was going to try to stick to the game’s tired, orientalist plot, I had serious doubts.

At least at first glance, these doubts have been confirmed by the reviews. Let’s start with the actual video game people at Polygon, who should know. Susana Polo critiques the film’s blunt approach to narrative, accusing it of alternating action scenes with bland “exposition dumps.” Characters end up being short-changed on the way to action or exposition:

… many moments in 'Tomb Raider' feel like events are slightly fast-forwarded. We are often told when we should be shown, or shown a scene that feels like it’s skipped a vital moment in a character’s emotional transition, in favor of getting to the next action sequence or necessary piece of exposition. 

(Btw, I’m a big fan of Issue at Hand, Polo’s video series explaining superhero comics, which you can find here.)

Rodrigo Perez at The Playlist also feels the movie fails to sell its characters, asking us to buy into Lara Croft’s transition into, well, Lara Croft, way too quickly and easily. Some of the most damning (and well phrased) criticism, though, comes from A.A. Dowd at The AV Club, who was just bored by the film:

'Tomb Raider' is the kind of draggy, weirdly uneventful blockbuster that makes you fleetingly grateful for the lowest-aiming genre junk; at times, it seems perversely uninterested in delivering what a Lara Croft movie theoretically should. Even once we reach the island, where Walton Goggins shows up as a marooned scoundrel mad with ambition, 'Tomb Raider' never quite transitions into a set-piece machine; its second half rushes through a dump of mythological exposition while treating the “good stuff”—treacherous puzzles, swinging booby traps, run-and-gun showdowns—like perfunctory stops on a checklist.

There are surprising dissenters, however, some of whom describe the movie in a way that diverges so far from Dowd and his ilk that you almost wonder whether they weren’t shown a different cut of the film. David Edelstein praises both its B-movie sensibility and its emotional realism (?), but the film’s real champion is Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. Seitz opens his review by asserting that “‘Tomb Raider’ is much better and more original than anyone could have expected,” and he buys the daddy-daughter narrative in a way that no one else cited here does:

This is the story of a daughter learning from, surpassing, and ultimately forgiving her dad—a journey that hits fresher beats than you tend to get in genre films starring male heroes whose fathers died, vanished, or disappointed them…

The jury’s out on this one … I’m probably not going to see it, though. Take from that what you will.


Love, Simon (dir. Greg Berlanti)

The consensus is that this teen romance would be very “eh” if it weren’t for its main feature: that the romance at its center is a gay romance. Critics are more or less univocal in their admission that, though bland, the movie is important: gay kids deserve their bland, mildly charming teen romances, too, the line goes.

Glen Wheldon at NPR only reluctantly reiterates the line from Fox’s marketing materials that the film is “groundbreaking.” Wheldon is one of the only critics to point out that, in fact, there have been other gay teen romances. Eventually he lands on the conclusion, though, that Love, Simon is groundbreaking in the sense that it is mainstream, intended, seemingly for everyone to see.

Yes, 'Love, Simon' does everything it can do to parboil the flavor, color, consistency and fabulousness out of its queer romance, until all that's left is the familiar beige, featureless pap of overcooked heterosexual teen rom-coms. But that's ... kind of the point. Why shouldn't queer kids get the chance to see generic, mass-produced versions of themselves onscreen, overcoming minor obstacles on their path to True Love(tm)?

Everyone seems to say a version of this, more or less. Here’s David Sims at The Atlantic:

In attempting to appeal to the biggest possible crowd, the director Greg Berlanti’s movie sometimes feels frustratingly safe, given that it’s centered on a bland, upper-middle-class hero whose edges are sanded off. With that said, there’s still something undeniably powerful about 'Love, Simon’s ordinariness. After all, there have been dozens of mediocre studio films about straight teen romances over the decades; it says something about the direction of the film industry to finally see one centered on a young gay man.

Mark Jenkins’s review at the Washington Post has a more negative valence, but it’s more unimpressed than outraged. Simon, the main character, is a bland archetype, a clear construction, but so is the movie itself:

Simon’s love for rock of the British Invasion is unpersuasive, but then so are all his passions. Like the movie about him, Simon is pleasant, well-meaning and curiously devoid of adolescent hormonal tumult.

Love, Simon seems like it deserves cred for depicting gay romance without overly sensationalizing it, and for doing so with the blessing of a major studio. But it also sounds like a kind of a dull film: in making Simon an unremarkable teen in all aspects except that he is gay, the filmmakers seem to have written themselves into a corner, having made a film with a main character who’s missing distinctive characteristics. The film’s release may seem to point toward some kind of Change, but it is worth wondering whether that change can stick if its harbinger is so anodyne, if it is focused so intently on normalcy that it doesn’t get anyone’s attention.

The Seventh Art 2.0: The Sheik


The Sheik (1921) on youtube

If The Sheik brings to mind any one currently popular film, it’s Fifty Shades of Grey. The cultural phenomenon that has been Fifty Shades illustrates how complex sexual fantasy can be: the series is about a man who is possessive and controlling, who uses his patriarchal and financial power to press his partner into doing what he wants. (To be clear, I’m not talking about the stories’ BDSM elements.) And yet, the appearance of Fifty Shades in mainstream pop culture represented a feminist triumph inasmuch as it forced open space in the zeitgeist for the representation, expression, and discussion of (heterosexual) female desires on a scale usually reserved exclusive for (an equally narrow set of heterosexual) male desires. 

The phenomenon of Rudolph Valentino, the sex symbol of the early 1920s, parallels this story in many regards. Valentino’s meteoric rise to stardom was driven by the adoration of women. His prominence in film magazines and the money the studios were willing to spend on his films were responses to an overwhelming desire on the part of American women to gaze at Valentino. And yet, a movie like The Sheik frames the erotic fantasy that was the Valentino phenomenon within a story that denies any feminine sexual or social agency, that asks its viewer to accept the most base presumptions about femininity and masculinity—not to mention the “oriental” Other—that perverts kidnapping and psychological torture into the basis for a grand love story.

As the film opens, the resolutely independent Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is in Baskra in colonial North Africa. Accustomed to the freedom afforded her by modern Western society, she refuses a marriage offer from another European. To demonstrate her defiance, she not only goes out alone to enjoy Baskra’s nightlife for the evening—she also sneaks into an Arab-only casino in disguise. There, she is surprised to find that the Arab royals are at the Casino to barter for wives, and, mistaking her for an Arabian woman, the dashing Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan has taken an interest in her. Discovering she is white, Hassan allows her to leave, but devises a plan to meet her again when he discovers that one of his compatriots has been contracted to take her on a safari the next day.

What follows is, quite simply, a kidnapping. While Lady Mayo is on her safari, the Sheik abducts her, bringing her into his lavish tent and implying in several scenes that he is on the verge of raping her. As Mayo, Ayres shows no sign of burgeoning attraction in these scenes, little hint that any part of the Sheik’s “seduction” is consensual. The camera might be understood to tell a different story—lingering close-ups on Valentino’s face are not lacking, even though, as an early-20s film, much of the action is still allowed to play out in long shot—but it is unquestionable that what is depicted is a form of sexual terrorism.

That this sexual terrorism—this wanton subjugation of a woman explicitly trying to claim her own agency in a world of men—is projected onto the foreign Other makes the film, in its dominant strokes, all the more disgusting. It is easy to recognize, from the perspective of 100 years, the way that The Sheik displaces Western society’s own misgivings about liberated femininity onto the allegedly barbaric colonial subject. Predictably, Lady Mayo eventually relents, realizing that she loves the Sheik—though it takes being kidnapped by an “even worse” Arab chieftain to realize her everlasting love. The shrew is thus tamed, without the film ever having to make shrew-taming the official position of its male European characters.

But in assembling this familiar story about the lascivious Easterner successfully seducing the suffragette, The Sheik clearly runs into a problem: it can’t simply endorse racial mixing, as if a white woman would wilfully submit to the advances of a nonwhite cretin. Thus it includes a last-minute twist: as Valentino’s Sheik lies prone, wounded while gallantly defending Lady Mayo, she notes an odd physical feature of his. Turning to the Sheik’s close European friend Raoul (Adolph Menjou), Mayo intones (via title card, of course), “But his hands are so large for an Arab.” 

This sublime example of racist ideology’s absurdity is answered with Raoul’s simple explanation that, in fact, Raoul is an orphaned European, half Spaniard and half British, who was raised by the previous Sheik as his own son. This straw of information breaks the camel’s back: Mayo can now love her attempted rapist without reservation, knowing that he has secretly been white (white enough, anyway) the whole time.

What can we take away from this movie, full as it is of the most obviously reprehensible tropes? How can we square the fact that this movie is explicitly about denying women sexual agency with the fact that women drove its popularity? A pessimistic take is that in The Sheik the fantasy of Valentino is appropriated, funneled toward culturally conservative ends, and that is certainly true. But it may help to remember that visual pleasure is not so easily hemmed in by narrative. We might recognize that partaking in the enjoyment of Valentino's face, of his figure in the stylized robes of Hollywood’s “Arab,” and daydreaming about being forcefully taken into his tent, is not the same as submitting in real life to the kind of treatment Mayo is subject to—just as we may castigate Fifty Shades for conforming to so many negative tropes about heterosexual romance, but not uniformly condemn the people who find pleasure in such stories.

Review: Where Have You Gone, Lou DiMaggio


Stand-up is a uniquely American institution, or at least it was for a long time. Even today, it’s much more of an institution here than in, say, continental Europe. German Netflix, for example, is not constantly flooded with brand-new stand-up from German comedians. And here’s a clip of Eddie Izzard, in the 1990s, talking about how they don’t have stand-up in France. If for the rest of the world, stand-up is associated with the US, here it’s essentially connected to New York. The New York stand-up scene of the 1970s and ‘80s, where modern stand-up comedy was born, is the stuff of legend. The problem is, the comedians know it.

Where Have You Gone, Lou DiMaggio is a documentary directed by Brad Kuhlman but produced by its titular subject. It concerns DiMaggio’s return to comedy after a two-decade hiatus (during which he continued working in television). Beginning with a history of the stand-up scene in the 1980s, accentuated with testimony from various recognizable comedians and comediennes, it gradually morphs into a part of DiMaggio’s comeback push, with DiMaggio narrating as he visits his many famous friends to ask their advice. 

DiMaggio seems like a nice enough guy, all things considered. I suppose I wish him well on his journey to recapture his glory days, something few of us will have such a clear path to, come our midlife yearnings. But the movie about his prospective return ultimately seems like little more than an attempt to reintroduce himself and to instruct us to associate his name with established figures like Larry David, Joy Behar, Ray Romano, Jeff Garlin, and Howie Mandel -- to name a few celebrity friends who show up here.

If you don’t begrudge DiMaggio for using his famous friends to give him a boost—it’s an inspired career move, after all—you might resent the insipidity of this documentary. Like Jerry Seinfeld’s milquetoast high-concept talk show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the film is convinced that one’s admiration for stand-up comedy means you are as nostalgic for the bonhomie of the New York stand-up community as the comedians themselves are.

Its essentially romantic attitude toward the days and personages of yesteryear makes it a deeply incurious film. There is no deeper reflection on what drives Lou, or any of his peers, to make comedy; no serious searching for the kernel of dissatisfaction that drives his attempted return; no actual reckoning with the past. Clearly premeditated debates between DiMaggio and his wife substitute for the conflict his story needs; his old tin of drug paraphernalia suffices as the film’s discussion of the comedy’s drug scene; a few lines of voice-over, a Great Gatsby quote, and some sweeping chords at the end attempt to retroactively remake the film into one about adversity, perseverance, and triumph. 

Despite leaving in a rather offensive and inexcusable joke he seems to improvise at his first show back, the movie feels protective of both DiMaggio and the institution of stand-up (a tack that is, by the way, the precisely wrong historical moment to take). It’s insular both in that it focuses intently on a group of ‘80s comedians, and in that it keeps itself warm and fuzzy throughout. 

That said, Where Have You Gone, Lou DiMaggio happens across some interesting moments. At times early in the film, one can be engaged enough to wish it were a more thoroughgoing history of the stand-up scene circa 1970-1990, perhaps with a little more of a critical or aesthetic edge. There are also moments when comedians like Richard Belzer or Colin Quinn say something insightful about the art of comedy, the practices and theories of this American art form. The most fascinating scene with DiMaggio himself has him dig through, edit, and redevelop joke notes he’s made over the course of his 20 years off. But such moments are subordinate to the film’s overriding lack of ambition to do much more than serve as a potential pilot for a show that could be titled "Comedians in Empty Restaurants Reminiscing."

Canon Fodder: The Misfits


I put The Misfits (1961) on my to-watch list after listening to back-episodes of the podcast You Must Remember This a few months ago. On the show, host Karina Longworth details how playwright Arthur Miller agonized over the script he was writing for his wife, Marilyn Monroe, for years, continuing revisions well into the film’s actual shoot. To Longworth (along with many other critics), Monroe’s performance in The Misfits is among her best, but Longworth suggests it was also a role that hit too close to home for the iconic actress. Her character Rosalind is beautiful, clever, magnetic, irresistible to men--but also strangely melancholic, obsessed by death and inevitability. 

The film opens in Reno as Rosalind is preparing, with the support of her landlady, friend, and seasoned divorcée Isabelle (Thelma Ritter), for her divorce. Rosalind needs to claim at the proceedings that her husband abused her, mentally and physically, to establish legal grounds for divorce. But, she complains, this isn’t true; her husband was just unavailable to her. “If I’m gonna be alone,” she opines in one of Monroe’s many incisive one-liners, “I wanna be by myself.” In previous Monroe hits—like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)—such a line would be delivered with ironic naivety, as if Monroe’s character didn’t quite understand the profundity of her amusing paradox. Here, we hear the experience, the malaise, the reflection that underlies Rosalind’s turn of phrase.


The fulcrum of the first half of the movie is the irony, probably more striking to viewers in the early 60s, of Monroe’s famously airy, feminine voice expressing sincere existential doubts. “We’re all dying, aren’t we?” she ponders at one point about the inevitability of change and death, “All the husbands and all the wives.” This sincere philosophizing frequently undercuts—or must be ignored by—men like Guido (Eli Wallach), who overeaglery presume that she’s just a girl who’s down for a good time. 

Gay (Clark Gable), an aging cowboy from outside Reno, is the only one who seems to get her. Alone together in his truck, he asks Rosalind why she always seems so sad; when she replies that men always say she’s happy, Gay probably correctly observes that “that’s because you make men feel happy.” While the romantic pairing of Gable and Monroe is certainly part of a familiar patriarchal pattern, Miller’s script and especially Monroe’s performance make it plausible that this thirtysomething city girl’s only kindred spirit is a sectagenarian cowboy.


In the second half of the movie, Rosalind, Guido, and Gay add a fourth party to their circle, another cowboy named Perce (Montgomery Clift), who is fleeing an Oedipal conundrum back home via rodeos and odd jobs. They recruit him to help them chase down Gay’s white whale: fifteen wild mustangs who have been spotted roaming the mountain valleys. He joins them in exchange for a ride to the rodeo, where Gay and Rosalind’s differences start to come to a head, motivated by their differing life philosophies and Rosalind’s apparent attraction to Perce. Despite her fascination with Perce, Rosalind is horrified by the brutality of the rodeo. And to the movie’s credit, her objections are taken seriously, if not by the cowboys, then by the script: she is not simply a weak-stomached woman, but someone who is capable of recognizing the sanctity of life in a way these men are not.

All this is not to say the film is blameless on the gender-politics front--far from it: even when the film is not reinforcing a certain “masculine” view of things (see: a few reassuring leers at Monroe’s backside, to let us know the film knows she’s got a body), it does essentialize the distinction between male and female reactions to mortality. However complexly each of them is drawn, the male characters in the film share an inability to sublimate their own anxieties into anything but violence or sexual avarice. Most of them, too, are unable to relate to Rosalind as anything but an enigma, which willfully oblivious attitude the film might at times be understood as adopting: who is woman? What does she want? What The Misfits is, in terms of its gender politics, is an illustration of how a film can feature fully fleshed-out, nuanced characters and still be beholden to certain patriarchal tropes.


The film was directed by John Huston, who had also directed Monroe’s entré into major-film-studio acting, The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Huston brings a grounded realism to this MGM production: it is clear that much of The Misfits, particularly its harrowing horse-lassoing climax, was shot on location; but also, the camerawork in the film’s first two acts is pared down and intimate, focused intently on characters’ faces. You can see the low-budget films of the late 1960s emerging from this black-and-white film about everyday friends discussing matters of life and death with one another. Huston doesn’t use a handheld camera, but you can imagine that if the same film had been made a decade later, we would have lingering, unsteady shots of Rosalind’s enigmatic face. 

This is why the film’s score, by Alex North, often feels incongruous. It has all the hyperbolic swells and dips of a grand MGM melodrama, telegraphing the events of a scene in advance or overwhelming the meaning of the image. In, say, a Douglas Sirk film of roughly the same era, the inflated score would have been itself dwarfed by the sumptuous Technicolor image, becoming part of a whole whose overblown emotion was part of its meaning. For such a modestly staged movie consisting essentially of conversations, North’s score is an unwelcome intrusion into all the interesting work going on in the faces of Monroe, Gable, Wallach, and Clift.

The Misfits had a legendarily troubled shoot, and its legacy is as sad as the melancholy its characters are (mostly) trying to hide. Huston spent the whole shoot drinking and gambling; the studio had to cover some of his costs. Production was shut down for several weeks at one point for Monroe to enter a detox program and recuperate. Clift was also struggling with addiction and depression, the byproducts of a serious car accident in 1956. The Miller/Monroe marriage would end during The Misfits’ plagued shoot, taxed by Monroe’s real-life melancholy and the insecurities that Miller distilled into much of the Misfits script. Gable was dead of a heart attack two weeks after the film wrapped. Monroe would also never complete another film, passing tragically the year after its release. Montgomery Clift would make several more films, but his personal downward spiral would end just five years later, when he died at the age of 45.

This context doesn’t itself make The Misfits better, but considering that the film is about the inevitability of death as a part of the larger intractability of constant, universal change, it might help us look a little closer at the performances. There is something sad and broken in the eyes of Clift’s handsome cowboy, an element of truth in the connection and in the differences that arise between the old cowboy and the young beauty, something always-already tragic in the beautiful woman who can’t be happy. An unmitigated flop upon release, it’s now perhaps the best testament to the true talent and ability of a woman who had already been processed into the most iconic image of the 20th century.

Review Round-Up: March 2


Hey, the Oscars are this weekend! With that in mind, here are some of the best features on the Oscars the Internet has to offer: 

Dinner with Oscar, reviews of this year’s Best Picture nominees by our own Felicia Elliott. Come for the opinions, stay for the dish recommendations you can bring to your Oscar parties.

All 89 Best Picture Oscars ranked, Slant Magazine

It’s pretty baffling that Gary Oldman is the frontrunner for Best Actor (video), Film Club on The AV Club

Our Expert Predicts the Oscar Winners, The New York Times

Honest Trailers: The Oscars (video), Screen Junkies.

As for my favorites … Look, it’s a film with practically no women in it; the only people of color are French soldiers in the background of a single shot; it features, particularly at the end, some sentimental nationalism (though not as much as many previous films of its genre); it’s a goddamn Christopher Nolan movie, and I’ve long considered the man a charlatan more obsessed with puzzles than with film; but goddamn Dunkirk was good.

Death Wish (dir. Eli Roth)

This remake of the Charles Bronson “white man on a rampage” classic (?) is getting uniformly negative reviews, but then, it doesn’t seem targeted at the social subset critics usually occupy. Set in Chicago, the film reads as a dramatization of Trumpism, in which every block of Chicago is inhabited by bloodthirsty quasi-human murderers who must be forcefully put down. A.A. Dowd calls Death Wish out for its fascism at The AV Club

There’s really no such thing as a good time to remake 'Death Wish'—and not just because it’s basically impossible to find a safe, respectful distance from a mass shooting in America. Plenty knew what they were seeing in ’74: a deranged fascist fantasy about a middle-aged “bleeding-heart liberal” brought around hard to the idea that the world is a cesspool in need of flushing. Released during a brand new era of anxious whitelash, Roth’s remake transports this righteous rampage from an almost apocalyptically dangerous, pre-cleanup New York to the Chicago that Trump is always dog-whistling about, a hellhole whose streets run red with blood and deep-dish pizza sauce.

Dowd begrudgingly admits that the movie has some strengths as a B-calibur shoot-em-up, but ultimately its “fuck-up politics” ruin it for him.

Matt Zoller Seitz gives Death Wish 1.5 stars, and the review is certainly net-negative, but occasionally he seems to be going easy on the film. (Certainly, he’s much easier on the previous Bronson version of the film than Dowd, assuming that its roots lay in wholly justified anxiety about urban decay, ignoring the overtones of post-Civil Rights white resentment.) At the very least, he wants to find more subtlety in the remake, or assume better intentions, than Dowd’s review does. He acknowledges the racist dog-whistles in the film, but sees the film as containing a potential self-irony: 

The new 'Death Wish' is a vigilante film that's also about vigilante film cliches, when it remembers to think about such things, which is only occasionally. Most of its attempts to subvert or freshen up familiar elements aren't well developed, and they're certainly never strong enough to counter the bloodlust and gun worship that's invariably going to power this kind of project.

“Invariably” may be an unfortunate choice of words here: is it really inevitable that gun worship comes along with a film about vigilantism? Seitz’s review makes it sound a bit like the film fails in a struggle with its own nature, rather than that the filmmakers intentionally made a reactionary, Trumpist film.

On the other hand, such a film would have to look rather differently at its principal character in order to avoid tones of resentful white supremacy, of fascist revanchism. And that would mean asking more than the simplistic, obfuscatory question, “is what he’s doing right?” It’s odd to me that some of the same publications who sneer so openly at the politics of Death Wish can endorse the endless slog of pseudo-moral questioning that was the Punisher portion of Marvel’s Dardevil, season two, or the spin-off series about the same character. There’s little distinction between The Punisher’s Frank Castle and Death Wish’s Paul Kersey, other than that the former wears the symbolic get-up of a superhero. But I suppose that’s just how we like our fascism delivered to us.


Red Sparrow (dir. Francis Lawrence)

Wasn’t this erotic-spy-action-thriller supposed to come out months ago? I saw the first trailers for this around Spring 2017 -- for, I believe, a summer release. This is the typical sign of a delayed film, which is never a good omen, particularly when it’s a summer release re-scheduled for early March. I have my doubts about Jennifer Lawrence’s ability to sell the role of a Russian ballerina-turned-spy (is that the career path of all female Russian spies?) either in a way that makes me take such rote material seriously or in a way that makes it a fun romp.

That said, reviews are pretty evenly split. It depends, I presume, on the amount of time a given critic is able to endure J. Law’s affected Russian accent. The venerable Manohla Dargis calls the accent in question “passable,” and rather appreciates the film’s representation of a tough female spy, writing,

That may not be everyone’s idea of progress, but it’s both appealing and crucial that 'Red Sparrow' doesn’t soft sell Dominika. There’s an attractive, recognizable toughness to her as well as a febrile intensity born from need and circumstances, including the existential reality of being a woman in a man’s world. Dominika is sentimental (mostly about her mother), but she isn’t sentimentalized and never becomes the movie’s virgin or its whore, its femme fatale or good girl. 

The film does not quite reach either Stephanie Merry’s idea of progress or her idea of a passable accent; she writes in the Post:

... the top-notch cast of mostly British actors, including Jeremy Irons and Ciarán Hinds, have varying degrees of success with the Russian accents, which is just one more distraction in a movie teeming with them. It’s hard to overlook, for example, the sheer number of sexual assaults Dominika is subjected to or the way the camera ogles its female lead with the same discomfiting gaze as her perverted boss.

Over at SlashFilm, Josh Spiegel’s endurance failed the film’s test; he could get over the accents, but not the overlong, convoluted story. The film, he writes, is “flaccid, more convinced of its intelligence than it should be, and painfully overlong.”

Review Round-Up: February 23


Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)

Ex Machina (2014) director Alex Garland takes on the first book in Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy of novels. Of the two books I read in the series, Annihilation was the good one: mysterious and evocative, it is a fantastic example of the way SF-horror can re-figure a trip into the recesses of the human psyche into a trip into the unknown. It also happens to be highly and recognizably derivative: the overall concept (that there is a strange area of obscure origin in Florida that nature has reclaimed and in which it is now running amok) is a secularized version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s SF-as-religious-allegory classic Stalker (1979); and the rest of the story smacks strongly of H.P. Lovecraft’s interest in the abject, the indescribably monstrous—except with complex characters who aren’t white men terrified of difference. The quality of Vandermeer’s book comes from how naturally he melds these two seemingly quite different takes on SF, uniting Tarkovsky’s sublime and Lovecraft’s abject in a thrilling, yet obscure, suspense story.

Anyway, enough about that book: now there’s a movie based on it. A.A. Dowd, lead critic at the AV Club, finds the film likewise “derivative,” picking up in particular the similarities between  the story and Tarkovsky’s SF. Nevertheless, he gives the film a strong-ish B, writing,  

The film wages war on the nerves across multiple fronts, creating a state of regular disorientation through its scrambled visual grammar (like the mismatched eyelines during Lena’s bewildered first scene at the compound) and the distant remove of most of the performances, Portman’s included. As a pure creature feature, it has individual images and moments straight out of a wake-in-fright nightmare. 

The impression I get from Dowd, who’s quite skeptical of Alex Garland’s ability to deliver a fully satisfying story (see: Garland-scripted Sunshine (2007), a film I greatly admire despite its flaws but that Dowd singles out for shade-throwing here), is that Annihilation is much better than the average big-budget SF flick, but not by any disinterested standard a particularly good film.

Emily Yoshida at Vulture views the film a little more charitably. She laments that, in an era when the cinematic image is so pliable, the mind-altering implications of Garland’s imagery will not be as iconic or impactful as earlier films that propelled the viewer into warped, otherworldly places. Nevertheless, she writes, Garland’s trippy images bring the viewer (along with Natalie Portman’s main character) to a deeply personal and emotional place. 

Even more appreciative is Tasha Robinson at The Verge, who sees Annihilation as the best SF film since Arrival (2016). The film defies “spoiler culture,” she writes, revealing its ending right off the bat in order to focus us on the emotional content of the story.

But it’s a mark of success for the film that even knowing the outcome doesn’t disperse the tension. 'Annihilation' is a portentous movie, and a cerebral one. It’s gorgeous and immersive, but distancing. It’s exciting more in its sheer ambition and its distinctiveness than in its actual action. And by giving away so many details about the ending up front, writer-director Alex Garland ('Ex Machina') seems to be emphasizing that 'Annihilation' isn’t about who-will-live dynamics, or the fast mechanics of action scenes. It’s about the slow, subdued journey Lena and the others take into the unknown, and how it affects them emotionally.

It’s my impression that few “genre films”—even or especially the ones that I would consider the true greats—get unanimously sterling reviews upon release. The mixture of opinion and the hesitancy of the praise for Annihilation actually gives me hope that what we may have on our hands is a truly original sci-fi film, one that, like the book it’s based on, does not allow itself to be hemmed in by its (quite overt) influences.


Mute (dir. Duncan Jones)

Speaking of derivative Sci-Fi, Duncan Jones has returned to the genre after his brief flirtation with big-budget fantasy in Warcraft (2016). It’s a welcome return—Jones’s Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011) are among the best SF films of the past decade. Mute, now on Netflix as part of their barrage of SF/cyberpunk, is a passion project he’s been planning since before Moon was released, but reviews are not particularly auspicious:

Viewers likely won’t complain too much about the film’s look (although its design failures will register subconsciously), but they will notice that there’s almost no real sense of danger in this world, and so the stakes don’t seem high enough to care about what happens to anyone. The biggest problem comes down to pacing. The movie takes too long to go anywhere, and so it’s the kind of movie that you get an hour into before you realize that you don’t care about what’s happening. 

I’m not sure I agree with Brian Tallerico here about filmgoers’ indifference to the design of a film; isn’t one of the reasons people love Black Panther so much the design of the world and the characters? This offhand comment seems a bit condescending to me. 

Tellerico and other critics are sure to note the film’s rather obvious debt to Blade Runner and other ‘80s pop-cultural touchstones, which the film wears on its sleeve. Eric Kohn at Indiewire points out the perhaps excessive influence of M*A*S*H on Mute’s character dynamics, along with plot elements taken from, of all things, Witness (1985).

All things considered, Jones juggles these ingredients well enough in individual moments, but they can’t overcome some of the clumsier bits in the script (“I’m AWOL, you’re a-hole”), or a third act reveal that doesn’t quite hold together. Tonally, the movie suffers from a disconnect between earnest storytelling and broad caricatures. 

David Bramesco gets a bit too personal in his take-down of Mute at The Guardian, I feel, pinning Jones’s apparent artistic decline on his wife’s cancer and the death of his father, David Bowie—all while, in the very first paragraph, comparing Jones to George Lucas. That’s quite an interpretive leap, not to mention a hurtful observation, if you ask me. Reviews across the board are pretty abysmal, so here’s an almost-dissenting voice, that of Film School Rejects’ Rob Hunter:

… even with the stumbles 'Mute' manages to capture and hold your attention thanks in part to its visual style and tone. World-building is an often underrated aspect of science fiction films as too many of them focus on imagery that screams “sci-fi” while never truly meshing together as part of the world. The Holy Grail in this regard is Ridley Scott’s 'Blade Runner' … Numerous films have tried to ape the original’s style, but while 'Mute' appears to lack Scott’s budget it succeeds better than most in dropping both characters and audiences into a believable and fully-functioning world.

Hunter’s estimation of the film’s world-building efficacy, however, flies directly in the face of the consensus. Either he’s a more observant director, or he’s a bit too caught up in the hope that Duncan Jones will deliver another classic SF film.


Game Night (dir. John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein)

It seems to me that Jason Bateman is in at least one of these low-budget, R-rated comedies every off-season. If it’s February, March, September, or October, you can be sure you’re getting Jason Bateman as a nondescript American male getting in over his head in some kind of heinous situation.

But is Game Night actually good? Matt Zoller Seitz thinks so. Giving the film 3.5 stars (out of 4), he suggests that the comedy actually has a story rooted in its characters’ interrelationships and psychology and anchored by solid performances from the leads.

The actors put it all across with flair—especially Bateman and McAdams, who complete each other's thoughts so deftly that they really do seem as if they've been married forever, and Plemons, who steals every scene he's in through deft underplaying. And while there are a few touching moments, the film never tries to claim sentimental or revelatory power it hasn't earned.

NPR’s Glen Weldon is also surprised by Game Night’s relative quality, something that he did not find suggested by either its outline or its trailers. Surprisingly enough, he sees Bateman as one of the central appeals of the film:

Bateman's familiar presence unlocks the film in an interesting way; it seems to become an extension of his publicly perceived sensibility. 'Game Night' trades on the comedy of ironic restraint, of de-escalation, of mundane conversations taking place against wildly violent, criminal, life-or-death backdrops. The pop-culture references, which are many, don't seem the product of some last-minute, punch-up-by-committee scripting session, they grow directly out of these characters' overdeveloped trivia acumen.

A stub review in the New York Times by Glenn Kenny concurs with these positive takes on the film, singling McAdams in particular out for praise. 

Not quite on board is Richard Brody at The New Yorker, one of the smartest critics working. He agrees that the film puts more emphasis than the average comedy on distilling characters into comedic action, but he calls the film “compulsively watchable yet empty,” which barely qualifies as slight praise. 

The movie is distinctive for its sense of forethought and composition; it’s an utterly insubstantial experience but a complex wind-up toy of a movie that, in its nested iterations of reality and deception in the kidnapping plot, and in the multiple fields of action that are juggled and interwoven to realize it, feels like a throwback to the showily crafted entertainments of classic Hollywood, voided of their substance and symbols.

Ouch. Brody’s waiting for something new to emerge in the wake of the decline of the Judd Apatow-style improv-flick. Game Night is a departure, but it’s not the new direction, his review suggests.

Review Round-Up: February 16

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Black Panther (dir: Ryan Coogler)

You may or may not have heard that Marvel has a new movie out this month. Black Panther is out, promising to break February box office records and, perhaps, change the film industry. The theory is that this movie—a gargantuan blockbuster directed by a black man, starring an all-black principal cast—will make Hollywood more open to black voices. That remains to be seen; I see it as just as likely that entrenched Hollywood producers will conclude from this movie that Marvel can sell anything, not that black heroes sell.

Reviews are glowing, praising director Ryan Coogler and the expansive cast, none more so than Coogler’s frequently collaborator Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Creed), who plays the film’s villain. Critics are citing his character, who bears the unlikely name of Erik Killmonger, as perhaps the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a charismatic man with complex motivations. At RogerEbert.com, Odie Henderson compares the Coogler/Jordan pairing to that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, predicting we’ll one day be talking about them with the same aura of awe.

Coogler, for his part, generally isn’t praised for the film’s spectacle or action sequences, but for making the characters feel grounded, their interactions real. This, critics point out, makes Black Panther stand out among the quippy Marvel movies. The film has an authenticity—despite being set in an invented fantasy land—that the other Marvel films lack, David Ehrlich of Indiewire writes:

'Black Panther' is different. It’s the first one of these films that flows with a genuine sense of culture and identity, memory and musicality. It’s the first one of these films that doesn’t merely reckon with power and subjugation in the abstract, but also gives those ideas actual weight by grafting them onto specific bodies and confronting the historical ways in which they’ve shaped our universe. Last, but certainly not least, it’s also the first black superhero movie since the dawn of the genre’s seemingly endless golden age (or at least since that one where Will Smith hurled a giant whale at a bunch of innocent sailors).

Another thing that sets this film apart from the Marvel rabble is that, for once in the last decade, it’s a standalone movie: it doesn’t crossover in any serious way with the ongoing drama of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, allowing it to establish its own identity. David Edelstein at Vulture is thankful it isolates itself from the “tiring” franchise.

Ehrlich believes decisively that Black Panther is the best superhero movie yet; Henderson calls it one of the best of the year; Edelstein calls it the “most original” superhero film. Slightly more reserved is the AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who gives the film a B+. 

Nevertheless, the reviews are encouraging. I thought last year’s Wonder Woman was a stiff, cheap-looking, badly written superhero origin story—and also a potential step forward for women in the industry. With these reviews I have renewed hope that Black Panther, which looks to break similar ground in terms of representation in front of and behind the camera, will be both Good and good. 


Tehran Taboo (dir: Ali Soozandeh)

This new drama about sexual hypocrisy in Tehran distinguishes itself by the fact that it’s rotoscoped, meaning that it was filmed in live action and then traced over and accentuated with—well, with computers, no longer with hand-held tools—thus turning it into an animated movie. As many reviews recount—no doubt, this information was in the film’s press packet—director Ali Soozandeh did this because, an expatriot living in Germany, he was not able to make the film in Tehran, and did not want to use a substitute. 

Rotoscoping the film made it possible to capture some authentic Tehran atmosphere, which Geoffrey Cheshire, apparently a frequent visitor to the city, confirms in his review for RogerEbert.com. Cheshire appreciates the film’s complexity in its handling of its subject matter, the double standards applied to men’s and women’s behavior in Iran: 

Although the primary female characters here—and to a lesser extent, some of the men—are trapped in the strictures of a traditional patriarchal society that’s enforced by a theocratic government, the film wisely doesn’t come across as a two-dimensional polemic. That’s largely because Soozandeh’s storytelling is so engaging and nuanced.

J.R. Jones at the Chicago Reader is on board, citing the film’s revelation of religious hypocrisy. But Film Journal is much more ambivalent, much more concerned that Soozandeh may have chosen an easy route of attack: “While certainly insightful about life governed by Islamic Revolutionary law, Soozandeh’s script traffics in a seedy sort of suspense.”

Cheshire, who likes the film, even points out that it’s probably outdated: his friends in Iran assure him that the morality police (a thing) aren’t so bad anymore. And in the end, my suspicion is that, despite generally positive tone of the reviews, this film is not very good. The praise is a bit too tepid, and the constant citation of the same fact about why Soonzandeh chose rotoscoping makes it seem like critics were reaching for something to say about it.


Early Man (dir: Nick Park)

The most fun recurring comment between reviews for this latested clay-mated film from the makers of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run is that Hognob, the main character Dug’s pet warthog, should have been the main character. Unfortunately, for critics, that’s just a way of voicing their disappointment in the failure of Aardman Animation to produce another mild hit/critical darling.

First: Anthony Lane, whose one-two punch review of Black Panther and Early Man reviews at The New Yorker is further evidence of his disinterest in popular film. His short review finds time to get lost in its own meandering tangents more than once. Here’s one perambulation he makes while trying to tell us what he thinks about Black Panther:

There have been black superheroes before, and Will Smith’s character in 'Hancock' (2008) was an unusual blend of potency and dysfunction, but none have been given dominion over a blockbuster. (The one who merits it best is Frozone, from 'The Incredibles,' who has to miss dinner to save the world. “We are talking about the greater good!” he cries. Back comes the reply: “Greater good? I am your wife. I’m the greatest good you are ever going to get.”)

He does manage to catch up to Early Man, though, according with the general consensus that the film is not up to Aardman’s usual quality:

If 'Early Man' slips below the studio’s highest standards, that may be due to its length. In 'A Grand Day Out' (1989), Park managed to rocket Wallace and Gromit—one man and his dog—to the moon and back in twenty-three minutes, whereas the new movie takes more than an hour longer to tell a plainer tale, topped with a lighter scattering of laughs. 

The reserved praise of critics like Sam Adams at Slate assures us that, 16 years from now, we will not be reflecting fondly on the fun time that was Early Man, as we all do periodically on Chicken Run (right?). 

There’s something especially captivating about the miniaturist backgrounds in stop-motion animation. Even characters as ingratiating as Wallace and Gromit were sometimes in danger of being upstaged by their wallpaper, and Dug, who’s little more than a generic good guy, doesn’t stand much of a chance. (His pet warthog Hognob, who’s voiced, or more accurately snorted, by [Director Nick] Park, would have made a more interesting lead.) If you’ve already devoured the Wallace and Gromit canon, as well as 'Chicken Run' and 'Shaun the Sheep,' 'Early Man' is a wonderful way of extending their giddy glow, even if it feels like a small step backward. 

Most obviously disappointed is Stephanie Merry at The Washington Post

In the grand scheme of movies for kids, the stop-motion comedy is hardly a stinker. But it’s also less fun and inventive than you’d expect, given the company’s stellar, Oscar-winning track record.

Merry’s review helped me settle something that had been bugging me since the first trailers for the movie. Many of the jokes from the trailer, which involved cave-people doing modern things with primitive implements—e.g., using tiny alligators as clothespins—seemed terribly familiar, but I couldn’t quite place them, or didn’t want to expend enough energy to do so. Merry makes the connection: they’re Flintstones jokes!

The upshot, this week, it seems, is go see Black Panther.

The Seventh Art 2.0: Our Hospitality

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The copy of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality on Youtube looks great, and this is because it’s a rip of a DVD released by Kino International. Kino is one of the best sources for silent films on disc, and perhaps it’s here I should emphasize that this series is not meant to dissuade anyone from owning physical media. Indeed, I think owning physical media is almost an imperative for people interested in film and TV; Youtube, Netflix, and the other services are convenient, but even when you “buy” a film on iTunes or Amazon, you’re not buying it: you’re licensing it from its owners. You can’t loan it to friends or rip it to your hard drive (which is, by the way, legal)—you don’t own it. One can’t buy everything, so streaming services like Youtube can expand our horizons. But if you’re into silent film, I’d encourage you to pick up some discs from Kino. They do good stuff.

Keaton’s Our Hospitality is one of the comedian’s best films as a director, but it’s also one that contains fewer overt physical gags than classics like Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1927). It sets its sights elsewhere: the film is a parody of the kind of romantic melodrama popular in the teens and early 20s, particularly those associated with the director D.W. Griffith. Griffith’s films were often sentimental portraits of the antebellum South, and they set the mold for Hollywood’s idealized portrait of womanhood and chivalry, the moral struggles of simple people that climax in heroic deeds. His then-recent hit Way Down East (1920) had concerned a woman (Lillian Gish) who is seduced, impregnated, and betrayed, its climax sublimating this intense emotional drama into a thrilling rescue of mother and child on a partially frozen river.

Our Hospitality likewise concludes with its male hero rescuing the object of his affection from watery death, but that male hero is the slight Keaton—who is not racing across ice blocks to grab the heroine, but hanging awkwardly over the precipice of the waterfall by a rope caught on a branch. Keaton’s typical persona, with his small frame and impassive face, is, as usual, part of the joke. Far from the typical melodramatic hero, he is not someone who makes things happen, but to whom things happen. 

In the story, set in the 1830s, Keaton’s character has returned to his hometown, where his father was killed in a duel with a rival family years before. This history is given in an opening sequence devoid of humor, a straightforward melodramatic involving a nighttime storm, a panicked mother, and a shootout in the dark. Fearful for her baby’s life, the widow flees to New York City, which Our Hospitality jokingly depicts as a two-street, rural town. Then, grown and eager to claim his inheritance, Keaton departs for the South, taking a rickety, primitive train whose tracks can be adjusted by hand. The convention of melodramatic coincidence necessitates that on this train Keaton meet and fall for the daughter of the rival family, and be invited over for supper to a house full of men who want to kill him. 

Part of the humor is in the actors chosen to enact these melodramatic conventions. Far from the honorable hero or passionate lover, Keaton’s character is both self-interested and stoic. The head of the rival family, the father of his love interest, is less a southern aristocrat and more a typical vaudevillian “heavy”—a tall, portly man with an absurd mustache. 

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Calling the parody subtle would be a gross overstatement, but Our Hospitality does find the conventions of the Southern melodrama fertile ground for humorous scenarios. Realizing Keaton is a man he’s sworn by family duty to kill, one of the rival family’s sons stops in to ask to borrow a pistol at every store he passes while carrying on a conversation with his target, Keaton. Discovering another of the brothers hiding behind a shed struggling with his pistol, the hyper-oblivious Keaton un-jams it and shoots it for him. The rival family’s sense of southern hospitality forbids that they shoot a man who is a guest in their home; an amusing sequence has them trying to trick Keaton into stepping out of the house so they can shoot him.

To me, though, where Our Hospitality really distinguishes itself from other silent comedies of the era is in its storytelling and its use of the camera. While the humorless prologue is perhaps a bit long, the story is tightly controlled and expertly paced, with the humor arising organically from the story. And the camerawork distinguishes itself from other comedies in the film’s use of composition in the frame. In general, the frame of the film image is more important to the humor of Keaton than that of Chaplin or Lloyd: to them, the frame is simply where the action happens, but for Keaton it is a player in the action, and its meticulous arrangement can express character, theme, and humor. In films like Playhouse (1920) and Sherlock, Jr. (1924), in-camera effects self-consciously push the boundaries of the cinematic frame. 

In Our Hospitality, Keaton uses balanced, often symmetrical frame compositions that have sometimes a certain humor in themselves. Perhaps the trademark shot of his films is the frontal shot of Stone Face himself, situated directly in the middle of shot and directing his impassive gaze almost directly at the camera. Inside the rival family’s plantation, Keaton uses staging in depth and frames within the frame to express themes and gags; the film’s two most effective gags—one involving a waterfall, the other a horse in a dress—consciously use the perspective of the camera as part of the joke.

These days, there’s little point in continuing the old Chaplin/Keaton debate, but to indulge the Keaton side of the argument for just a second: at least in the 1920s, Keaton does seem to be the one who is most interested in playing with the cinematic image itself. The effects of camera perspective, composition, and even editing come alive in the films of Keaton in a way they do not in Chaplin. And this Keaton is able to do while often maintaining a more rigid narrative structure than most Chaplin features, which tend to be very episodic. 

That being said, Keaton’s films, particularly this one, can feel somewhat mechanical: his approach to narrative and character is more detached, much more ironic than Chaplin’s. While Chaplin, initially an anarchic vaudevillian, came to believe in the humanity of his character, Keaton’s Stone Face persona has always been a symbol of ironic distance from the machinations in which he is caught. Chaplin’s passionate tramp recognizes that mechanized labor is exploitative and struggles free; Keaton’s young man feels the waterfall coming and puts up an umbrella.

Review Round-Up: February 9


The Cloverfield Paradox (dir. Julius Onah)

This film, a surprise reveal during the Super Bowl that was posted to Netflix immediately after the game, which is the third film in the loosely associated Cloverfield franchise, is supposedly pretty bad. Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com finds a bit to appreciate about the film—Onah’s approach to revealing the film’s SF world, for example—but settles on a star and a half for the film. In his final paragraph, he pins the film’s failings on its creative team, headed by J.J. Abrams: 

J.J. Abrams, whose name is on the film as a producer, perfected the so-called "mystery box" method of storytelling that promises profound and shattering revelations only to pivot to bromides like, "We should all be nicer to each other" or "Let's learn to forgive ourselves." The script to this one falls well within that wheelhouse. I'd like to visit the alternate universe where 'The Cloverfield Paradox' is worthy of the stroke of PR genius that launched it.

This sounds about right to me. Abrams’s schtick has been old for some time. There were several things I didn’t like about The Last Jedi, but the best thing about it was the way it exploded all of Abrams’s silly mystery boxes from the first film.

A tired-sounding David Edelstein (whom I’ve been a bit iffy on ever since he spent half of his Wonder Woman review crassly detailing his fetish for Israeli women) also doesn’t see much to appreciate in Cloverfield except its director. The content of the film is familiar SF melodrama, but ...

The Nigerian-born director Julius Onah is extremely skillful. The screen is loaded with colorful sci-fi bric-a-brac but the frames are nonetheless spacious. He knows how to keep the camera in motion without being a hot dog about it.

Far less forgiving is David Ehrlich at Indiewire, who is almost convinced that J.J. Abrams has managed to kill a franchise that seems to have excited no one more than the reviewer himself:

By the end of the second quarter of Super Bowl LII, 'The Cloverfield Paradox' was revealed on national television. By the end of the fourth quarter, it was already streaming on Netflix. By the end of the night, Abrams’ best idea had led to his biggest blunder. It’s too soon to say if 'The Cloverfield Paradox' killed its franchise (a fourth installment is already slated for later this year), but it’s already clear that the 'Cloverfield' brand — until yesterday a magic word capable of stirring excitement out of nothing — is now tainted beyond recognition.

Come on, dude, Netflix is making a sequel to Bright. J.J. Abrams’s baby is not in danger.

Fifty Shades Freed (dir. James Foley)

The erotic movies that, reportedly, are roughly on par with 90s Cinemax softcore—but tamer—and in which the principal male character is a never nude chauvinist, may have just gotten watchable. At Indiewire, Manuela Lazic reports that the films have finally found a sense of humor about themselves: 

At this point, who would have thought that a 'Fifty Shades' film, supposedly interested in the very alternative kind of sexual experimentation, would provide enjoyable (and maybe for some, even exciting) sequences of respectful and playful foreplay and oral sex?

Even more surprising: how this lighter approach to sexual intercourse seems to lift the spirits of the characters along with the tone. Johnson, radiant and committed, gives Ana a certain confidence and ease that she’d never had before, and Christian, the man of steel himself, proves he has a few decent jokes in him – though Dornan struggles slightly to portray that goofiness. In cinema as in sex, a dose of self-awareness can do wonders.

Other critics are less sure. Diametrically opposed, in fact, is Chris Nashawaty’s review at Entertainment Weekly, which accuses the new film of the same anti-feminist inclinations as the other films. Nashawaty, too, found humor in the film, but reaches different conclusions about it.

The audience I saw this with cracked up the whole time. And not in the we’re-uncomfortable-so-let’s-nervously-laugh way, but in the can-you-believe-this-is-an-actual-movie forehead-slapping way.

Emily Yoshida has my favorite take, neither as dismissive of Nashawaty’s nor as accepting as Lazic. Her review takes sum of the films series’ cultural impact and relevance, and lightly mocks the superficialities that are almost too obvious to dwell on. Bad sex scenes, cardboard acting, tepid romance, and staid plot aside, what should bother us about these films is its adoration of money and the billionaire lifestyle. The films are on the wrong side of the defining cultural war of our era:

Money has always been the cushion for 'Fifty Shades’ spicier provocations, and it’s the aspect of the series that has aged the worst in the three years. Since E.L. James’s books originally made their splash, we as a culture took our sweet time realizing that most billionaires are more interested in deporting immigrants than sweeping young assistants off their feet, and we have become more suspicious of the powerful boss/naïve intern dynamic that fuels so much of the film’s sexual intrigue. Not that anyone is or should be looking at these films with such a stern eye, I’m just saying that they look more out of step with the times than ever. As the trilogy goes out, more desperate than ever to convince us it was in on the joke all along, it’s hard to say exactly what the joke was.

Another February weekend, another slow week for film releases. Maybe we should all just go see Phantom Thread again: it’s like Fifty Shades but without the sex, the violence, the helicopters, the expensive vacations, or the jeans. This week, we’re stopping with two films; Black Panther reviews also started appearing this week, but I’m saving that for its release next week. In the meantime, I’m going to try to catch that Hedy Lamarr documentary at the Music Box before it’s gone.

Canon Fodder: The Naked City


In Film/Genre, perhaps the best Film Studies book I know of, Rick Altman points out that Hollywood genres evolve through a process of a kind of grammatical synthesis: an existing genre is modified with new elements, which are tacked onto the description of the genre as an adjective. Over time, this adjective becomes a substantive noun, taking the place of the word it used to modify. For example: did you know that when the Hollywood Musical emerged in the late 1920s, it was advertised as “Musical Comedy,” or that Westerns from the teens were actually called “Western Melodramas”?

The point isn’t just about language: the change in terminology signifies a change in narrative form. In this shift, either new elements are dropped into an existing structure (think “Space Western”), or well-worn tropes are revivified by a new narrative structure. The Naked City (1948) is a moment when the very familiar tropes of the urban crime film—what would only later be called film noir—found a new narrative home when they were dropped into a pseudo-documentary structure. What emerged is what we would later call the “police procedural.” You can see in this film shades of the thousands of episodes of Dragnet and Law and Order to come.

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them.” This, the film’s tagline, is repeated a couple times within the film by its narrator, Producer Mark Hellinger. The line is clearly an outgrowth of the anti-Romantic romanticism of the city typical of film noir, but it also immediately strikes one as similar to the preludes to shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: “... In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” Likewise, The Naked City is, of course, about a salacious, sexually tinged crime: the murder of a shapely blonde model named Jean Dexter.

The voice-over narration is at least partially meant, one imagines, to tie more firmly together the sequence of events in the film. The Naked City doesn’t have much of a main character: it’s certainly not Jean, whose face we never really see (but whose murder is depicted in as much detail as 1948 can muster), and there’s no private eye to shepherd us from scene to scene. The closest we have is Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Irish character actor Barry Fitzgerald) and his young underling Detective Halloran (Don Taylor). But even they don’t direct our attention. Instead, it’s the narrator who shifts our attention between the action of the team of investigators led by Halloran. Being disconnected from its characters allows the film to play a little more loose with convention, however: the narrator sometimes speaks over the characters, when the detectives’ procedure becomes too rote to bother with an elaborated scene, and he sometimes leads us on tangents through the city.

The narrator also grounds the film’s interest in the procedures of policing. The film is fascinated by, and meticulous in depicting, forensic and administrative procedure in investigations. Forensic examinations, processes of deduction, technologies of examination and communication, the functioning of rank within a department, correct protocol for confronting a suspect—the film depicts a world in which these fine-tuned rational methods conquers the ambiguity of events. It defines the agents of this process—its characters—only enough to make them relatable in its isolated moments of drama. Muldoon is Irish, and Halloran is a decent, innocent guy—that’s what I got from 96 minutes of this movie. Hellinger’s narration gives the film character and structure that it would otherwise be hard to find.

That the film has a narrator is hardly strange for the time; that this narrator identifies himself as the producer of the film, and, rather than merely introducing the film, narrates the entire thing, is rather unexpected. Hellinger’s narration provides an objective tone, and sometimes even a bemused detachment, to the film. This quasi-objective stance is in line with the film’s most distinguishing characteristic among Hollywood crime films of the time: it was, apparently, filmed entirely on location in New York City (though one assumes that they at least used the old film studios in Astoria for some of the interior shots). The film takes advantage of its location shooting, with roving aerial shots of the skyline, montages of everyday life in the city, and chases through the streets. It’s striking, even now, to see a detective walk into a jewelry store and see framed behind him through the glass door a real city street

But this form has limitations in all kinds of areas. The purported objective stance of the film is really a kind of fetishization of law enforcement and its methods. The scant characterization sometimes feels cheap: when we see Halloran empathetically refuse to beat his son upon his wife’s request for him to do so, we know he’s in for life-threatening danger later in the film. The insistence on location shooting means, for lighting purposes, that almost the whole film takes place during the day—perfectly realistic, perhaps, but not very cinematic. Where the film noir used urban crime to examine social and existential anxiety, from its foundation the police procedural often slips into affirming easy truths—Police, Criminals, Family, Reason.

Tucked within The Naked City, it’s striking, if not terribly surprising, to find visual references to the films of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock (in 1948, directors were already using Hitchcock references as cultural capital!). The shot in which Jean’s landlady discovers her (off-screen) body, turns to the camera, and screams, is taken straight from Hitchcock’s Blackmail! (1929). The motif of small girls jumping rope in city streets while the city hunts a murderer comes from Lang’s M (1931)—there’s even a scene in which Muldoon observes their game from several floors up, evoking the high-angle shots in the opening sequence of that film. 

These allusions make sense: with films like M, Lang set the stage for the emergence of the police procedural, and of course, even before Psycho, nobody murdered women like Hitchcock. But those directors’ interest didn’t stop at form or procedure. Hitchcock’s films are dark, often wry looks into the hidden desires of (male) human beings. Lang wasn’t just interested in modern methods of police procedure; he was interested in the order and the chaos produced by modernity, in the alienated and distorted subjects that rationality produces. M ends with a kangaroo court set up by criminals—imitating the form of the legal system—which ends up being incapable of dealing with the twisted soul of a serial killer, answering it only with violence in kind. It’s difficult to extract that kind of meaning from the police procedural: it doesn’t give itself room to reflect on the processes it depicts, preferring to cultivate a sense of “objectivity” in its presentation of the facts. The Naked City may not lie in the way a melodrama lies, but it manages to find its own kinds of untruths to tell.

Review Round-Up: February 2

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Happy Groundhog Day, everyone! 

...Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!

It’s a pretty sparse week, release-wise. The next two weeks, what with Fifty Shades and Black Panther coming up, promise to produce plenty of critical discourse. But here’s what critics are saying about a batch of this weekend’s few releases:

Good Time (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)

If you’re in Chicago, you can catch this film for another week at The Music Box. The only review you need to read is Sarah’s, here at The Cinessential, which crafts a particularly vivid portrait of the film:

The world of 'Good Time' is so lived in and fully realized and populated, it felt like I could plunge my hands into the movie and pull out its guts with my fists. “World building” so often refers solely to fantasy and sci-fi, but it’s what the Safdie brothers have done here. The New York they explore is technically real, but it’s a version of the city that feels like it’s free-wheeling through space and time. City hospitals, empty amusement parks, and outdated apartments form the backdrop for a mess that unfurls over the course of what can’t be more than 36 hours or so, but what a beautiful mess the Safdies make it.

It’s supposed to be pretty damn good. I plan on catching it this weekend.

A Fantastic Woman (dir. Sebastián Lelio)

Chile’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year is a melodrama about a transgender woman that—get this—stars a transgender actress (Daniela Vega) in the lead. This surprising innovation is singled out for praise over at Slate:

The entertainment industry’s habit of casting cisgender actors in transgender roles—some of them, like Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor, giving performances that are exceptionally fine—has gone hand in glove with its near-monolithic focus on stories of transition. Focusing the camera on Vega, an openly trans actress (apparently Chile’s first), allows 'A Fantastic Woman' to tell a different, richer kind of story and allows us to process the subtleties of her performance without always having to evaluate the success of the underlying transformation.

It isn’t the only reason the film’s getting high marks, though. David Ehrlich of Indiewire praises director Sebastían Lelio, who manages to be strike notes of authenticity even while quoting melodrama auteurs known for their use of stylization and artifice: 

Second only to Pablo Larraín among Chile’s most popular emerging filmmakers, the young Lelio has already established himself as a compassionate chronicler of marginalized women (Paulina García won Best Actress at the 2013 Berlinale for her role as an aging divorcée in Lelio’s 'Gloria'). He deepens that sense of empathy here, unpacking a drama that resists the heightened sensationalism of genre and remains sobering even as it cribs a number of highly stylized elements from the likes of Fassbinder and Almodóvar.

There is a note of reserve in much of the praise, however—the consensus would seem to be that A Fantastic Woman is not quite a masterpiece, but it is a step forward in the representation of transgender individuals. Indiewire gives the film a B+; The AV Club only a B. Good marks, but not great ones.

The main dissenting voice is Anthony Lane at the New Yorker, who goes after the film a bit harder—but contrarian disdain is his bread and butter, after all. To his credit, his critique seems well-grounded: morally, the film is impeccable, he writes, but dramatically, it is obvious, predictable, somewhat wooden. The problems extend to the main character, Marina, who lacks the kind of impenetrability that make characters interesting:

Fans of Lelio will recall the eponymous heroine of 'Gloria,' his memorable film of 2014. She was a divorced woman in her fifties who hung out in singles bars, saw too little of her children, and woke up on a beach, alone, after a heavy night. Something about Gloria evaded our grasp, whereas Marina feels all too solidly present and, despite the defiant poise of Vega’s performance, oddly bereft of moral ambiguity. Her conversations tend to be the opposite of quick-fire, with the characters pausing for a while—or an eternity—before responding, just to make quite sure that we get the point.

It’s not hard to imagine that the film’s drama seems a bit on-the-nose at parts; but then, isn’t that just the melodramatic mode? In Fassbinders’ films, an apparent reference point for Lelio, characters often express their feelings and motivations with Brechtian directness, and oppression is always depicted in heightened eruptions of emotion or violence. Perhaps, though, Lelio doesn’t quite strike the right balance of authentic affect and melodramatic style. Fassbinder, too, sometimes missed that mark.

24 Frames (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

This is the final film by late director Abbas Kiarostami, an experimental film that, rather than assembling moving images into a story, contemplates 24 discrete still images. (24 frames per second is the standard frame-rate for movie-making.) Each still image, over the course of its four minutes onscreen, is gradually brought to life through digital animation. For Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, the effect is “as delightful as it is surprising.” The film invites the imagination of the viewer: the experience of watching the film is “curiously dual”:

It’s very easy to be swept along by the cleverly playful visual patterns and evolving quasi-storylines. Yet at the same time, I suspect that every viewer will simultaneously (re)make the movie in his or her own mind by providing a wealth of personal thoughts and associations. Among the many that I flashed on were: the early films of the Lumiere Brothers and Georges Melies; the discrete worlds of Joseph Cornell’s boxes; experimental works by filmmakers ranging from Maya Deren to Stan Brakhage; a host of early animated films leading and including the masterpieces of Walt Disney; the valedictory purity of Kurosawa’s 'Dreams.'

Cheshire likens the film to an array of modernist art, but a more immediate reference point for me would be the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky loved to point his camera at paintings, especially religious and medieval ones, in films like Andrei Rublev (1966), The Mirror (1975), and The Sacrifice (1986). These films, like Kiarostami’s new film, were also very interested in time and the relationship between how the cinema represents it and how the mind perceives it. Other filmmakers it calls to mind are classic experimental directors like Chris Marker, who composed a narrative sci-fi film out of still images with La Jetée (1962), and Michael Snow, best known for his decidedly un-human-centric, slow-moving experimental films Wavelength (1967).  

Manhola Dargis at the New York Times does not agree with Cheshire’s unambiguously admiring take on the film. True, she has a soft spot for it 24 Frames being the last we’ll have from Kiarostami—but she doesn’t seem to be able to get into it:

'24 Frames' can’t help but be affecting because it is Kiarostami’s final movie. But it’s intellectually uninvolving, and its technical limitations prove frustrating. In a few shots, snow or rain falls, for instance, on the same left-to-right diagonal, creating a distracting pattern that suggests the software wasn’t altered for each photograph. This synthetic quality may be an intentional imitation of life; certainly it’s obvious that Kiarostami was thinking a great deal about cinema.

From the descriptions, the film seems most suited for university film theory courses—but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Your level of intellectual involvement may depend on how interested you are in the question of how time, the moving image, and human affect relate to each other.

Review Round-Up: January 26


Review Round-Up is kind of like Rotten Tomatoes, but more human.

The Maze Runner: The Death Cure (Dir: Wes Ball)

Ben Kenigsberg of the New York Times has surprisingly sympathetic things to say for the teen dystopian action franchise you forgot about: 

But as silly as they sound, these movies are pretty well made, capable of outsize action and teary intimacy. The director, Wes Ball, knows how to move his camera around a futuristic medical compound, and the filmmaking brio — especially the sights of Earth’s last city, shot in Cape Town — mitigates the eye rolls prompted by the plot.

The venerable (though the jury is still out on their late-2017 redesign) A.V. Club concurs. Jesse Hassenger’s praise for the film is both reluctant and tepid—compelled largely, one suspects, by The Maze Runner’s underdog status—but the review is positive nonetheless:

As it turns out, with hardly anyone outside of hardcore Maze Runner fans (and however many supplemental moviegoers it takes to get within range of $100 million domestic) paying attention, the runty little brother of The Hunger Games has gotten surprisingly proficient in that area of well-produced sci-fi junk where a lot of the dialogue consists of variations on, “Go, go, go!”

The film’s director, Wes Ball, is frequently cited as a reason this third film kinda almost works, against all odds. Apparently style saves a film that is otherwise a jumble of young-adult tropes and dystopian cliches. What turns out to be a less favorable review by Emily Yoshida over at Vulture singles out Ball as well, if not for making a good film, at least for making it less painful than it could be: Ball and his “engaging cast” are “able to wordlessly communicate dynamics and histories that I’m grateful the script did not spend too much time rehashing.”

Decidedly less positive, though still appreciative of Ball’s action sequences, is Christy Lemire at RogerEbert.com:

For better and for worse, it’s an overwhelming experience. And just when you think it’s over, there’s another coda, and then another. The music will swell to a crescendo, signaling our need to experience peak emotions and planned catharsis, and then there are more loose ends to be tied up, more overly explanatory narration to endure.

You can read a certain amount of fatigue in each of these reviews, and not just because, at two hours, the film is a tad long, or because the experience itself is overwhelming. Yoshida notes with discernible relief that the YA-dystopia craze is fading. May we be so lucky.

Hostiles (Dir: Scott Cooper)

Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian appreciates the look—and even the drama—of the film, but finds something lacking in its handling of its purported moral material:

The violence of the white pioneer and the Native American in the old West are set up against each other, and (tacitly) declared to be of tragic equivalence, though eligible to be redeemed by gestures of good faith and unexpected romantic developments. The beauty of the landscape and the violence of its human inhabitants are evidently supposed, in their respective extremities, to add up to something. But what?

To my mind, if indeed the violence of white settlers and that of Native Americans is portrayed as equivalent in the film, Bradshaw isn’t outraged enough. Surely Native American tribes fighting whites committed terrible acts, but that doesn’t make the two sides equivalent. The Allies committed atrocities during World War II, but that doesn’t make their crimes equivalent to the Nazis’. Portraying a genocidal force as equivalent to those desperately defending themselves against genocide is ideological; no matter what moral quandaries the main (white) characters face, the project of such a film is equivocation: “but everyone was murdering!” This equivocation draws our attention away from who the original aggressors were, who is most responsible for the bloodshed, who committed the greatest crimes, and who benefited from these crimes.

Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com is more attentive to this particular flaw in the film, ending his review with the observation that Hostiles is

a film that’s beautifully shot and acted, but also meandering, overlong and only sporadically focused on its central issues. As for its politics, in making the story primarily about one (white) man’s redemption, “Hostiles” falls back on a well-worn if still potent dramatic trope while saying virtually nothing about the genocide committed against Native Americans.

The film, by all accounts, seems to add nothing new to our Western mythos, inasmuch as it approaches racism and war from an exclusively white perspective. In all, I would recommend you just re-watch Fort Apache (1948). It’s not not-chauvinist, but it is a harrowing drama about white racism and bloodlust—a version of the Old West story that, from my impression, Hostiles adds little to.

Please Stand By (Dir: Ben Lewin)

This indie dramedy is eliciting some conflicting appraisals. The story concerns a young woman on the autism spectrum who is travelling across California to enter her Star Trek spec script in a competition. (The script, for those of us in the know, sounds a lot like the concept behind the classic DS9 episode “Trials and Tribble-ations.”) For the A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo, the film’s handling of autism is same-old, same-old: 

By the time Patton Oswalt shows up for a winking cameo as a cop who defuses a situation by speaking to Wendy in Klingon, Please Stand By has lost all touch with reality. It’s just another instance of equating autism with kookiness.

Slate’s Marissa Martinelli, who betrays a little more partiality to Paramount’s sci-fi franchise, disagrees, writing that

It’s a relief to see Wendy played as more than simply a bundle of symptoms. While her color-coded sweaters, nervous knitting habit, and deep well of Trek knowledge might seem quirky—she is in an indie comedy, after all—she’s also a fully realized person who is determined to prove that she’s been underestimated, while also showing off a softer side, which we see in her interactions with kids and babies along her trip.

I’m inclined to favor the former perspective, not only because its account of the representation of people with autism rings more true, but also because I prefer its relative neglect of Trek discussion to Martinelli’s apparent enthusiasm for the current “Treknaissance.” Sorry, everyone, but the Abrams movies and Discovery suck. I’d rather go on watching repeats of TOS, TNG, and DS9 (400 episodes of television!) for the rest of my life than feel obligated to witness all the half-cooked ways that CBS-Paramount wants to revamp Star Trek.

Jeanette Catsoulis in the New York Times has somewhat reserved praise for Dakota Fanning’s performance, but goes after the film for reasons similar to D’Angelo’s:

… despite her commitment to the role — and the generally fine supporting performances — this timorous tale sidesteps uncomfortable realities in favor of soothing whimsy and preordained uplift.

Catsoulis’s brief snippet of a review doesn’t cover the film in very much detail, but it does find time to mistake Worf’s rank, referring to Starfleet’s only Klingon officer as “Lieutenant Worf.” Worf was promoted to Lieutenant Commander back in 2371; come on.

Review: 42 Grams


“Food is just a medium,” Chef Jake Bickelhaupt opines toward the end 42 Grams. “It’s really a connection between random people.” That upscale dining is really about forging intimate connections is an ethos reflected by the design of the titular restaurant, as well as the illegal, “underground dining” service he ran out of his apartment beforehand. A single, moderately sized dining table is the extent of the restaurant’s seating, from which they can see—and interact with—the chef preparing their food behind the restaurant’s small bar. The setting is one that evokes an elegant, if modest, home, more than a restaurant. It is an atmosphere of intimacy that seems far more effortless than the film reveals it to be.

In fact, the moral that food is only the medium for relationships between people is not wholly supported by what Jack C. Newell’s documentary shows us. Rather, 42 Grams is a portrait of an artist driven to create perfect dishes more by his own inarticulable passions than by a deeply held belief in the communal nature of dining. Bickelhaupt and his wife Alexa opened their restaurant in Uptown Chicago to, as they say, “give Jake an outlet,” not necessarily to create a forum for interaction. This passion is the driving force of the film, an engrossing look at Jake and Alexa as they work together to make Jake’s dreams a reality.

The filmmaking reflects this passion that drives Jake’s work. The camerawork by Newell and cinematographer Patrick Warren brings us close to the variegated dishes that Jake prepares, showing us the layers, the textures, the artful arrangements in great detail. These details, though, reflect more on Jake than they do on a broader picture of upscale dining. While we see an extended “R&D” scene, in which Jake meticulously selects ingredients to be used in the week’s menu, and while we follow his and Alexa’s restaurant from its inception to its closing, this is not a film from which you will gain an abundance of information regarding chefs and restaurateurs in the United States, or even in Chicago. Somewhat ironically, 42 Grams the movie is intimate—is a “medium for connecting random people”—in a way the restaurant it portrays never really seems to be.

All of this is not to say that the restaurant seems uninviting, or that Jake’s story is not sympathetic. Indeed, as a viewer I was surprised to find how adamantly I was rooting for Jake and Alexa. As one might expect of a perfectionist chef, Jake’s personality can bristle at times: the way he treats his sous chef and other underlings at the restaurant, for example, seems to often be unfair, even borderline cruel. He becomes impatient quickly when things don’t go his way, which clearly leads to (mostly off-camera) problems with his wife and business partner Alexa. And yet, the scene in which Alexa and Jake wait for word about their restaurant’s initial Michelin rating is a thrilling piece of film because you have come to identify so thoroughly with Jake’s overwhelming passion.

This effect on the viewer is, of course, aided by the excellent narrative sense of Newell and editor David Burkart. From the collected chaos of the first year of an upstart restaurant, they compose something very akin to a classical narrative, a straightforward but very effective structure that leads us from the modest beginnings of illicit dinner gatherings in the couple’s living room through their multiple struggles (not the least of which being Jake’s personality) as they struggle to realize their goals, and to a cathartic conclusion. The timeline of events is clearly subordinated to this narrative—we learn about ongoing family health crises in the film’s “second act,” rather than as they happen—but the effect is to draw us closer to the subjects, to help us feel their very real struggles and triumphs. I must confess that my eyes got a little bit misty at the climax of this 80-minute movie, when the call from the Michelin Guide finally comes in.

Chicago, the film informs us in its sole use of infographics, has only 102 one-star Michelin restaurants, 18 two-star restaurants, and just 12 three-star restaurants. Knowing virtually nothing about fine cuisine, I was surprised by these numbers, and they also reminded me what a rarefied area of culture the film is talking about. It gave me pause to think about what is left out of this narrowly focused, tightly structured documentary. 

42 Grams is a Chicago film, no doubt: periodic drone shots give us beautiful vistas of the Chicago skyline; Jake, originally from Wisconsin like so many Chicago transplants, speaks with those identifiable, North-midwestern short “a” sounds; Uptown landmarks like the Lawrence and Wilson “L” stops, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the Aragon Theater, the Riviera, and that diner next to the Riviera are featured throughout the film. Anyone who lives in Uptown (like this reviewer, for instance) can figure out exactly where this restaurant used to be, given the information provided. 

And yet, for all the recognizable Chicago landmarks in the film, the film doesn’t really have much to say about the relevance of Jake’s restaurant being in Chicago. Part of what the film sacrifices in focusing so intently on Jake-the-driven-artist is the context into which he is bringing his art. That 42 Grams is not intended to give us an introduction or overview, a glimpse into the world of fine dining in microcosm, is clear, but nevertheless the film leaves one curious about Jake’s place in his chosen profession, his city, his neighborhood. The shots of city streets and skylines end up adding flavor, but not very much depth, to the film’s dish.
Despite feeling somewhat alienated from the world outside Jake and Alexa’s restaurant and upstairs apartment, 42 Grams is an excellent documentary, a compelling story about the struggle to create. At a brisk 80 minutes, it offers something analogous to the plates we see Jake complete dozens of times in the film: a deceptively small, expertly crafted work of art.  It will be playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago starting Saturday, January 27th, with a nationwide premiere coming on Netflix soon thereafter.

The Seventh Art 2.0: Berlin, Symphony of a Great City


Youtube is a veritable treasure trove for those interested in silent film. With many of the surviving films of the 1890s-1920s in the public domain, and given the relatively low viewership numbers, copyright claims are rare. This series, named after early film critic Riccioto Canudo’s defense of cinema as “The Seventh Art” features a new silent film of artistic and/or historical importance that can be found on Youtube with each entry.

Today’s film: Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis (Berlin: Sinfonie der Großstadt, 1927)

When a city becomes more than just a backdrop for the action in a film, when its idiosyncrasies play a role in the development of the story, we love to observe that that city is almost like a character in the film. But what is the character of a city? In the 1920s, an experimental and highly influential genre of cinema called the “city symphony” attempted to answer this question. More (or in some ways, less) than simple documentaries, city symphonies are essentially feature-length montages that attempt to create a cinematic portrait of a given city, capturing its movements and mirroring its rhythms in the pattern of the film image. 

Manhatta (1921) is usually recognized as the first city symphony or proto-city symphony, but the term itself comes from the genre’s paragon, Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis (also translated as Symphony of a Great City, 1927), directed by Walther Ruttmann. The film is comprised of documentary footage, but Ruttmann was renowned as an animator by the mid-1920s, having applied his streamlined, modernist aesthetic to avant-garde productions (Lichtspiel: Opus 1, 1925), advertisements (Der Sieger, 1922), government propaganda (Der Aufstieg, 1926), and even big-budget productions (he animated Kriemheld’s premonitory vision of Siegfried’s death in the first part of Fritz Lang’s excellent Die Nibelungen, 1924). His work on Berlin marked a turn to the creative assembly of documentary footage that would last, unfortunately, into his time producing propaganda for the Nazi regime in the 1930s and ‘40s. 

(All of Ruttmann’s pre-Nazi films are available on a single, region-2 DVD release that I highly recommend if you have the dough and a way to play European discs. Otherwise, though, the links above will lead you to his filmography.)

In 1927, Fox Film Europa engaged Ruttmann to edit together footage of Berlin shot by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund (The Last Laugh [1924], Metropolis [1927]). The idea of a documentary portrait of Berlin, at the time Europe’s fastest-growing city and the center of artistic innovation, came about as a cheap way to fulfill production quotas: according to German regulations, a certain percentage of films exhibited in theaters had to be German productions. As Fox Film Europa’s primary business interest was moving Fox Film productions (the company had not yet merged with 20th-Century Films) into Europe, Berlin was intended as a so-called “quota film,” to free up room to move more American films into the German market. 

Its most recent model was previous city films like Die Stadt der Millionen (The City of Millions, 1925), a documentary produced by the German film monopoly Ufa just a couple of years before. While Die Stadt der Millionen showed a certain interest in cinematic effects—including animated and stop-motion sequences, staged flashbacks, and composite imagery—it had been a rather staid, factual documentary of Berlin and its environs. Given his background in experimental animation, Ruttmann had something else in mind: a study of the forms of the city, as expressed in the movements of workers, idlers, performers, architecture, machines, transportation, construction, commerce, and entertainment. Berlin: Sinfonie der Großstadt would create musical movements out of the city’s rhythms and formal correspondences, pieces that have imagistic accelerandos and ritardandos, crescendos and decrescendos.

The term “city symphony” may reference Ruttmann’s film, but the name of the film itself comes from cinema’s analogy to music, which was frequently observed by its early theorists: cinema does not just capture real-world movement—it tracks change in time. Just as melody does not inhere in either of two individual notes but in the difference between those notes, movement does not consist of a single image, but of the difference between one image and the next. Movies do for the eye what music does for the ear. This, anyway, was the notion of many early champions of film, including Ruttman and fellow makers of “absolute film,” a genre of animation that dealt in abstract forms and movement. 

Ruttmann opens Berlin by referencing his absolute films of previous years. It begins with a close-up shot of gently moving water, which fades into shifting horizontal lines of white and black that run the length of the screen. As the movement of these lines accelerate, geometric shapes emerge and disappear behind them: a circle, a thick rectangle, two thin rectangles that pivot on an axis, falling from the top to the bottom of the screen. In a graphic match, the film cuts to railroad barriers falling into place. A train speeds by the camera, and we’re treated to a montage of sights from the train as it chugs across the German countryside: rapidly disappearing railroad ties, crisscrossing telegraph and power lines, the railroad wheels themselves. The speed of the editing intensifies as we begin to recognize in the images the simultaneous combination of abstract shapes that Ruttmann’s animation has already shown us.

The analogy between highly abstract shapes and rhythms and the modern world undergirds Ruttmann’s approach to the material of Berlin. With this opening scene comes his thesis statement—that the cinema can reveal the underlying “true” forms of the city through montage (meaning, in a broad sense, editing) that reveals analogies in shape and rhythm. The train slows down and pulls into Anhalter Bahnhof (once Berlin’s greatest train station; today merely a bomb-scarred facade), and the film, likewise, enters Berlin. Throughout, it asks the viewer to find analogies through its juxtapositions: between industrial machines and modern architecture; between masses of workers trudging to their jobs and regiments of soldiers marching in the streets; between the incessant movement of communication networks (telephones, typewriters, telegraphs) and the chaos of animal life; between mannequins and modern humans.

The overriding analogy, however, is between kinds of movement, and particularly the movement of the film image and the various kinds of movement in the city. This movement is structured into five acts, structured around themes (e.g., work, shopping, entertainment) and times of day, that each contain their own patterned accelerations and decelerations, both within the image and between the images. Berlin follows the intense visuality of the silent image to a logical extreme, creating one of the finest examples of what film could be before the advent of sound. Although it has been critiqued over the years for its tendency to idealize and depoliticize social relations—explicitly reducing them to mere forms to be played with, which critics have seen as foreboding Ruttmann’s fascist turn—Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis remains a masterwork of the silent cinema, one of the greatest formal accomplishments of an era.