Movie Reviews

  • Six Books That Raise A Five-Alarm Warning Against the President
    by Chaz Ebert on September 30, 2020 at 5:15 PM

    There has never been a president in the entire history of the United States who has had so many books published as warnings against the dangers he brings to the office. They are too numerous to keep track of. However, after watching the first presidential debate last night, I feel compelled to share six more books as a follow-up to my previous article compiling ten books that provided a damning account of Donald J. Trump's presidency. I thought I had seen it all, but last night when the debate moderator, Chris Wallace, asked Trump to denounce white supremacists, Trump not only hesitated to do so, but called out to the Proud Boys (a group that has been classified as a hate group), to "Stand back, and STAND BY." The group immediately added his admonition to their logo. Together these books warn us about his lack of empathy and his bullying personality which is unbecoming and downright unacceptable for one who occupies the position of the presidency of the United States and the ostensible leader of the free world.  These books lay bare the lies about Trump's supposed business and economic prowess and instead warn us about why we should look more closely into his taxes and financial deals that could pose national security threats. They raise alarms against his cozying up to dictators and alienating our allies in the world. They chronicle how his failure to take control of a global pandemic has cost the lives of over 200,000 Americans, and counting. They highlight his divisiveness on the question of systemic racism. And they warn us against the dangers he poses to our democratic institutions and the very bedrock of our democracy. What emerges is a clear picture of a man who is incapable of leading our nation, but who has been propped up by enablers. It is quite alarming.  And while this article is about books, I must note that other publications have also gotten into the act. The New York Times has released shocking information that Trump paid only $750 in federal income tax for the years 2016 and 2017, and that for ten of the previous 15 years he paid NO taxes! And while he brags about being a billionaire, they exposed that he is more than $400 million dollars in debt with the clock ticking on when it is to be repaid. To whom is still in question.  The Scientific American, stated that it had to make a presidential endorsement for the first time in the magazine's 175-year history! (You can read it in full here.) "The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science," the magazine's editors wrote in their official statement. "The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 190,000 Americans their lives by the middle of September. He has also attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges. That is why we urge you to vote for Joe Biden, who is offering fact-based plans to protect our health, our economy and the environment. These and other proposals he has put forth can set the country back on course for a safer, more prosperous and more equitable future." Please note that these warnings are not against partisanship. They are observing a particular brand of leadership, or lack thereof, that presidential historians Michael Bechloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin say have no historical precedent in our country. Bechloss says the closest precedent we would find is in Italy with Mussolini. I take notice of the courage of these writers and publications who out of a  recognition of their duty to democracy, the Constitution and our country suspended their usual reserve to sound a warning bell. These six books have been released over the past month, beginning with "Rage," the new book by Bob Woodward that provides unequivocal evidence that Trump is unfit for the presidency. "Rage" is based on 18 interviews of Trump's own words recorded with his permission by Woodward. The same Bob Woodward whose reporting with Carl Bernstein about the Watergate scandal brought about the resignation of then-president Richard Nixon.    —Chaz Ebert 1. Rage (2020) by Bob Woodward Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, is an unprecedented and intimate tour de force of new reporting on the Trump presidency facing a global pandemic, economic disaster and racial unrest. Woodward, the #1 international bestselling author of Fear: Trump in the White House, has uncovered the precise moment the president was warned that the Covid-19 epidemic would be the biggest national security threat to his presidency. In dramatic detail, Woodward takes readers into the Oval Office as Trump’s head pops up when he is told in January 2020 that the pandemic could reach the scale of the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed 675,000 Americans. In 17 on-the-record interviews with Woodward over seven volatile months—an utterly vivid window into Trump’s mind—the president provides a self-portrait that is part denial and part combative interchange mixed with surprising moments of doubt as he glimpses the perils in the presidency and what he calls the “dynamite behind every door.” 2. Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of the Truth (2020) by Brian Stelter In Hoax, CNN anchor and chief media correspondent Brian Stelter tells the twisted story of the relationship between Donald Trump and Fox News. From the moment Trump glided down the golden escalator to announce his candidacy in the 2016 presidential election to his acquittal on two articles of impeachment in early 2020, Fox hosts spread his lies and smeared his enemies. Over the course of two years, Stelter spoke with over 250 current and former Fox insiders in an effort to understand the inner workings of Rupert Murdoch's multibillion-dollar media empire. Some of the confessions are alarming. “We don't really believe all this stuff,” a producer says. “We just tell other people to believe it.” 3. Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump (2020) by Peter Strzok When he opened the FBI investigation into Russia’s election interference, Peter Strzok had already spent more than two decades defending the United States against foreign threats. His career in counterintelligence ended shortly thereafter, when the Trump administration used his private expression of political opinions to force him out of the Bureau in August 2018. But by that time, Strzok had seen more than enough to convince him that the commander in chief had fallen under the sway of America’s adversary in the Kremlin. In Compromised, Strzok draws on lessons from a long career—from his role in the Russian illegals case that inspired The Americans to his service as lead FBI agent on the Mueller investigation—to construct a devastating account of foreign influence at the highest levels of our government. And he grapples with a question that should concern every U.S. citizen: When a president appears to favor personal and Russian interests over those of our nation, has he become a national security threat? 4. Donald Trump v. The United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President (2020) by Michael S. Schmidt Schmidt has broken many of the major stories of the Trump era, from the news of Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email account to the report on former FBI director James Comey’s contemporaneous memos of conversations with Trump that led directly to the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Now he takes us inside the defining events of the presidency, chronicles them up close, and records the clash between an increasingly emboldened president and those around him, who find themselves trying to thwart the president they had pledged to serve, unsure whether he is acting in the interest of the country, his ego, his family business, or Russia. Through their eyes and ears, we observe an epic struggle. Drawing on secret FBI and White House documents and confidential sources inside federal law enforcement and the West Wing, Donald Trump v. The United States is vital journalism, recording the shocking reality of a presidency like no other, a riveting contemporary history, and a lasting account of just how fragile and vulnerable the institutions of American democracy really are. 5. The Useful Idiot: How Donald Trump Killed the Republican Party with Racism and the Rest of Us with Coronavirus (2020) by S.V. Dáte A pandemic never occurred to them.The idea that Donald Trump would ever be required to sit still, pay attention and make rational decisions that would determine whether hundreds of thousands of Americans would live or die not once crossed the minds of those who put him into the Oval Office.For whatever reason, even as they watched the noise and chaos and nonsense generated by candidate Donald Trump for a full year and a half, the consequences of a real crisis requiring real leadership actually happening on the watch of a President Donald Trump never really dawned on them.Three and a half years later, here we are. Approaching 200,000 dead Americans and counting, with a president who grew bored of the crisis months ago. This after the racial and ethnic divisions Trump has inflamed, the endless, wearying lying about things great and small, the pointless chaos, the open abuse of his office to funnel millions into his own pockets and to extort a foreign leader into helping his reelection.If Trump is given another four years, what might his behavior be like, completely unburdened of the need to face the voters ever again? And do Americans really want to find out? 6. Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation (2020) by Andrew Weissmann In May 2017, Robert Mueller was tapped to lead an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, coordination by foreign agents with Donald Trump’s campaign, and obstruction of justice by the president. Mueller assembled a “dream team” of top prosecutors, and for the next twenty-two months, the investigation was a black box and the subject of endless anticipation and speculation—until April 2019, when the special counsel’s report was released.  In Where Law Ends, legendary prosecutor Andrew Weissmann—a key player in the Special Counsel’s Office—finally pulls back the curtain to reveal exactly what went on inside the investigation, including the heated debates, painful deliberations, and mistakes of the team—not to mention the external efforts by the president and Attorney General William Barr to manipulate the investigation to their political ends. Video of the Day Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus' documentary, "All In: The Fight for Democracy," is available to stream on Amazon Prime. It takes a look at the history, and current activism led by Georgia politician Stacy Abrams against voter suppression; barriers to voting that most people don't even know is a threat to their basic rights as citizens of the United States. 

  • I Can’t Remember Anything Without You: Watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind through Grief
    by Chris Vognar on September 30, 2020 at 12:58 PM

    Last night she visited me in a dream. I was flying through the air, very fast, when suddenly I found myself in her arms. I caught a good look at her smiling face. Then I woke up, slowly, tears running down my face as I remembered she’s dead. I asked myself: Would I erase that dream if I could? Or what if I could keep the pleasure, the friendly visit, but erase the pain?    To forget someone is a form of emotional murder, even when the object of your memory has already passed away. As I mourn my life partner Kate, who recently died after a long battle with a rare brain disease, I often find myself grappling with the entirely irrational feeling that I must stay distraught in order to remember her. I see this as loyalty, but it is in fact madness, as is my other, contrary, more selfish impulse: to forget everything, to go back to the time before I met the love of my life, to not have had love at all rather than to have had it ripped from my grasp. All of this has led me back in recent days to what I see as cinema’s deepest dive into memory, loss and enduring love, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). Melding the creative melancholia of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman with the low-fi visual magic of director Michel Gondry, “Eternal Sunshine” uses a fantastical question—if you could erase someone from your mind, would you?—to get at matters that are, well, eternal: Are we more than the sum of our memories? Are the good times in a relationship worth the pain of loss? Perhaps most pertinent, does true love really conquer all, or is that just a sentiment we use to keep Hallmark in business? In case you’ve forgotten (or had it scrubbed from your memory): After an acrimonious breakup, Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had Joel (Jim Carrey) erased from her memory by the technicians at Lacuna, who specialize in this sort of thing. Joel, seeing the allure of wiping away the pain, opts for the same procedure. As the doctor (Tom Wilkinson) explains, each memory has an emotional core. Eradicate the core, kill the memory. But Joel, a romantic at heart, changes his mind mid-procedure. He loves this woman, warts and all, and doesn’t want her erased after all. And so they go on the lam inside his mind, staying one step ahead of the erasers, finding refuge within one old memory after another. It’s an exceedingly clever film that I’ve always found deeply moving as an expression of love’s durability. But I’ve come to view it differently since Kate’s illness and death. As anyone unfortunate enough to have lost a loved one will tell you, grief operates on a higher plain of pain. It literally makes your heart hurt. It makes the present unbearable and the future undesirable. I’ve had days when I marvel at the reservoir of tears within me. I’ve had weeks when I no longer wanted to be alive. (For a long time those were the only weeks I had). The common denominator? Memory. Never the bad memories; only the good ones. A magical trip we took to the Venice Film Festival, and the way she beamed when I spoke on a panel there. A morning spent snuggling in bed with our overweight cat, Wuzz. Or just the way her smile accentuated her deep brown eyes. It hurts to even write about this stuff. These are the memories I’d cling to tightest were I in Joel’s shoes. Grief expert David Kessler says you’ll know you’re healing from grief when the memories bring more joy than pain. I like to think I’m getting there. What kind of person was Kate? When she was raising funds and writing grants for the Dallas Public Library she befriended Stephen, a young homeless man who hung out in front of the building. One morning he found a tiny orange kitten in the library’s outdoor book drop. Stephen was beside himself with worry for the little critter, which he didn’t have the time or the wherewithal to care for. Luckily he had Kate. She threw herself into the task of finding a home for the kitten, working the phones, asking around, and finally arranging a meet-and-greet with a kitty-friendly couple I knew. It was a match. They called him Keeper. This is the kind of thing Kate did. In recovery they talk about doing the next right thing. Kate never had to be told. She just did it.   It’s a work in progress. I still have more triggers than a classic Western—places and songs and foods films that we shared that I can’t yet tackle on my own. I can’t go to Royal China, where we always watched with fascination as the noodle makers did their thing. Or Berkeley’s bucolic Greek Theatre, where we saw her favorite band, Radiohead, on a perfect East Bay evening. I doubt I can ever again watch "Up," with its potent strain of love and grief that reduced me to blubber even in the best of times. The movie wasn’t just mine. It was ours. I can barely even think about it without crying. Actually, check that. I can’t think about it without crying. The crying is the worst, and I’d be lying if I said I never wished for a means to erase my relationship with Kate from my memory. I wonder: What would my life be like now without the nervous breakdown, which took more than a year from my life? The trips to psych wards, whose sterile corridors made me feel more crazy, not less? The lost employment, the uncontrollable tears, the sensation that my soul has been scraped raw and bloody? In a word, it would be easier. And who doesn’t like easier? To paraphrase Hamlet, forgetting it all is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Just ask the folks at Lacuna. But all of that discounts the most important quality of all: love. It’s the great equalizer. Joel felt it more powerfully than ever as Clementine began vanishing from his memory. And I felt it in all its might and strength as I watched the Kate I knew succumb to her illness, slowly disappearing. First she lost the ability to speak. Then she could no longer text. Then she couldn’t even read. And it all made me love her all the more, even as I lost the ability to function as well. What might my life be like had I never met her? I’d still be drinking alcoholically, still be coasting from one lonely hookup to another. Life would be easier without the pain of love lost. And it would be empty. “Eternal Sunshine” comes down, jaggedly but firmly, on the side of love. Like most any Kaufman film, including the new “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “Eternal Sunshine” makes clear that an end is nigh. But love survives everything, even brainwashing—or, in my case, even terminal illness and the thousand forms of sorrow it brings. It’s intriguing that I don’t want to erase the bad memories. For one, I think I’ve already done a good deal of that job. I was a knucklehead early in our relationship, and I think I had to stop thinking about those years in order to get better and move forward. I was emotionally checked out. I went away on a fellowship in Cambridge and all but forgot her. My real relationship was with bourbon. Who wants to remember the bad stuff? Not me. I did my own Lacuna procedure on the foul memories. Writing about them now fills me with dull shame, not pain. So that leaves the aforementioned good stuff, which, in absentia, becomes the painful stuff. For a while, the sicker Kate got, the more I pushed her away in my mind. Eventually I recognized the long-term harm in this. I realized that, as long as I preserve it, our love will never die, even though her physical form is no longer here. I am learning, as Joel learns, that the good memories remain good, and that the love, if it was strong, will remain that way. If I let Kate’s love guide me, if I listen to her when she tells me to keep going, I will get out of bed and write and otherwise function as a human being. If I allow myself to remember the good times, I will also remember that I matter to her, that I am worthy of love. These realizations are to be celebrated, not erased. If I keep Kate in my heart, she is safe. So I’ve reached the point where I don’t want to erase any of it. At the end of the day, she’s still here, as long as I create space for her, and for my memories. The lost cat, the noodles, her eyes, her tears, her kindness. It all matters. Because grief, as they say, is love.

  • Ethan Hawke Soars in Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird
    by Brian Tallerico on September 30, 2020 at 12:58 PM

    Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” can be hard to wrap your arms around. That’s by design. It's right there in the tongue-in-cheek words that open every episode: "All of This is True. Most of It Happened." It pushes back against the typically dry or exploitative tones of Civil War-era filmmaking to present something that feels satirical in unpredictable ways. It is a Western at its core, filled with incredible settings and design, but it is vibrantly alive in ways that television versions of this genre haven’t been in years. Anchored by a truly remarkable performance from Ethan Hawke, “The Good Lord Bird” is smart, entertaining television that doesn’t highlight or underline its timeliness or messages as much as it allows the viewers to do half the work. As long as you don’t come to it for a direct history lesson, it is as entertaining as almost any new show of 2020, a razor-sharp seven-episode stretch that flies by with such determination that I’m tempted to watch it again. Newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson narrates the story of Onion, a slave boy who finds himself a part of the abolitionist army in Bleeding Kansas, a time when the state became a battleground over the issue of slavery. John Brown (Hawke) believed that slavery was a literal affront to God. A man who preached the word of the Lord with nearly every breath, John Brown saw slavery as a sin, and let’s just say Brown was willing to lead the “Gunfighters of the Gospel” to stop it. Hawke plays Brown as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, with his wide eyes and bushy beard, and the passion in his performance is palpable. It’s a riveting piece of work, capturing a man for whom impassioned speeches about the very fate of mankind would just come tumbling out of him as if there was no way he could stop them. Hawke is one of the most impressive actors of his generation, a man who can look as comfortable in a modern rom-com as he does in the middle of the fight against slavery. He holds every frame he’s in of “The Good Lord Bird,” and his passion for his craft clearly inspired everyone else, on both sides of the camera. Brown’s instinctual style is contrasted nicely with a vision of Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) as a man very aware of his image and every carefully chosen word. Creators Mark Richard and Hawke envision Douglass not as a vain person—although a bit about how much the camera loves him edges into that territory—but as someone who had to watch everything that he said and did. By the time he appears in this show, he’s in a position of power in his speeches about the tyranny of slavery, and there’s a fascinating contrast to the regulated control of Douglass against Brown’s righteous fury of unchecked indignation. Douglass believes in using his position to change the world; Brown believes in letting the world burn.  However, this is not a white savior narrative. If anything, Onion’s story pokes holes in that very concept. The young man ends up being confused for a girl, and Brown and his company consider Onion a young lady for the bulk of the show, even dressing him as such. It’s a funny subplot that’s not overdone but really just a part of one of the main thematic thrusts of the show in that Onion is freed from slavery but then denied ownership over his actual existence. He’s still told what to do, what to wear, and where to be. What constitutes actual freedom and how easily liberators can become a different kind of oppressor is weaved through all seven episodes, but this is a show refreshingly light on forced timeliness, allowing viewers instead of characters to draw those connections. You will probably draw them. It’s also an undeniably impressive show merely in terms of scope and execution. Over seven episodes, Onion and John travel the country, and the production has an incredible eye, finding detail in period elements while also never making them look overly polished. Everything feels carefully considered but it’s also one of the sweatiest, dirtiest shows in a long time. And each episode is tightly directed, most of them coming in at around 45 minutes, with the season never succumbing to the midseason sag that has afflicted so much Prestige TV in the Netflix era. One of the reasons for that last element is the extended ensemble, which allows for familiar faces to come forward for an episode or two and then fall back into the mix. The show belongs to Hawke and Johnson, but there are subtle small turns throughout all seven episodes, including fun performances from Steve Zahn, Maya Hawke, Beau Knapp, Natasha Marc, Wyatt Russell, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Orlando Jones, and more. (If there's a flaw in narrative balance, it would be that the female characters are largely underwritten devices but Marc and Maya Hawke do make an impact with their single episodes.) There’s a blend of satire and historical fiction here that clearly invigorated the entire cast, as did being near the force of nature that is Hawke’s performance. Where do speech and belief intersect with action? “The Good Lord Bird” is about a tumultuous time in American history, and it captures people rolling through it as they try to hold onto what they think is important in the grand scheme of things. John Brown may be “nuttier than a squirrel turd,” but Hawke captures the truth of a man who believed talk was no longer the answer. There are periods in history when the situation calls for people to get a little nutty.  Whole series screened for review.  

  • Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece Streaming for Free This Week
    by The Editors on September 30, 2020 at 12:57 PM

    Back in May 2019, Sheila O’Malley described Patricia Rozema’s “Mouthpiece” as “a deeply moving piece of work.” The wonderful people at Seventh Row are offering a unique opportunity for people to see the film this week. More on that below, but first more of O’Malley’s opinion of the film: “"Mouthpiece" is the kind of movie-going experience I love. I felt a similar way about Celia Rowlson-Hall's "Ma" from 2016, which I also reviewed. "Mouthpiece" so clearly comes from a very authentic place. These two actresses/writers wanted to create a piece about their experiences, right now, in today's world. They have put their whole lives into "Mouthpiece," everything they know, everything they don't know, everything they're attempting to understand. I appreciate so much those who grapple with things, those who aren't certain 100% of the time. Needing characters—particularly female characters—to be strong all the time is just as limiting as any other kind of stereotype. Being vulnerable is not being weak. Not knowing what to do is not being weak. It's being human. In an increasingly corporatized world, where franchises suck up all the oxygen, where small personal films can barely get made anymore, "Mouthpiece" vibrates with the urgency behind its shared expression. Nostbakken and Sadava had something to say, and found a unique way to say it. The existence of a film like "Mouthpiece" is a small triumph for art.” From the press release about this week’s event: Exciting news: for a limited time only, Seventh Row have been granted exclusive screening rights to Patricia Rozema’s “Mouthpiece.” The film website and publishing house has partnered with First Generation films to bring you an exclusive screening of Rozema’s Canadian modern classic. You can sign up to attend the screening here. The screening dates are as follows: Public stream: October 1st - 4th Exclusive stream for Seventh Row members: September 28th - October 28th The film will be available to watch for free on Seventh Row during the public stream for everyone outside of Canada. Seventh Row has passionately supported Mouthpiece since it’s TIFF ‘18 world premiere. Last year, they named it the best film of the year and the third best film of the decade. They feel passionately that as many people as possible see this wonderful film, so it will be made freely available to Seventh Row readers across the world — and if you’re a Seventh Row Book Club member, you’ll have a whole month to watch the film. Becoming a Seventh Row Book Club member is only $8.33 a month (paid upfront, annually), and will grant you exclusive access to Mouthpiece, as well as access to Seventh Row’s library of ebooks, which provide an accessible critical lens on modern classics like "Call Me by Your Name" and "Portrait of a Lady on Fire".

  • The Boys in the Band
    by Odie Henderson on September 30, 2020 at 12:56 PM

    Back in 2018, Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play “The Boys in the Band” was produced on Broadway to commemorate its 50th anniversary. This followed its original Off-Broadway run and its subsequent 1970 cinematic adaptation by director William Friedkin. As with that film, Netflix’s 2020 version lifts the entire stage cast to reprise their roles, resulting in a production that consists entirely of openly gay actors. The most familiar faces in the crew are Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, and Matt Bomer, whose presence ties this feature to his boss on numerous other projects, Ryan Murphy. Thankfully, Murphy only serves as a producer here, turning the reins over to the 2018 revival’s director, Joe Mantello. Once again, Crowley adapts his material to the screen, this time collaborating with Ned Martel. The film is dedicated to the author, who died this past March, and wisely stays in the timeframe in which it was written. It’s the year before Stonewall, and six friends are throwing a party for their pal, Harold (Quinto). This shindig will unfold at the home of Michael (Parsons), their resident social butterfly and master of ceremonies. Michael has quit drinking, a decision noticed by the party’s first guest, Donald (Bomer). It’s implied that Michael is not a nice drunk, though his shenanigans while under the influence make for memorable post-party conversations and maximum shade throwing. We also learn that Michael dreads getting older, fearing that his hairline is doing the moonwalk atop his head. Donald, who admittedly does not look like he’d be kicked out of bed by anyone with one iota of common sense, humors his former lover. As they chat, Michael prepares some hors d’oeuvres to go with the impending tidal wave of booze and the requisite birthday cake. The appetizer du jour is made from crabs, which one should always avoid at parties. Most of the guests heed this advice, creating a bit of a running joke as the night wears on. Soon, we are joined by everyone but Harold, whose fashionably late appearances are notoriously expected and tolerated. There’s Emory (Tony nominee Robin de Jesús), the most flamboyant member of the crew, Larry (Andrew Rannells) and his soon-to-be-divorced partner, Hank (Tuc Watkins), and Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) who, to paraphrase Celeste Holm in “All About Eve,” is what the French would call “de Token.” You can bet your last money that, with Bernard in this bunch, somebody’s going to drop the N-word, and it isn’t going to be Bernard. In addition to our starting lineup, there are two unexpected guests. One is Emory’s birthday present, a midnight cowboy (Charlie Carver) whose brain has comically stopped at noon. The other, far more ominous visitor is Alan (Brian Hutchison), Michael’s super-straight roommate from university. Alan’s in town and calls Michael to set up a meeting. When Michael explains he has a prior engagement with friends Alan won’t like, Alan suddenly begins to weep, shattering the tough façade Michael always knew him to have. Worried, Michael invites Alan over for a quick drink, warning his partygoers to, dare I say it, act straight until he leaves. When Alan calls later to reschedule, Michael is relieved. At least until the guy shows up anyway. When Alan realizes that, not only is he surrounded by gay men, but that his girl-crazy best mate at uni is also a member of that order, all Hell breaks loose. One of Crowley’s more interesting dramatic details is how he makes Alan’s dilemma, that is, the reason he weeps and wants to see Michael, the play’s MacGuffin. The reason why Alan shows up unexpectedly, why he won’t leave even when his homophobic senses compel him to, and what he so desperately has to tell Michael are all left up to the audience’s devices. As the only “straight” character in the play, Crowley purposely makes him a bland, rather pathetic catalyst. Sure, he triggers Michael and pushes him toward the bottle, but other than that, he’s a deer trapped in rainbow-colored headlights. There’s always a deliciously nasty bit of schadenfreude involved in watching a member of the majority squirm when forced into the minority-filled presence his privilege would normally allow him to avoid. When Emory challenges Alan’s rigid homophobia, Alan responds with the violence you’d expect from a man who’s very likely living a straight lie. But this is the only clue Crowley gives us about Alan’s true intentions. However, he also uses Alan to provide the play’s funniest moment, a vicious (and accurate) jab at heterosexual naïveté: When the straight-appearing Hank reveals he likes men, Alan exclaims “but he’s married!” The other men spontaneously explode with uproarious laughter rife with derision. Here’s where Harold, late as usual, shows up in this review. He arrives just as Alan is attacking Emory and Michael is reintroducing himself to hard liquor. Like Michael, he’s concerned with his looks, but he preens and paws over himself in the mirror until he’s found (or applied) the courage to venture out. This supposedly explains his tardiness. As drunkenness turns Michael into the face that launched a thousand quips, Harold haunts the background of the party enjoying every bit of the mischief. He’s a wallflower with thorns and Quinto plays him superbly. Looking like a young Eric Bogosian cosplaying as a seedy Count Chocula, Quinto sucks up the drama like a vampire, so much so that, when his big moment arrives, we truly believe in the threat he aims in Michael’s direction. It’s the film’s best performance. On the opposite side of the spectrum, unfortunately, is Jim Parsons. Michael is a tough role to play, and full disclosure, I saw this production on Broadway and had the same problem with the performance. This character is rigged to plumb some of the same depths Albee’s Martha does, but except for his final speech, where his reactions are genuinely powerful, Parsons is far too mannered and one-note here. By the time the film turns into “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bang Theory,” it feels like we’re watching a loop of the same scene. This is most evident in the play’s centerpiece, a game where Michael challenges his fellow men to call the person they loved the most and tell them. The concept is a stroke of dramatic genius by Crowley, a bit of cruelty that is both sadistic and masochistic. It works like gangbusters in Friedkin’s original because Kenneth Nelson’s Michael anchors the sequence, finding the convincing, forceful bogarting I didn’t see in Parsons’ performance. Here, it’s less successful despite the excellent work by de Jesus, who breaks your heart, and Watkins and Rannells, who find bitter romantic comedy in their phone calls. Mantello keeps cutting away to flashbacks just as the actors are reaching high points in their monologues. He also ends the film with a very cheesy, literal representation that was entirely unnecessary. These diversions lessen the effect of the speeches, even if one of them provides an homage to Esther Williams’ underwater sequences that would have made an outraged Louis B. Mayer roar louder than his company’s logo. That randy moment of skinny dipping occurs during Bernard’s phone call moment and, I’m sorry, I just could not deal with this character. Washington gives a good performance, but what he’s given to play is head-scratching at best. His arc feels like a segment of “Slave Play” presented by the Children’s Television Workshop. I know it’s 1968, but this part of the movie feels misguided and underwritten. There’s a potentially interesting set of events and race-based details worth investigating, but for such a daring work as this was, and is, it’s a rare moment where it feels like the play doesn’t understand a character. “The Boys in the Band” has been accused of presenting gay men as self-hating, but at least for me, the emotions and traumas presented are far more complicated than that. Even though it’s a period piece, it’s still designed to evoke the same feelings in the current gay or bisexual viewer and to start the same important conversations about who we are and what we feel. I’ll keep saying this: representation matters, even if it’s as imperfect as Bernard. For example, credit where it’s due for the moment Michael reacts after Alan catches him and his cronies dancing with one another. Even though it’s his house (and by extension, his rules), Michael still tries to keep up straight appearances for Alan’s sake. When Alan catches the dance number, and Michael turns around to see him, Parsons nails that horrified reaction, then tempers it with a subtle, growing sense of relief and defiance as the scene goes on. It reminded me of the moment when I was not yet out at work, and my boss walked by the gay bar I was drinking in; he looked in the window at the same time I looked out. He saw me and I froze for a moment, then I smiled and waved at him. You may experience memories like this when you watch “The Boys in The Band.” I prefer, and recommend, the original, but I’m on the fence about this one. Your mileage may vary. Now available on Netflix.

  • The Glorias
    by Christy Lemire on September 30, 2020 at 12:56 PM

    Gloria Steinem has lived such a long and significant life that it takes four actresses to play her—including two Oscar winners—in “The Glorias.” That device of having multiple performers portray the veteran journalist and activist, and sometimes even having them engage in conversations with each other, is the most effective element of director Julie Taymor’s effort to encompass a whole, complicated life while also avoiding traditional biopic tropes. For the most part, she’s successful. Just when you think she’s heading into cliched territory, Taymor mixes it up, plays with structure, and subverts your expectations. Working from a script she co-wrote with Sarah Ruhl, based on Steinem’s autobiography My Life on the Road, Taymor hops around in time between Steinem’s youth in Toledo, Ohio and her worldwide travels in her 20s through the beginnings of her writing career and her key role in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. And while there’s a continuity to the performances—the hair, the voice, those signature, oversized aviator glasses—each actress imbues her role with a specific vibe and edge as Steinem evolves. Julianne Moore gets the bulk of the screen time as Steinem from her Ms. Magazine years and beyond, and radiates both indignant idealism and world-weary wisdom. But Alicia Vikander meets and exceeds her own challenges as a younger Steinem, from her time at Smith College through her travels in India and her groundbreaking, undercover Playboy Bunny article, which put her on the map in 1963. Before that, we see little Gloria (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), an energetic girl who worshipped her struggling entrepreneur dad (a charismatic Timothy Hutton), and teenage Gloria (Lulu Wilson), who learned how to fight for others by caring for her physically and mentally ailing mother (Enid Graham). But Steinem’s mother also had been a promising journalist—albeit under a male pseudonym, an unfortunate necessity back then—which lays the groundwork for her own path. What’s elegant and efficient in the storytelling of “The Glorias” is the way it reveals how each person and experience throughout her life shaped her ideology and sense of purpose. The Glorias’ conversations on a bus ride that serves as the film’s through-line illuminate this arc further. Sitting side by side, the wind in their center-parted hair, Vikander-as-Steinem laments to Moore-as-Steinem that she wishes she’d spoken up and fought back more when male colleagues and editors discouraged, objectified harassed her. The elder Steinem reassures her that she will eventually: “Plenty of times, lots of times, speaking your mind will get you into trouble,” she tells her younger self with an amused smile at the memory of her own feistiness. It’s a gimmick, sure, but also an insightful depiction of the kind of talk we all wish we could have with ourselves in our teens and 20s. But at nearly 2 ½ hours, “The Glorias” does feel a touch too long toward the end. And the visual tricks Taymor employs to reflect Steinem’s inner state seem like filler, a distraction, even though they’re the kind of inventive flights of fancy the director has become known for through productions like her Broadway staging of “The Lion King” and films including “Across the Universe” and “The Tempest.” A contentious TV interview that turns into a whirling, swirling, “Wizard of Oz” homage is especially out of place. Steinem’s wit, grit and personality, her longtime work as a feminist icon and the relationships she builds with other civil rights leaders provide more than enough material for a fascinating film. It’s also enlightening, on the heels of the excellent Hulu series “Mrs. America,” to revisit this tumultuous era from Steinem’s perspective. But the film quickly skims past one key chance to shed more light on her personal life. A topic that crops up throughout the movie is Steinem’s choice to remain single at a time when women were expected to get married and have children. Specifically, we see men ask her why she isn’t married in a series of interviews; naturally, she bristles. It’s a personal decision. When she finally does get married at 66, it feels like an afterthought: Who is this person who dazzled her so thoroughly that she changed her mind on such a crucial stance? She mentions that his name is David and we briefly see them wed in a traditional Cherokee ceremony, but that’s it. (Steinem was married to David Bale, entrepreneur and environmental activist and the father of Christian Bale, from 2000 until his death in 2003.) It’s a missed opportunity to help us understand her beyond her public persona. Still, “The Glorias” is consistently a visual treat, as you’d expect from Taymor. The cinematography from the great Rodrigo Prieto (who also shot Taymor’s “Frida”) gives each of these eras a lush and distinctive texture, and the use of stark black and white provides a striking contrast as the various Glorias chat on the bus. And the clothes from legendary costume designer Sandy Powell are, as always, to die for; far more than an elaborate and groovy game of dress-up, Steinem’s clothes tell a story all their own in signaling her development, from the slim minidresses she wore as an ambitious young journalist to what became her go-to uniform of a black, long-sleeved top, black pants and boots. The costumes are also key to the portrayal of other larger-than-life feminist figures including Bette Midler as former Congresswoman Bella Abzug, Lorraine Toussaint as lawyer Flo Kennedy and Janelle Monáe as Ms. Magazine co-founder Dorothy Pitman Hughes. They’re all engaging scene stealers in showy, entertaining roles. At the center is Steinem—still with us and still fighting at age 86. And sadly, what she has to say is just as relevant now as it was 50 years ago. Now available on Amazon Prime and other digital platforms 

  • Once Upon a River
    by Roxana Hadadi on September 30, 2020 at 12:56 PM

    From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to “Deliverance” to “Mud,” the river expedition can tell a story about America: about the hypocrisy of its racism, the brutality required for survival, or the human destruction of its landscape. When Ray McKinnon’s character Senior says in “Mud,” “Enjoy the river, son. Enjoy it while you live on it, ‘cause this way of life isn’t long for this world,” his wistfulness resonated because of how well Jeff Nichols’ film first built a sense of place, then made clear the impact of its loss. An odyssey of this kind requires narrative specificity—the before, and the after—to depict transformation, and that lack of particular detail plagues “Once Upon a River.” Laden with demoralizing tragedies, Haroula Rose’s film is only fleetingly affecting, preferring to put its characters through the wringer rather than provide them with much interiority or consistency. Without that depth, neither the external nor internal journeys of “Once Upon a River” captivate as much as they should. Rose’s feature-length directorial debut “Once Upon a River” is adapted from Bonnie Jo Campbell’s same-named novel, which was released to widespread positive reviews in 2011. Although the novel served as a prequel for Campbell’s “Q Road,” Rose has crafted the film version of “Once Upon a River” as a standalone piece—certain plot elements are tweaked, and entire subplots and characters removed. The film begins in rural Murrayville, Michigan, in 1977, where 15-year-old Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) lives on the shore of Stark River with her father, Bernard (Tatanka Means). Her mother, Luanne (Lindsay Pulsipher), left them a year before and hasn’t contacted her daughter since. In Luanne’s absence, Bernard teaches Margo how to shoot, fish, and live off the land, skills passed down to him by indigenous forebears. With Annie Oakley as her hero, Margo is an exemplary shot—catching the eye of her uncle, Cal (Coburn Goss), her father’s half-brother, whose white family basically runs the town. While Bernard works more to make ends meet, Margo begins to spend more time with Cal, setting off a series of events that leaves one person dead, another injured, and Margo on the run. With her rifle in hand, Margo sets off on the river to try and find her mother. Along the way, she meets a number of men, and the film falls into a pattern of depicting Margo’s reliance on men without interrogating what that dependence means for the character. A friend of her father’s who had told Margo she was his “dream girl” and “I just can’t get enough of a girl who don’t talk” helps hide her from police. Later on, a graduate student, Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), shares a meal with Margo, gives her a ride, and causes her to think more about her indigenous heritage by sharing details of his own ancestry: “I’m Cherokee from Oklahoma. People who came to this country and took over, they never intended for us to survive.” And in the longest chunk of “Once Upon a River,” Margo saves the life of Smoke (John Ashton), an older man with emphysema who is irritated by his daughters’ insistence that he move into an assisted-living facility.    “Why does anybody help anybody?,” Smoke replies when Margo wonders about his motivations, and the bald empathy of that statement suggests the movie “Once Upon a River” wants to be. There are scenes that argue for an openhearted treatment of those in need—as evidenced by how often we see Margo get into a dire situation that only an older man can help her out of—but that repetition only underscores how little is clear about what Margo herself wants or desires. She is an excellent shot, but we have no understanding of how she feels about killing or being the cause of death. She misses her mother, mentioning that Luanne smelled of “cocoa butter and white wine,” but offers no further observations about what her parents’ marriage was like, or how they ended up together. She was othered by her white relatives her whole life, but when Will asks about her tribe, she is utterly uncurious. The film begins with Margo’s narration, using her first-person voice to deliver exposition about her mother’s abandonment and her father’s tense relationship with his half-brother before dropping out after the first 15 or so minutes. But “Once Upon a River” would have benefited from committing to that cinematic device as a way to provide a peek into Margo’s inner thoughts; without them, she is mostly a cypher, and her most momentous decisions—in particular one she makes after reconnecting with Luanne—lack clarity. That’s not necessarily a flaw of DelaCerna’s performance. DelaCerna’s posture and bearing make plain how self-possessed and tough Margo is, while her wide eyes and hesitant smile remind of her fragility and youth. But Margo herself is a muddled character, a victim of the narrative’s mistake that depicting trauma is more important than exploring its aftermath. DelaCerna does her best work opposite Pulsipher, but the women’s performances—one resentful but yearning; the other apologetic but wary—are let down by the simplistic dialogue of that reunion. Is the film trying to say that Margo doesn’t have the luxury of considering the effects of her actions, given the effort required for day-to-day survival? Perhaps, but that argument doesn’t hold much water when “Once Upon a River” also isn’t very interested in the scraping by Margo has to do to survive. She spends more time off the Stark River than on it, and while cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby’s framing of the waterway is often lovely (lots of golden-hour light, swaying trees, and glimpses of the wildlife living in the river), it seems at odds with the film’s insistence that Margo is venturing into danger. Despite solid performances from DelaCerna and most of the rest of this ensemble cast, those unintentional contradictions are ultimately the defining quality of “Once Upon a River,” and they permeate the film with a sort of flatness. Is this a bleak story about the limited resources available to an indigenous young woman who is rejected by her small town, and about how we’re doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes? Or is this an inspirational story about how home is wherever you find another person willing to lend a hand, and how you can build your own family? Perhaps the former could believably change into the latter with meaningful investment in the film’s characters, relationships, and sense of place, but the disparate “Once Upon a River” doesn’t accomplish that metamorphosis. Available in virtual cinemas on Friday, October 2 

  • Moving Forward Together: Julianne Moore and Bette Midler on The Glorias
    by Tomris Laffly on September 29, 2020 at 1:10 PM

    No life-story could turn into a paint-by-numbers biopic in the hands of director Julie Taymor, a creative force for both the stage and screen. Indeed, the filmmaker’s uniquely vivid, sometimes unruly signature informs much of her adaptation of feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s autobiography My Life on the Road, starring the likes of Julianne Moore as one of the four generations of Glorias, along with Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson and Ryan Kiera Armstrong. Bette Midler plays Bella Abzug, the late feminist activist and US Congresswoman during the 1970s who coined the slogan, “This woman's place is in the house—the House of Representatives!” Written by co-scribes Taymor and Sarah Ruhl, “The Glorias” is a dizzying road movie at its core; a decades-spanning, constantly-in-motion narrative charged by countless revolutionary women that joined and elevated the women’s movement. We recently met with Moore and Midler over at Zoom for a brief conversation on “The Glorias,” political activism, and what it means for women to move together as one during trying political times. Julianne, it must be a unique challenge to portray a character who is still alive and very much active. JULIANNE MOORE: It was a big responsibility and a joy too. And I'd say that the best part about doing this job was spending the time with Gloria's books and her recordings and listening to her voice every day and watching her television appearances, and really being able to absorb who she is in the world and how she was able to move the culture forward. She's an incredibly inspiring individual. And Bette just said this in her last interview—one of her great talents is that she's a consensus builder. She takes the thoughts and the actions of the women around her and is able to move those ideas together and forward. She's the first person to deflect from herself. She always talks about the movement. She says the movement is not about an individual, it’s about all of us. And one of the most beautiful things that she says too, is that we are linked, not ranked. That hierarchy is dangerous and doesn't work for people. And she's all about dismantling that. I loved the opportunity and was also grateful that I wasn't the only Gloria Steinem. We were represented by four different actors, four of us. And so it's not just a portrait of an individual. It's a portrait of a life and of the movement as well. Bette, what was it like for you to bring Bella Abzug onto the screen? Did you know her during her life? BETTE MIDLER: I did, I knew Bella and I admired Bella. In fact, I adored Bella. I was so glad to be in the world that she was in. She was a constant source enlightenment and entertainment. She was so vibrant, so alive. It's always great to be in the presence of someone who has that much spirit and that much energy and that much commitment. She was always on the side of the right, of doing right. Her father had a butcher store called Live and Let Live [Meat Market]. He was a man who believed in fairness, just fairness. And I think that was her whole life. She wanted things to be fair and equitable for everyone. Not just a few but for all. I have to say, I love all the hats that she wears and I know that’s very accurate to her real-life character.  BM: Well, Bella wore a hat because she wanted to be distinguished from the secretaries. She found out very early on that men did not take you seriously if you weren't wearing a hat. If you were wearing a hat, they knew you were in there for business. But if you didn't wear a hat, you were somebody who's looking for a job. So once she put that hat on her head, she never varied. She found her look, she stuck with it and it became iconic. And what was it that Pat Nixon said? "Oh, you're the lady in all those little bonnets." She did. She did call them little bonnets. I want to go back to something Julianne was saying, that this film is about different generations of Glorias. And to me, the title—“The Glorias,” plural—also represents all of us as women, standing on the shoulders of other women that came before us. I was thinking about this notion yesterday after losing one of our heroes in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  JM: Of course, I think about this all the time. I particularly think about the kinds of gifts that I was given when I was born and as a young woman, that my mother didn't have. My mother grew up [in a time when] her parents saved money for her brother to go to college, but none for her, you know? So she was married and had children and she made it very clear to me that was not going to be my path because of the way things had changed. I do think that we all stand on the shoulders of one another. And the thing that you learn from Gloria is, we move forward fast together, knowing that we are a team, a group. What's good for all of us is that kind of intersectionality. BM: In life, everyone stands on everyone else's shoulders. Every invention is built on another invention or another idea. We're constantly in motion. That's the way the planet and the universe works. So yes, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. And certainly Ruth Bader Ginsburg has inspired a whole new generation; two new generations of young women who are going to follow in her path. I feel that Julie Taymor made this movie just in time. It's the perfect time for it. Women are examining their position in the world. They familiarize themselves with the people that came before. People [discuss] the African-American women's contribution to the suffragist movement, which of course is considerable. And these things are starting to fall into historical perspective. And I think that this picture is very, very helpful in the way that it shows women not as at each other's throats, but as moving as one; accepting an idea in a universal fashion and deciding to move forward together. And I think that it's fantastic. I was there for the movement. I was old enough, but I wasn't in it. I was on the outskirts of it. And they looked like they had a blast. The exchange of ideas, the energy they had in them and the linking arms that Julianne always talks about; walking together forward as a group ... the power that must have made them feel ... It must have been extraordinary. I'm so glad that Julie Taymor put this whole idea together in a way that's very, very different from just a regular biopic. It's not the same at all. I think it's a new kind of way to tell a story about someone's life. Do you feel that there is a trend among some younger people these days, to distance themselves from feminism, or to reject that label?  JM: I think that's a minority, I really do. And yes, we talk about the branding problem. And that branding problem has always existed and exists on the far right. There are plenty of people who are out there saying like, "What is this?" and "You're losing something." So that movement has always existed. But that doesn't mean that it's true. BM: I haven't noticed that. If anything, I would think, that #MeToo and #TimesUp have actually brought more people into the idea that there's something quite wrong and it has led more women to examine feminism as an alternative way of thinking. That's how I feel. I mean the harassment and the abuse have been so pervasive that I would think it would drive women into the arms of the feminists quicker, sooner rather than later. You are both very vocal politically, especially on social media. Do you think of this as your responsibility as artists with great influence? JM: I feel like it's my responsibility as a citizen to be vocal. It never occurred to me that it had anything to do with my being an artist, but as an individual, I need to talk about what's important for me, and for all of us. I think that civic responsibility is something you need to have in this country. And it's a country where we are afforded so many benefits and so many liberties, and you can't take those for granted. BM: Exactly, exactly. You can't take them for granted because you can see how quickly the whole thing can disintegrate. I mean, what we've lived through for the last three years has been basically the attack on all our institutions, every single one of our institutions. And the sewing of distrust [meant] that we don't trust anyone. We don't trust any information that's coming out to us because we've been lied to. And because the country is so polarized and some people will only believe one thing, and some people refuse categorically to believe their own eyes or their own ears. So we are in such a period of instability and it's only been three years. So you have to be on guard every moment because this fantastic experiment of ours can disintegrate just into dust. And you have to fight for it. If you want it, you have to fight for it. "The Glorias" is now available on Amazon Prime and other digital platforms 

  • NYFF 2020: Malmkrog, Days, I Carry You With Me
    by Godfrey Cheshire on September 29, 2020 at 1:09 PM

    For 40 autumns before the Year That Cinema Screeched to a Halt, each September offered a singular geographic and aesthetic itinerary: as the air began to bear a bracing chill, I would join other critics in hurrying to Lincoln Center for New York Film Festival press screenings. These events, as I’ve noted before, dependably produced what struck me as the cinema year’s richest lode: made up of roughly 30 titles from around the world, the festival’s Main Slate often yielded half of my annual ten-best list.  There’ve now been only two interruptions to the happy anticipation surrounding the festival’s arrival. In 2001, a year that had seemed to promise a Kubrickian millennium, the destruction of the World Trade Center cast clouds that were at once literal, emotional and metaphorical. But the festival did go on. In 2020, a number that hinted at “perfect vision,” the curse of a global pandemic has meant that there was no excited rush to Lincoln Center, no greetings of familiar colleagues, no theaters filled with the press; the screenings occur in online solitude only. But again, the festival is going on—mainly via virtual public screenings, supplemented by a few shows at drive-ins in the outer boroughs. In 2020, the NYFF was already in a period of transition, thanks to the departure last year of festival director Kent Jones (who served for five years following the 25-years-each stints of his predecessors, Richard Roud and Richard Peña). The festival got a new director, Film at Lincoln Center mainstay Eugene Hernandez, and there was a shuffling in the selection committee even as it seemed that the decision-making center of gravity in selections would shift to FLC director of programming Dennis Lim. Unfortunately, the new regime’s decision that excited the most comment in the New York film community was its shuttering (temporary or permanent?) of Film Comment, the venerable journal that was also the FLC’s and festival’s best advertisement. Then came the pandemic. For any festival held in the second half of the year, 2020 is bound to be counted an off-year for one reason above all: producers of many films considered among the year’s most artistically promising are withholding them until theatrical exhibition returns. Many of those films will presumably debut at Cannes in 2021—which should be a banner year, assuming the festival resumes then —but their non-appearance at the canceled Cannes 2020 left many festivals, including New York’s, with far fewer top-shelf options than usual. Given that reality, I wondered if the festival’s programmers might venture a radically innovative selection process by seeking out new talent and sources of films beyond established festivals and institutional suppliers. But it was not be. This year’s Main Slate contains an array of the usual suspects, both in terms of auteurs and sources. Which is not to say that it’s a bad selection, merely one that, primarily due to the lack of Cannes laureates and discoveries, feels a tad undernourished. Speaking of sources, the three films considered here debuted at festivals that took place before the pandemic hit: two at Berlin and one at Sundance. New York, like most kindred festivals, has a strong, longstanding auteurist bent, and I certainly consider Romania’s Cristi Puiu a major auteur, having named his “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005) the best film of this century’s first decade. But his career since then has been rather anomalous. While “Mr. Lazarescu”—a three-hour medical odyssey that seemed like an improbable conjunction of Franz Kafka and Robert Altman—won awards at festivals around the world and gave him a foothold in the U.S. arthouse market, the subsequent “Aurora” (2010) and “Sierranevada” (2016) gained spots in the NYFF and a certain amount of critical approbation, but were also eccentric enough to avoid the support of U.S. distributors. “Malmkrog,” Puiu’s latest, takes that eccentricity even further. Honoring the Romanian tradition of extended running times, it devotes its three and a half hours to a series of ornate philosophical discussions among five aristocratic characters, three women and two men, who are spending the Christmas holidays at the plush Transylvania country estate of one of the men in the waning days of 1900. The only other characters are servants, who do their work in fastidious silence. The conversations begin before lunch and last until after dinner. The main five are all dressed to the nines, in proper Victorian finery, and one striking thing about their talk is that it is all in formal French. Such aristos inhabit a society, a world, that will soon be swept away by the new century’s wars and revolutions, and we can’t help but interpret their words with that in mind, much as we do the world conjured in Renoir’s “Rules of the Game.” But those words are, in many respects, bafflingly dense and opaque as to their larger meanings. While the oldest woman is devotee of Prussian-style militarism, the other four are more preoccupied with the problems of Good and Evil in the world, and interpretations of Christianity that seem to pit Russian Orthodoxy against Roman Catholicism and a kind of modern free thinking that flirts with resurrected ancient heresies like Gnosticism. The film in some ways reminded me of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, but that work has the advantage of being a novel, allowing the reader to absorb its arguments at his or her own pace. “Malmkrog” perhaps sounds like a play put on film, but Puiu’s elegant staging, very precise compositions and gorgeously nuanced cinematography give it a persuasive cinematic appeal. Yet dramatically it offers very little. Though there are moments that suggest an undercurrent of sexual competitiveness, the conversations and the characters’ interactions are mostly intellectual, with arguments that in some cases prove quite abstruse. What are we to make of all this? One conclusion that seems unavoidable is that Puiu, the success of “Mr. Lazarescu” notwithstanding, simply isn’t interested in engaging international audiences, at least beyond the rarefied precincts of festivals. Watching “Malmkrog,” I kept wondering what a Romanian audience would make of it. Is it in some ways a meditation on the underpinnings of modern Romanian identity, with elements of Russian feudalism and Prussian militarism vying against the more progressive currents of post-Enlightenment Europe (the fact that everyone speaks French is highly resonant)? If the filmmaker is only addressing his countrymen, that’s his choice, and perhaps an admirable one. But it effectively guarantees that Americans will never see “Malmkrog” in their local arthouses. Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang graduated from the Berlin festival ahead of Puiu, his “Days” gaining U.S. distribution as well an NYFF slot. Along with Hou Hsiao-hsien and the late Edward Yang, Tsai remains part of the triumvirate of auteurs most associated with the New Taiwanese Cinema. After his older counterparts launched the movement in the 1980s, he sprang onto the scene in the ‘90s with a trio of films—“Rebels of the Neon God” (1992), “Vive L’Amour” (1994) and “The River” (1997)—which still strike me as one of the most remarkable triple plays in cinema history. All starred actor Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai’s muse and perennial leading man, and followed attractive young characters on peripatetic odysseys through modern Taipei. Tsai’s great themes are loneliness and alienation, but these films explored them with such visual inventiveness, understated wit and youthful energy that the mood they communicated conveyed as much exhilaration as anomie. After leaving the ‘90s, though, Tsai’s work began to seem less spirited and more downcast. “What Time Is It There?” (2001), with its cameo by Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Pierre Leaud, was the last of his films that I found truly enjoyable and revelatory. Thereafter, in films like “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” (2003) and “Stray Dogs” (2013), it seemed that Tsai’s outlook was growing more morose and self-enclosed. “Days” has some of those qualities, yet it also conveys a spark of creative renewal. With a visual language as spare as in any of his previous films, Tsai starts out by simply observing Lee—now in his 50s, no longer the sleek youth of yore—gazing out a window at the rain. Running around five minutes with no action or dialogue, this initial scene sets up a kind of meditative stance and rhythm that continues in subsequent scenes as Lee moves around his apartment, doing his daily chores, slicing vegetables for his meal, etc. The scene shifts when he goes for a treatment on his neck, which apparently refers to a real ailment suffered by the actor that was previously referenced in “The River.” In any case, when the scene shifts again, we are longer with Lee but with a young Laotian man in his apartment as he gives himself a bath. We are never told anything about this character, but he’s a certain type of sex worker who gives Lee an erotic massage that occupies a chunk of the film’s second hour. “Days” announces at its opening that it contains no subtitles. But none are needed as the meaning of the few snippets of dialogue can be easily surmised. Somewhat to my surprise, I found this latest example of Tsai’s minimalism not only appropriate but pleasing. In interviews, the director indicated that he found in this film a way of working that required minimal budget and crew, and thus allowed him greater creative freedom. The film itself has the feeling of being made from that liberated mindset.  But I must say that the current state of the world surely had something to do with my liking of “Days.” If Tsai is a poet of solitude and its discontents, this is the right moment for him. Though filmed and premiered before the pandemic, his latest captures its cloistered mood perfectly. As a gay man, Tsai was able to stage the 20-minute erotic massage in his film in a way that feels as natural as it does accurate and authentic to the characters. Contrast that to the awkward inauthenticity of “I Carry You with Me.” When I first heard of the Sundance prize winner, it was described as a “Mexican gay film.” Too bad it’s not. Mexico produces some outstanding gay films, and my hope for innovative programming at the 2020 NYFF included the possibility that it might seek out work from the likes of prize-winning Mexican gay auteur Julian Hernandez. Instead, we get “I Carry You with Me,” a film about Mexican gay men directed by a white Michigan native named Heidi Ewing. Ewing has previously made documentaries, including “Jesus Camp,” and her latest reportedly started out as a doc about a Mexican couple who have lived for decades in New York as successful restauranteurs. In some of the film we see the two men, Ivan and Gerardo, now middle-aged, playing themselves in doc-style footage of their present-day lives. But most of “I Carry You with Me,” is given over to their youthful lives (here they’re played by actors) in Puebla, Mexico, where their fresh romance is tested by the fact that closeted Ivan wants to make an illegal move to the U.S. while openly gay is Gerardo is afraid to make the leap. Thanks to cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramirez, the film has a pleasing, realistic look, but the script Ewing wrote with Alan Page Arriaga plays like a compendium of cliches aimed at ticking off boxes on a Sundance checklist of politically acceptable attitudes about everything from patriarchy and homophobia to immigration and racism. This kind of fashionable veneer may make the film an arthouse success when it’s released by Sony Pictures Classics, but it hardly equates with real artistic worth. And the biggest lacks here are at the drama’s center due to the film's soft-edged view of the relationship of young Ivan and Gerardo, including a lack of erotic heat between the actors playing them. Instead of actual physical connection and passion, including sex, the filmmakers seem to think gay romance is mainly a matter of guys casting goo-goo looks at each other.Am I arguing the filmmakers shouldn’t cross borders of culture or gender in approaching their work? Not at all. In the best film of recent editions of NYFF, “The Rider,” Chinese-born director Chloe Zhao provided a vision of Native American rodeo riders in South Dakota that’s as culturally rich and incisive as it cinematically accomplished. Filmmakers should feel comfortable crossing such borders in their work, if it's founded on real artistic vision rather than facile, Sundance-style attitudinizing.  

  • #390 September 29, 2020
    by Matt Fagerholm on September 29, 2020 at 5:01 AM

    Matt writes: On September 18th, the world was shaken by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020), whose extraordinary life was chronicled in Betsy West and Julie Cohen's Oscar-nominated documentary, "RBG." Be sure to read Nell Minow's tribute to Ginsburg as well as my interview with West and Cohen. Here is an excerpt from Nell's article, along with the trailer for "RBG"... Shakespeare could have been describing Justice Ginsburg when he wrote "though she be but little, she is fierce." Certainly, the contrast between her tiny frame and powerful intellect was part of what made Justice Ginsburg an icon, reflected in the teasing nickname, "Notorious RBG," inspired by rapper "Notorious BIG." This month's documentary "All In: The Fight for Democracy" has a devastating depiction of the impact of the Supreme Court's overturning of the Voting Rights Act. The voter suppression restrictions adopted within hours of the decision's announcement proved the accuracy of Justice Ginsburg's dissent. As with so many of her careful, meticulous opinions on the Court—omitting "respectfully" from one dissent was her version of what Kate McKinnon called a "Gins-burn"—she was ahead of her time. We will honor her memory in the years ahead by letting her example guide us, and by trying to catch up.  Trailers The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020). Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen. Synopsis: The story of 7 people on trial stemming from various charges surrounding the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. Debuts on Netflix on October 16th, 2020. Save Yourselves! (2020). Written and directed by Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson. Starring Sunita Mani, John Reynolds, Ben Sinclair. Synopsis: A young Brooklyn couple heads to an upstate cabin to unplug from their phones and reconnect with each other. Blissfully unaware of their surroundings, they are left to their own devices as the planet falls under attack. Debuts in the US on October 2nd, 2020. David Byrne's American Utopia (2020). Directed by Spike Lee. Synopsis: Spike Lee documents the former Talking Heads frontman's brilliant, timely 2019 Broadway show, based on his recent album and tour of the same name.. Debuts on HBO on October 17th, 2020. Once Upon a River (2020). Written and directed by Haroula Rose (based on the book by Bonnie Jo Campbell). Starring Kenadi DelaCerna, John Ashton, Tatanka Means. Synopsis: Margo Crane's odyssey on the Stark River introduces her to a world filled with wonders and dangers. Debuts in the US on October 2nd, 2020. Sound of Metal (2020). Directed by Darius Marder. Written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder. Starring Olivia Cooke, Riz Ahmed, Mathieu Amalric. Synopsis: A heavy-metal drummer's life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing. Debuts on Prime Video on December 4th, 2020. Supernova (2020). Written and directed by Harry Macqueen. Starring Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, Lori Campbell. Synopsis: Sam and Tusker partners of 20 years, who are traveling across England in their old RV visiting friends, family and places from their past. Since Tusker was diagnosed with early-onset dementia two years ago, their time together is the most important thing they have. US release date is TBA. Synchronic (2020). Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Written by Justin Benson. Starring Jamie Dornan, Anthony Mackie, Katie Aselton. Synopsis: Two New Orleans paramedics' lives are ripped apart after they encounter a series of horrific deaths linked to a designer drug with bizarre, otherworldly effects. Debuts in the US on October 23rd, 2020. American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020). Directed by Jenny Popplewell. Synopsis: In 2018, 38-year-old Shanan Watts and her two youngest daughters disappeared in Colorado. With the heartbreaking details emerging, the family's story made headlines around the world. Debuts on Netflix on September 30th, 2020. The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020). Written and directed by Jim Cummings. Starring Jim Cummings, Riki Lindhome, Robert Forster. Synopsis: Terror grips a small mountain town as bodies are discovered after each full moon. Losing sleep, raising a teenage daughter, and caring for his ailing father, officer Marshall struggles to remind himself there's no such thing as werewolves. Debuts in the US on October 9th, 2020. The Last Shift (2020). Written and directed by Andrew Cohn. Starring Richard Jenkins, Shane Paul McGhie, Ed O'Neill. Synopsis: Stanley's last shift at his fast food job takes an unexpected turn. Now playing in theaters. The Place of No Words (2020). Written and directed by Mark Webber. Starring Nicole Elizabeth Berger, Eric Christian Olsen, Bodhi Palmer. Synopsis: A young boy battles the complexities of a grown-up world with his father. US release date is TBA. Martin Eden (2020). Directed by Pietro Marcello. Written by Pietro Marcello and Maurizio Braucci (based on the novel by Jack London). Starring Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Vincenzo Nemolato. Synopsis: Martin Eden struggles to rise above his destitute, proletarian circumstances through an intense and passionate pursuit of self-education, hoping to achieve a place among the literary elite. Debuts in the US on October 16th, 2020. Books of Blood (2020). Directed by Brannon Braga. Written by Brannon Braga and Adam Simon (based on the book by Clive Barker). Starring Britt Robertson, Anna Friel, Rafi Gavron. Synopsis: A journey into uncharted and forbidden territory through three tales tangled in space and time. Debuts on Hulu on October 7th, 2020. Over the Moon (2020). Directed by Glen Keane and John Kahrs. Written by Audrey Wells. Starring Phillipa Soo, Kimiko Glenn, Ken Jeong. Synopsis: In this animated musical, a girl builds a rocket ship and blasts off, hoping to meet a mythical moon goddess. Debuts on Netflix on October 23rd, 2020. Herself (2020). Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne. Starring Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Clare Dunne. Synopsis: This is the story of young mother Sandra who escapes her abusive husband and fights back against a broken housing system. She sets out to build her own home and in the process rebuilds her life and re-discovers herself. US release date is TBA. Love and Monsters (2020). Directed by Michael Matthews. Written by Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson. Starring Dylan O'Brien, Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker. Synopsis: After a Monsterpocalypse forces humans into underground colonies, a young man decides against all logic to brave the surface and face the monsters standing between him and his lost love. Debuts in the US on October 16th, 2020. The Croods: A New Age (2020). Directed by Joel Crawford. Written by Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone. Synopsis: The prehistoric family the Croods are challenged by a rival family the Bettermans, who claim to be better and more evolved. Debuts in the US on November 25th, 2020. The Glorias (2020). Directed by Julie Taymor. Written by Julie Taymor and Sarah Ruhl (based on the book by Gloria Steinem). Starring Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Janelle Monáe. Synopsis: The story of feminist icon Gloria Steinem's itinerant childhood's influence on her life as a writer, activist and organizer for women's rights worldwide. Debuts on Amazon Prime on September 30th, 2020. Made Men: The Story of "Goodfellas" Matt writes: Our critic Glenn Kenny recently published an essential book for all Scorsese devotees: Made Men: The Story of "Goodfellas." Read Kenny's conversation with our Editor at Large Matt Zoller Seitz here and an excerpt from the book here. You can also watch Kenny's interview on "CBS This Morning" in the video embedded above. "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" Matt writes: One of my very favorite films of 2020 is Charlie Kaufman's brilliant Netflix mind-bender, "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," which was praised by our Managing Editor Brian Tallerico. You just might gain a whole new level of appreciation for the film after reading Mary Beth McAndrews' insightful essay on the picture, but only read it AFTER you've seen the movie. Free Movies Summer (2008). Directed by Kenneth Glenaan. Written by Hugh Ellis. Starring Robert Carlyle, Steve Evets, Rachael Blake. Synopsis: While caring for a dying friend, a man reflects back on their youth together. Watch "Summer" Almost Kings (2010). Directed by Philip G. Flores. Written by  Max Doty and Philip G. Flores. Starring Billy Campbell, Portia Doubleday, Tessa Auberjonois. Synopsis: Wanting a closer connection with his older brother, freshman Ted Wheeler seeks initiation into a group called "The Kings". But, as the corruption of The Kings is revealed, Ted must expose the ugly truth about the brother he once idolized. Watch "Almost Kings" I Am Slave (2010). Directed by Gabriel Range. Written by Jeremy Brock. Starring Wunmi Mosaku, Isaach De Bankolé, Lubna Azabal. Synopsis: A thriller set in London's slave trade and centered on a woman's fight for freedom. Watch "I Am Slave"

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