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InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 14

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IN REVIEW ONLINE<br />

FEATURES<br />

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS<br />

2023<br />

LEILA’S BROTHERS <strong>—</strong> 1<br />

MAPUTO NAKUZANDZA <strong>—</strong> 2<br />

TÓTEM <strong>—</strong> 2<br />

THE FACE OF THE JELLYFISH <strong>—</strong> 3<br />

REMEMBERING EVERY NIGHT <strong>—</strong> 3<br />

ASTRAKAN <strong>—</strong> 5<br />

METRONOM <strong>—</strong> 5<br />

THE MAIDEN <strong>—</strong> 6<br />

PETROL <strong>—</strong> 6<br />

ABSENCE <strong>—</strong> 6<br />

GUSH <strong>—</strong> 7<br />

ALMOST ENTIRELY A SLIGHT<br />

DISASTER <strong>—</strong> 7<br />

AUTOBIOGRAPHY <strong>—</strong> 8<br />

THE SOUND & THE IMAGE,<br />

THE STREET & THE CINEMA<br />

AN INTERVIEW WITH<br />

TRAVIS WILKERSON <strong>—</strong> 9<br />

KICKING THE CANON<br />

SILVER LODE <strong>—</strong> 17<br />

BEYOND THE QUALITIES THAT<br />

MONEY CAN GUY<br />

SELECT SHORTS FROM<br />

CINÉMA DU RÉEL <strong>—</strong> 19<br />

FILM REVIEWS<br />

HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE <strong>—</strong> 21<br />

SHOWING UP <strong>—</strong> 22<br />

AIR <strong>—</strong> 23<br />

JOYLAND <strong>—</strong> 24<br />

THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE <strong>—</strong><br />

24<br />

SAINT NARCISSE <strong>—</strong> 25<br />

PAINT <strong>—</strong> 26<br />

FIST OF THE CONDOR <strong>—</strong> 28<br />

THE SEVERING <strong>—</strong> 29<br />

ACIDMAN <strong>—</strong> 31<br />

LIVING WITH CHUCKY <strong>—</strong> 32<br />

April 7, 2023<br />

<strong>Volume</strong> 1, <strong>Issue</strong> <strong>14</strong>


NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2023<br />

LEILA’S<br />

BROTHERS<br />

Saeed Roustaee<br />

“Dostoyevsky Iranian style,” reads<br />

one positive review of Leila’s Brothers, the<br />

third feature film by Saeed Roustaee, and in a way that writer has<br />

a point. Like the Russian existentialist, Roustaee is fascinated<br />

with bullheaded or deluded people who make bad decisions and<br />

then, out of misplaced pride or twisted ethics, double down on<br />

those choices until complete ruin is the only possible outcome.<br />

But unlike, say, Crime and Punishment, Leila’s Brothers is about<br />

people whose resentments make them exceedingly petty and<br />

unbelievably tedious. This is a long, bad film about pontificating<br />

imbeciles who barely resemble actual human beings, and the<br />

whole mess is played as if it were some sort of Greek tragedy.<br />

Leila (the great Tarane Alidousti) is the lone daughter in a family<br />

of five kids, and although she is marginalized for being a woman,<br />

she feels it is her duty to protect her four impoverished,<br />

unemployed brothers. Alireza (Navid Mohammadzade) was one of<br />

hundreds who were swindled out of wages at their steel mill;<br />

Parviz (Farhad Aslani) is a janitor in a mall bathroom; Farhad<br />

(Mohammad Ali Mohammadi), as the siblings keep saying, “thinks<br />

with his pecs,”;<br />

and Manouchehr (A Separation’s<br />

Payman Maadi) is involved in several shady rackets. Leila<br />

convinces the brothers to pool their money and buy a stall in a<br />

section of the mall bathroom that is slated for remodeling into<br />

stores. And thus begins a never-ending series of schemes,<br />

betrayals, and money gained and then almost immediately lost.<br />

One gets the sense that Roustaee is attempting the sort of<br />

complex humanist drama for which Asghar Farhadi is known. But<br />

Leila’s Brothers is not remotely up to that standard. Farhadi’s<br />

work is notable for its intricate plotting, driven by situations that<br />

arise when ordinary people must make difficult decisions under<br />

duress. By contrast, Leila’s Brothers exists in a bizarro-world<br />

where the family patriarch (Saeed Poursamini), an idiot and an<br />

addict, will destroy his family’s future for a chance at honor, in a<br />

scenario that is obviously a set-up. Leila, meanwhile, is<br />

determined to torpedo everything in the name of securing that<br />

mall shop, and as the bad choices and recriminations pile up, it’s<br />

hard not to wish the worst for all concerned.<br />

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FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

Making matters worse, Roustaee directs with all the subtlety of a<br />

careening 18-wheeler. Time and time again, he will establish<br />

some emotional beat and simply hammer it to death. For<br />

example, when Alireza looks mournfully across the street at a<br />

woman with her child, it’s clear that she is someone he once<br />

loved. Roustaee shows Alireza peering through a gap in the door;<br />

the woman sees him in a glass reflection; and then he is seen<br />

looking once more, with the door closed just a bit more; and then<br />

she sees him again, her eyes misting over; and then finally, once<br />

again, Alireza stares at her before closing the gate. Leila’s<br />

Brothers is filled with moments like this, which are hacky and<br />

sub-televisual under any circumstance but unforgivable in a<br />

one-note, 160-minute film.<br />

Amazingly, this was in competition at Cannes last year, and it<br />

was mostly dismissed or ignored at that time. It’s not clear why<br />

ND/NF decided to give it another chance, but hopefully this will<br />

be the last time it resurfaces before being properly consigned to<br />

a forgotten cinema past. <strong>—</strong> MICHAEL SICINSKI<br />

MAPUTO NAKUZANDZA<br />

Ariadine Zampaulo<br />

Ariadine Zampaulo's Maputo Nakuzandza begins with a<br />

distressingly bleak sequence: a group of boys approach an open<br />

car and peer inside, commenting on an unseen woman's good<br />

TÓTEM<br />

Lila Avilés<br />

“But Tótem’s ultimate failing comes from the perspective it’s<br />

told from, that of the seven-year-old Sol. As she looks on<br />

quietly at the chaos surrounding her, she embodies many of<br />

the same clichés about childhood that Close peddled: namely,<br />

the idea that children have a kind of magical innocence; that<br />

they have some deeper insight into the adult world since they<br />

are not yet burdened by its pressures, despite the fact that<br />

they have been subjected to almost nothing else <strong>—</strong> their lives<br />

are so defined by these rules they have almost no context for.<br />

This might give a different perspective on them, but it’s hardly<br />

a better one.” <strong>—</strong> ESMÉ HOLDEN [Originally published as part of<br />

<strong>InRO</strong>’s Berlinale 2023 coverage.]<br />

looks and attractive legs. They quickly wander off, laughing to<br />

themselves, as another couple approaches and then walks past<br />

the car, proclaiming as they do that anyone who “dressed like<br />

that was probably asking for it.” Finally, a woman enters the<br />

frame and gathers a young lady from the car. It's made clear the<br />

girl has been sexually assaulted, and while the remainder of the<br />

film juggles multiple perspectives and characters, this initial<br />

impression casts a somber pall over the proceedings. Maputo is<br />

the capital city of Mozambique (the title of the film translates to<br />

“Maputo I Love You”), and this movie is indeed a kind of city<br />

symphony. A series of related but discrete vignettes transpire<br />

over the course of a brief, 60-minute runtime, as Zampaulo also<br />

indulges in elements of the diary film, travelogues, and what are<br />

presumably documentary interludes of performance and history.<br />

Here, a woman cleaning her small home, a man commuting to<br />

work on a crowded bus, and a tourist wandering the city are<br />

given equal weight, like a gathering of potential narratives.<br />

There’s no further context, no beginnings or ends, and barely any<br />

dialogue <strong>—</strong> instead, a radio DJ provides an ongoing narration,<br />

reporting on the day’s events. There’s also the matter of a<br />

runaway bride, whom said DJ breathlessly reports on and whom<br />

Zampaulo occasionally films wandering around the city. These<br />

inserts of a woman in a bright white dress with a billowing train<br />

become a kind of poetic punctuation, a dash of the unfamiliar<br />

that renders the cityscape just a little stranger.<br />

Of course, this kind of structural gambit <strong>—</strong> eschewing narrative<br />

for a kind of free-form polyphony <strong>—</strong> means that some moments<br />

are more compelling than others. A modernist dance piece<br />

performed in various locales and obscured by blurry camera<br />

filters is cut too fast to make much of an impression, and a loud<br />

shouting match between a woman and her cheating husband<br />

quickly becomes interminable. More compelling is a brief tour of<br />

a mural that introduces audiences to notable citizens like<br />

journalist and poet Jose Craveirinha, poet Noemia de Sousa<br />

(affiliated with the anti-colonialist literacy movement<br />

Mocambicanidade), and poet Rui de Noronha, as well as the<br />

remnants of Portuguese forts and armaments. Another tangent<br />

mentions Ngungunyane, a 19th-century monarch imprisoned and<br />

then exiled by the Portuguese, and something of a folk hero to<br />

modern Bantu people (Portuguese is still the country's official<br />

language). It’s a lot to cram into a brief runtime, and Westerners<br />

unfamiliar with Mozambique’s colonialist history (like this<br />

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ND/NF 2023<br />

reviewer) might find themselves occasionally adrift. All in all,<br />

while intriguing, Maputo Nakuzandza feels a little slight. But<br />

Zampaulo's sense of framing and attention to the movement of<br />

bodies through space suggest a real talent behind the camera. <strong>—</strong><br />

DANIEL GORMAN<br />

THE FACE OF THE JELLYFISH<br />

Melisa Liebenthal<br />

Argentinian filmmaker Melisa Liebenthal’s 2019 short film, Aquí y<br />

Allá (“Here and There”), utilized Google Earth, in-film, to pinpoint<br />

the exact location where it was made. With a sense of wry<br />

reflexivity, Liebenthal asked us to consider the interface between<br />

our ordinary lives and the collection systems of Big Data, and<br />

how at any given moment, we are subject not only to<br />

surveillance, but to methods of mapping and measurement, and<br />

to predictive algorithms. In her new feature, The Face of the<br />

Jellyfish, Liebenthal creates a fictional framework through which<br />

to explore these same topics, and the result is something we<br />

might call a comedy of phenotypic errors.<br />

The film opens in a doctor’s office, where Marina (Rocio Stellado)<br />

explains a surreal malady. A few months ago, after a bout of<br />

swelling around her face, her features completely changed. That<br />

REMEMBERING EVERY NIGHT<br />

Yui Kiyohara<br />

“While superficially similar to the 2023 Berlinale’s There is a<br />

Stone, in that both films feature not much in the way of<br />

plotting or genre familiarity, but rather focus on people<br />

hanging out in and walking through a (more or less) natural<br />

space, the experience of watching Remembering Every Night is<br />

totally different. There is a Stone is defined by the elements it<br />

leaves out, the dangers alluded to but which never come to<br />

pass, leaving us to resolve in a space somewhere between<br />

dread and relief. Remembering Every Night, however, is exactly<br />

itself: a walk through a neighborhood, inviting us to peek in on<br />

a variety of small comedies and dramas along the way.” <strong>—</strong><br />

SEAN GILMAN [Originally published as part of <strong>InRO</strong>’s Berlinale<br />

2023 coverage.<br />

is, when the swelling went down, Marina had a completely<br />

different visage: eyes, nose, and mouth had all changed shape. In<br />

this early part of the film, Liebenthal shows us various digital<br />

photos that allow us to make side-by-side comparisons between<br />

the old Marina (Liebenthal herself) and the new one. The face, the<br />

absolute marker of individual identity, has mutated, and along<br />

with it, Marina’s sense of self.<br />

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FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

Along the way, Jellyfish offers animated facsimiles of<br />

facial-recognition software readings, demonstrating how<br />

computers reduce the face to a set of lines, measures from the<br />

eyes to the nose, nose to ears, mouth to chin, etc. Although these<br />

facial scans are all as different as fingerprints, to the untrained<br />

eye, they very much look the same. In fact, when Liebenthal goes<br />

to the zoo and starts subjecting various animals (chimps,<br />

dolphins, tigers, spiders) to the same software readings, the<br />

shapes become even harder to distinguish. To us, one gorilla<br />

looks very much like another, but to gorillas, and digital analysis,<br />

the differences are quite pronounced.<br />

The Face of the Jellyfish is less of a narrative than a<br />

demonstration of a thesis. But this arguably makes it more<br />

enjoyable. Once Liebenthal has established her premise, she<br />

introduces various social permutations, demonstrating all the<br />

ways in which being “de-faced” thwarts one’s basic existence.<br />

Marina is unable to attain a new ID; she watches YouTube<br />

makeup tutorials in order to try and paint her old face back on;<br />

her grandmother remarks, “I don’t know how to talk to this face.”<br />

The scenario is also a no-win for Marina’s current boyfriend<br />

(Vladimir Durán), who reassures Marina he finds her sexy,<br />

opening the predictable can of worms. What? You think I’m sexier<br />

now? (The Spanish word for “jellyfish,” it’s worth noting, is<br />

medusa, and while Marina’s new face doesn’t exactly turn anyone<br />

to stone, it does bring normal interactions to a grinding halt.)<br />

With its disjunctive electronic soundtrack by Inés Copertino, The<br />

Face of the Jellyfish takes a premise one might find in a Buñuel<br />

film or a Julio Cortázar short story and titrates it through the<br />

technological conundrums of life under techno-capitalism. The<br />

mutability of identity has been a common enough trope in<br />

literature and film, from Kafka to Watchmen to Philip K. Dick.<br />

What is new here is the fact that while our DNA makes each of us<br />

unique, the hyper-tabulation of our actions, proportions, and<br />

whereabouts, reduces us all to a set of reproducible zeros and<br />

ones. Gilles Deleuze coined a new word, “dividual,” describing how<br />

each of us is seen as little more than a composite of ID numbers,<br />

credit ratings, performance reviews, and Instagram likes. In a<br />

sense, Marina has been hacked, her “features” revised as if they<br />

received an unexpected version update. The Face of the Jellyfish<br />

is a puckish, high-concept comedy that, when one further<br />

reflects on its implications, is really quite profound. <strong>—</strong> MICHAEL<br />

SICINSKI<br />

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ND/NF 2023<br />

ASTRAKAN<br />

David Depesseville<br />

David Depesseville’s debut feature, Astrakan, is a film that is at<br />

once deeply humanist and utterly pitiless. Essentially a character<br />

study, the film depicts the precarious and often horrifying world<br />

of Samuel (Mirko Gianinni), a young boy in the French foster-care<br />

system who is placed in an unloving home in rural Morvan. While<br />

such a plot could easily give way to uncomplicated victimology,<br />

Depesseville takes a radically different approach. Withholding<br />

key information and avoiding expository context, Astrakan throws<br />

the viewer <strong>—</strong> along with Samuel <strong>—</strong> into an alien,<br />

incomprehensible world of danger, distrust, and isolation.<br />

We don't know very much about Samuel at first. It's only through<br />

the seemingly inexplicable way that his adoptive parents regard<br />

him that we discover that he is a new, and not altogether<br />

welcome, part of his family. Marie (Jehnny Beth) and Clément<br />

(Bastien Bouillon) do not provide Samuel with his own clothing,<br />

instead giving him hand-me-downs from their older son, Alexis<br />

(Nathaël Bertrand). The couple berates Samuel, showing no<br />

sympathy for the trauma he’s experienced. (We learn that his<br />

father was killed by the police; the circumstances of his mother's<br />

absence remain unexplained.) Marie and Clément mainly are in it<br />

for the state subsidy that Samuel brings in as a foster child in<br />

their care <strong>—</strong> so they work only to create the outward impression<br />

of good parenting, such as paying for gymnastics lessons and<br />

sending Samuel on a school ski trip (while the rest of the family<br />

vacations elsewhere).<br />

Depesseville almost never deviates from Samuel's point of view<br />

here, and while the boy’s situation might be that of an abused<br />

orphan, his demeanor suggests otherwise. He is emotionally<br />

closed off, only occasionally daring to trust his caregivers. In<br />

fact, he goes so far as to withhold his feces, resulting in his<br />

continual soiling of his underwear. Marie screams at him for this,<br />

as it costs money to replace the dirty underwear. Clément,<br />

meanwhile, humiliates him for clogging their plumbing. Rather<br />

than seeking counseling for Samuel, the couple takes him to a<br />

supernatural seer, who tries to read the boy's mind by waving his<br />

hands around his head.<br />

Depesseville's style and sensibility both exhibit the social<br />

concern and empathy of the Dardenne brothers, but also the<br />

animalistic worldview of Bruno Dumont. The society around<br />

Samuel is brutal and perverse, with a sexually precocious<br />

neighbor (Lorine Delin) coaxing Samuel to disrobe but crying<br />

assault when the two are caught. And Samuel is well aware that<br />

Marie's brother, Luc (Théo Costa-Marini), is a child molester, but<br />

knows all too well that in this family, his word would mean<br />

nothing. <strong>—</strong> MICHAEL SICINSKI<br />

METRONOM<br />

Alexandru Belc<br />

“Unfortunately, this Romanian coming-of-age romance, rife with heartache and melancholy, tends more often than not toward<br />

the aesthetic and narrative clichés of the latter rather than seeking unique or novel alternatives. It’s understandable that Belc<br />

would here want to pit the kineticism of music and bodies in motion against the more dominant presence of the film’s deadly<br />

stillness and silence <strong>—</strong> in other words, its ambiance <strong>—</strong> as contradictory forces, but the problem lies in how he rarely finds a<br />

balance in terms of its narrative distributions and stylistic arrangements during the many long sequences (usually filmed in<br />

handheld and with neutral lighting and coloring), which results in a mostly monotonous and tedious experience.” <strong>—</strong> AYEEN<br />

FOROOTAN [Originally published as part of <strong>InRO</strong>’s Cannes 2022 coverage.]<br />

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FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

THE MAIDEN<br />

Graham Foy<br />

“Foy fills the minutes with languish, with the mundanity of<br />

impenetrable contemplation. His protagonists are ciphers lost<br />

in the shrill noises of passing trains. They wander into and out<br />

of one another’s lives, set to the dispassionate march of time.<br />

With such unplotted narrativity, a rare occurrence amongst<br />

this new wave of Canadian fiction filmmakers, Foy still can’t<br />

quite divorce himself and his characters from the suffocating<br />

construct of linearity. While he tries to trouble the diegetic<br />

timeline with temporal disruptions motivated via the<br />

metaphysical power of certain key props, he, unfortunately,<br />

remains under the normative pressures of a narrative drive,<br />

rendering a tale that vacillates between classical and<br />

modernist sensibilities. The indecision is ultimately<br />

frustrating.” <strong>—</strong> ZACHARY GOLDKIND [Originally published as part<br />

of <strong>InRO</strong>’s TIFF 2022 coverage.]<br />

PETROL<br />

Alena Lodkina<br />

Even for those who haven’t seen Alena Lodkina’s first feature,<br />

2017’s Strange Colours, given the quality of her new film, Petrol, it<br />

should be abundantly clear that she’s a major talent. Ostensibly a<br />

coming-of-age tale about an introverted young woman searching<br />

for the unknown and the otherworldly, Lodkina’s penchant for<br />

upending narrative conventions and gleeful indulgence in all<br />

manner of the fantastique makes for a uniquely invigorating<br />

experience.<br />

Eva (Nathalie Morris) is a film student working on her thesis<br />

project, a portrait of an elderly woman who she helps care for.<br />

When she’s not at school or working, she spends time with her<br />

mother, a Russian immigrant (Lodkina, like Eva, is Russian-born<br />

but raised in Melbourne). The film begins with Eva scouring a<br />

rocky beach with sound equipment, recording ambient noises of<br />

crashing waves and billowing winds. She stumbles upon a small<br />

group of people who appear to making their own film, and spies<br />

Mia (Hannah Lynch), a strikingly attractive woman adorned in a<br />

tight red body suit and bloody vampire fangs. Call it fate or mere<br />

coincidence, but several nights later Eva sees Mia walking with a<br />

young man down alleyways en route to a house party. Mia drops a<br />

necklace, which Eva recovers. Eva continues to follow the couple<br />

and hesitantly enters the gathering to return the necklace to Mia.<br />

Grateful for the good deed, Mia offers Eva a drink, and the two<br />

instantly hit it off. The remainder of the film charts this<br />

tumultuous friendship <strong>—</strong> the quiet, demure Eva and the outgoing<br />

but erratic Mia, as they grow closer and then begin to chafe<br />

against each other’s neuroses.<br />

There’s more than a dash of Rivette in this scenario, not only<br />

in the attention to female camaraderie a la Celine and Julie,<br />

but also in Lodkina’s refusal to differentiate between playacting<br />

and “reality.” In other words, the seemingly realist scenario,<br />

which follows the rules of traditional narrative cinema, is<br />

constantly interrupted and intruded upon by magical flights of<br />

fancy that rupture the diegesis. Mia snaps her fingers, and food<br />

instantly appears, arranged for an afternoon picnic, while the<br />

women change outfits literally in the blink of an eye. Lodkina<br />

occasionally transitions between scenes using digital<br />

ABSENCE<br />

Wu Lang<br />

“At every turn, Absence appears like it’s going to turn into a kind of a movie we’ve seen before. Its opening half hour or so is told<br />

in the static, minimalist style of the Taiwanese New Wave, with Lee giving yet another performance where he moves slow and<br />

barely talks (he is capable of acting like a normal guy: see Ann Hui’s 1999 Ordinary Heroes for proof). He’s wonderful, of course: he<br />

doesn’t need dialogue <strong>—</strong> he has a face. His romancing of Meng is patient but determined, though she only comes around when<br />

she needs to marry him in order to get the apartment. In this section, where the two come together, Absence shifts toward<br />

something else entirely. The shots are more expressive, less frontal and tableaux-like, reflecting the characters in mirrors, or<br />

isolating them in a single green window pane of an abandoned beach shack.” <strong>—</strong> SEAN GILMAN [Originally published as part of<br />

<strong>InRO</strong>’s Berlinale 2023 coverage.]<br />

3<br />

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ND/NF 2023<br />

where a scene will cut to fuzzy, pixelated images before cutting<br />

again to reveal that Eva is seated in front of a monitor editing<br />

footage. Points of view are in flux, an unsteady assemblage of<br />

visual information that reflects the unstable foundation of the<br />

women’s relationship.<br />

GUSH<br />

FOX MAXY<br />

“Expanding on the layered, accelerated style first developed in<br />

her shorter films, Fox Maxy arrives at Sundance firing on all<br />

cylinders. Gush marks a clear progression in Maxy’s method,<br />

adopting an organizational logic more akin to music than any<br />

conventional narrative form. Maxy has stated that this is, in<br />

part, a film about mental health and healing, and while that<br />

may not be immediately apparent moment-to-moment, Gush’s<br />

cumulative effect is liberatory precisely because it avoids the<br />

usual cinematic language of trauma and victimization. Where<br />

too often film works tend to redouble the violence that they<br />

aim to condemn, Gush unfurls like a multi-faceted tapestry,<br />

one intent on showing that joy and pain, memory and future,<br />

hope and fear, are all inseparable and simultaneously present<br />

in the experiential stew of lived existence.” <strong>—</strong> MICHAEL<br />

SICINSKI [Originally published as part of <strong>InRO</strong>’s Sundance 2023<br />

coverage.]<br />

At one point, Eva’s mother mentions Freud’s notion of ‘'spooky<br />

action at a distance” <strong>—</strong> the ability of separate objects to share a<br />

state or condition even over vast distances <strong>—</strong> as a syllogism for<br />

friendship. Lodkina isn’t so banal as to provide a thesis for her<br />

film, but she does suggest these organizational ideas, visual<br />

metaphors that might provide insight into these character’s<br />

minds. Most striking is a plant that grows its leaves in the shape<br />

of flower petals, an evolutionary mistake that replaces one thing<br />

with another. Mia is fascinated by the plant, although it’s unclear<br />

if she thinks that she is secretly a flower or a plant pretending to<br />

be something it’s not. The film’s cryptic ending suggests a<br />

detente between various emotional extremes, indulging in some<br />

magical thinking to show how relationships can grow and change<br />

from one thing into another. There’s beauty even in mistakes. <strong>—</strong><br />

DANIEL GORMAN<br />

ALMOST ENTIRELY A SLIGHT DISASTER<br />

Umut Subaşı’<br />

Umut Subaşı’s debut feature, Almost Entirely a Slight Disaster, is a<br />

curious beast. In many regards, it’s quite accomplished, and<br />

displays some very decisive stylistic choices. It’s basically a<br />

roundelay narrative involving four young adults in Istanbul, a<br />

suitably wry comedy of manners that Subaşı orchestrates with<br />

planometric compositions, rhyming visuals, and a deadpan<br />

dramatic approach. It does, however, take a while to get going,<br />

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FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

interludes, and even then, there are moments when one<br />

gets the impression that Subaşı has no clear destination in<br />

mind.<br />

Zeynep (Melisa Bostancioglu) and Ayşe (Melis Sevinç) are<br />

roommates. There is minor conflict between the two of them,<br />

since Ayşe owes Zeynep a large sum of money. But like<br />

everything else in this film, the conflict is tamped down and<br />

restrained, almost to the point of invisibility. Zeynep is interested<br />

in astrology; Ayşe is obsessing over the fact that a stranger told<br />

her she “doesn’t look Turkish.” Meanwhile, Mehmet (Mert Can<br />

Sevimli), a frustrated electrical engineer, meets up with Ali<br />

(Ibraham Arici), an old childhood friend. They discuss various<br />

matters, including a job Ali’s applying for, Mehmet’s frustrations<br />

with his wife (Didem Topcuoglu), and a favor that Mehmet is<br />

arranging for Ali through his older brother (Murat Saglam).<br />

As Slight Disaster plods along, an attentive filmgoer will notice<br />

some odd patterns. The majority of the film is comprised of<br />

extended conversations between the four principals, paired off in<br />

different combinations. People tend to lie to one another, either<br />

out of pride or convenience. A number of conversations take<br />

place in a café, with the two actors facing each other in a<br />

two-shot. Insecurities result in romantic mishaps, all of which<br />

eventually come crashing down. And lots of Turkish coffee and<br />

tea are consumed.<br />

Insert the word “soju” in the sentence above, and you’ll get where<br />

AUTOBIOGRAPHY<br />

Makbul Mubarak<br />

“The film seems content to find its answers in the naive<br />

blurring of liberal moralism, seeking illumination not in the<br />

infrastructures of mobility and positionality, which invariably<br />

conduct common codes of ethics, but in those very idealistic<br />

codes of ethics that by design often fail to ever position<br />

themselves within said infrastructure. Mubarak seems less<br />

interested in the world that cultivates these relationships of<br />

power and their effects than he is in just the individualistic<br />

cognition of morality.” <strong>—</strong> ZACHARY GOLDKIND [Originally<br />

published as part of <strong>InRO</strong>’s Venice International Film Festival<br />

2022 coverage.]<br />

I’m going. Often Subaşı’s film feels like a direct translation of<br />

Hong Sang-soo’s filmmaking into Turkish. There are even breaks<br />

between the acts, and the endless repetition of a piece of piano<br />

music (in this case, Beethoven’s “Turkish March”). Granted, Slight<br />

Disaster includes overbearing touches that Hong would never<br />

employ, like distractingly arrhythmic editing and, in a bit of<br />

faux-sincerity, an ongoing motif showing each of the main<br />

characters (but especially the men) sobbing to themselves in<br />

private. There’s no question that Slight Disaster shows promise,<br />

but it also suggests that Subaşı is overly concerned with making<br />

a film that follows the rules of festival cinema. Here’s hoping he<br />

finds his own voice. <strong>—</strong> MICHAEL SICINSKI<br />

8


THE SOUND & THE<br />

IMAGE, THE STREET &<br />

THE CINEMA<br />

An Interview with Travis<br />

Wilkerson<br />

Though Travis Wilkerson is an American filmmaker, his subjects, methods, and tone mirror what’s called Third Cinema <strong>—</strong> politically<br />

charged movies made outside the Hollywood and European arthouse worlds, usually associated with Marxist movements in developing<br />

countries (quite the wide net). He’s earned this comparison through his tutelage under Santiago Álvarez <strong>—</strong> one of Third Cinema’s prime<br />

movers <strong>—</strong> when he lived in Cuba; but his films cannot be reduced to mere Yankee-flavored agitprop. His An Injury to One (2003)<br />

remains a landmark film in American documentary filmmaking thanks to its unfiltered political lens, its clever noirish storytelling, and<br />

its tiny budget. Watching it gives a similar effect to the oft-repeated anecdote of seeing a film made so poorly that one is inspired to<br />

pick up a camera and make one better; only, of course, that Wilkerson’s film is made so well and so simply that one is inspired to<br />

make a masterpiece with whatever resources they have.<br />

His later films, starting with perhaps 2011’s Distinguished Flying Cross, have become more and more personal as Wilkerson’s own voice<br />

narrates the beats of his (still) noirish stories. None is more personal than his latest, The Fuckee’s Hymn, which focuses on his father’s<br />

legacy after his death. It’s something of an addendum to Distinguished Flying Cross, as Wilkerson focuses on his father’s Vietnam<br />

career, the individualized myths and narratives that inspired his father to first fight in and later protest the Vietnam War, the<br />

uncertainties that plagued his father in his last days, and the uncertainties that still plague Travis. The film’s only images are of the<br />

forested park outside Wilkerson’s parents’ house; they’re moving portraits of crowded flora that may bring to mind the jungles of<br />

Vietnam, until Wilkerson literally overlays Vietnam itself. For The Fuckee’s Hymn, the war never really ended, not in a way that matters.<br />

On the occasion of the film’s premiere at Cinéma du Réel, I spoke to Wilkerson about his career, this latest film, and family.<br />

9<br />

<strong>14</strong>


We're in a strange position since we're doing an interview for<br />

a film festival that is kind of in limbo today. Cinéma du Réel’s<br />

workers are on strike because they're joining the Parisian<br />

protests against pension reform. But, I'm currently in New<br />

York, and you are in Croatia, so neither of us are there. It's a<br />

little bit strange for us to be on the outside talking about a<br />

film that's premiering at a festival that's only nominally<br />

existing right now. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts<br />

about those most recent events with Cinéma du Réel and the<br />

position of film festivals within our broader political culture.<br />

Yeah, I think it's a super interesting question, and it's hard to<br />

define precisely. I saw a slide that said something like “the reel is<br />

in the street” or something like that. Somebody had prepared a<br />

banner, and I think there's something kind of beautiful about<br />

that, right? Because what they're saying <strong>—</strong> and it seems like<br />

there's a tradition within French cinema to say this <strong>—</strong> that a<br />

festival doesn't supersede the events that are happening in the<br />

world. A festival should be engaged with those. It should find<br />

ways to confront them, to engage with them, to meaningfully<br />

understand them and participate in them. If the festival's in<br />

limbo, I think they're doing the right thing. Right? To me, the<br />

mistake would be to say, “we are forging ahead with a precisely<br />

identical festival because we scheduled it six months ago.” To<br />

me, this is what you do. You're dynamic and you're flexible and<br />

you're thinking about being a human being more than you're<br />

thinking about being someone who's working for a film festival or<br />

a filmmaker or so forth. I think that it's urgent that these kinds of<br />

movements are happening right now. There's a clear attack on<br />

basic living standards happening in all kinds of different ways. I<br />

mean, the arbitrary demand that people work two years longer.<br />

Not that they can choose to work, but that it's mandated, right.<br />

You think about that as a massive thing to demand of a people;<br />

to say that we're arbitrarily going to do this without due process.<br />

So they're definitely doing the right thing. And, you know, if some<br />

movies show at the same time, that's great. And if the movies<br />

agitate people and send them outside, that's great. If outside<br />

agitates them and they need to come in and be reflective, I think<br />

that's great. I think something like that, the dialectic between the<br />

street and the cinema, makes a lot of sense.<br />

I think the most obvious comparison here is something like<br />

the Cannes Film Festival in Mai 68. It's kinda like it was too<br />

obvious not to do it.<br />

15 10


And yet many people wouldn't have, right? It took a core group<br />

of people who said, “we have to do this.” And it sort of changed<br />

film history. I'm not proposing that that will happen with this<br />

festival <strong>—</strong> but I do think it's coming out of a really strong<br />

tradition.<br />

Since you're both a teacher and a filmmaker, you've probably<br />

had quite the relationship with exactly what we're doing<br />

right now, which is looking at each other through these<br />

screens, which is kind of a weird form of visual media.<br />

Whenever I worked as a teacher, I had a weird relationship<br />

with it because it does feel like a pseudo-improvisational<br />

kind of acting that then gets translated into something like a<br />

movie to those on the other side. But that shares with the<br />

form of some of the films that you've done recently. I'm<br />

curious if you have any huge feelings about a<br />

Zoom-influenced world.<br />

I think about this a lot. People talk about, for example, the<br />

transformation of the cinema from something predominantly<br />

collective that took place in physical spaces to a more virtual<br />

thing, right? The streaming revolution and so forth. And obviously<br />

I could say, oh, I think that's a tremendous loss. And this was<br />

such an important social experience. It was a huge part of what<br />

made films meaningful to me. But I also feel like there's a more<br />

relevant question, which is “what do we do now?” I feel like<br />

accepting that this is a transformation that we probably can only<br />

do so much to fight against, but we also need to adapt to it and<br />

still make the medium meaningful.<br />

And I guess I feel the same way about teaching. I remember my<br />

first Zoom classes that I had to teach. And to be honest, they<br />

were a disaster. I had no idea how to do it. I had no idea how to<br />

engage with people. I did not have any idea how to create<br />

discussion. I think the discussion element is a huge part of the<br />

successful class, and in a Zoom context, it's just so easy to<br />

alienate oneself from the entire group, to turn the camera off, to<br />

space out, to be watching something else while participating in<br />

that way.<br />

But over time, I've had models that have been shown to me that<br />

work a little bit better, and often they're about duration. So, for<br />

example, Zoom classes need to be shorter. It's just torture to be<br />

online in a Zoom for hours and hours a day. It's exhausting. So<br />

first of all, at the school that I'm teaching at right now, they have<br />

it set so that any Zoom class only needs to have half of the<br />

lessons to be synchronous, and half can be asynchronous. And<br />

that's super helpful to have this mixture of materials that<br />

students can then engage with at their own scale, at their own<br />

speed. Similarly, I feel like what's happening over time is that<br />

Zoom classes are becoming more organized around the needs of<br />

the students than classes were physically. And I'm not exactly<br />

sure why that is, but I think <strong>—</strong> maybe in terms of that<br />

performance you're talking about <strong>—</strong> I'm trying to perform for<br />

them, and so I'm trying to figure out ways to really meet them<br />

halfway more assertively than I did in a classroom where I felt<br />

like it was a more comfortable space that I felt that I controlled<br />

or something.<br />

So, it's very different, and I feel like that's very useful. And now, a<br />

huge amount of what I'm teaching is forms of video essays<br />

because I'm using that as a way to teach editing. And it's very<br />

engaging for the students. So they're working in the screen space<br />

through a class in a screen space. And I feel like that's super<br />

helpful because then they're thinking about that experience in<br />

the work. The work is being shaped by every other direction. I<br />

feel like it's quite interesting. But, I haven't really seen the great<br />

Zoom cinema yet, you know what I mean? I'm sure someone will<br />

be smart enough to know how to do it. I feel like movies that are<br />

about research in the screen space are often the most<br />

interesting ones to me at this point. It's about creating a kind of<br />

mind map of the labyrinth of the way that we all pass through<br />

insane information on the internet. I feel like that's something I'm<br />

seeing done well within the screen space. But in terms of some<br />

other form of cinema, I keep waiting for a good genre film to<br />

come out of Zoom.<br />

Have you ever seen the Unfriended movies?<br />

No, I have not seen those.<br />

They were released during the Skype era, but I'm sure they<br />

could make another and translate it to the workplace and to<br />

Zoom. They’re clever Internet-based slasher films.<br />

That’s exactly what I would've guessed. That makes sense.<br />

11


One thing that's always struck me whenever I'm watching<br />

your films is that you're pretty specific to location in each<br />

one. I think that’s important in something like American<br />

filmmaking, since the country is so vast and diverse. You<br />

consistently make these essays about places as much as<br />

individual stories or people. I also know that these locations<br />

are still personal to you in the sense that you spent part of<br />

your life in each location. For example, in An Injury to One you<br />

cover Butte, Montana, and I believe you grew up around<br />

Butte, Montana.<br />

I did partly, yeah. I moved there in my early teens and I lived<br />

there until I was almost 20.<br />

And I know your immediate family is from Alabama, and you<br />

covered that in Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun.<br />

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.<br />

I'm wondering if location is at the forefront of your mind<br />

whenever you're picking a new project.<br />

You know, it's a huge aspect for me because I feel like over time<br />

I've sort of focused on immersing myself in places and trying to<br />

find weird little stories that are interesting and have some sort of<br />

profound part of the narrative, but which are not widely<br />

discussed or understood.<br />

And everywhere I've lived, I found those literally everywhere.<br />

That's what's really interesting. So it's not that I'm always living in<br />

interesting places, it's that those stories are everywhere. It's just<br />

a matter of how we look for them. And then, in terms of place and<br />

making films, I'm making films in a really, really strange way.<br />

There's no getting around that. I'm making films very modestly. I<br />

have very little resources to do it. I just have my teaching salary<br />

and then a little bit of research money for that. I've gotten three<br />

grants over the course of fifteen or twenty years. So I certainly<br />

don't live off that money. I'm living off the teaching money, and<br />

so I have to work within the context of taking care of my family. I<br />

have two young children, and my wife is currently a graduate<br />

student, a PhD candidate, so I’m making sure that she has the<br />

support that she needs. I have to figure out ways that I can<br />

actually work that I'm still happy with and that are still<br />

meaningful to me. And that really has to do with, well, where am I<br />

now? And what do I have access to in this place? And then, what<br />

is interesting about that place? So it has to do a lot with the<br />

peculiar domestic pattern of my and my wife's filmmaking,<br />

because she's also making films. And so we're both trying to think<br />

about ways that we can work while we don't have the kids <strong>—</strong><br />

while they're at school or while the other parent is watching them<br />

<strong>—</strong> ways to work with things that are available to us to go jump<br />

out to rather quickly, but somehow also get into deeply since we<br />

can go to them over and over and over and over.<br />

So today, we spent time at the first shopping mall in Yugoslavia<br />

here. It was built in 1979 for the Mediterranean games, which<br />

were like this regional Olympic sporting event. That was a huge<br />

event here in the 1970s. It was a big reason that a lot of<br />

infrastructure was built here and why the freeways were built,<br />

why the sports stadiums were built. It had a big effect on the<br />

landscape and physical structure of the city. And one of the<br />

things they built was this shopping mall. It’s super interesting<br />

because it simultaneously looks really utopian, but it also looks<br />

really dystopian. Because it’s falling to pieces, it’s crumbling, and<br />

it both is futuristic-looking and also looks ancient. It looks like<br />

ruins and yet it's still occupied <strong>—</strong> there are businesses in it. It's<br />

also covered with swastikas and with the symbol that's more<br />

significant here in Croatia, which is a u with a cross over it,<br />

which is the symbol of the Ustaše, which was the Croatian Nazis<br />

in the puppet state in World War II. It's covered with those. So,<br />

that's a place that's near me, right? So, you have this hope of a<br />

society that was highly democratic and highly equal, building a<br />

shopping mall like they did in the great Western capitalist<br />

countries, right? And now, it's been privatized over and over<br />

again, it's crumbling, it's a disaster, and it's covered with Nazi<br />

graffiti. And we go there all the time. [Laughs] So what I'm trying<br />

to say is, that's how the landscape interacts with the way we're<br />

living at home and the way we're doing research and the way that<br />

we're digging deep.<br />

We're in Croatia and we're like, well, what are the stories here?<br />

Stories that are important and interesting, but aren't necessarily<br />

widely discussed. And ironically, everybody here knows what<br />

Ustaše is, but tourists don't know. People who travel through<br />

would not be familiar with it. And then the local relationship to it<br />

is really complicated because a lot of people despise it and<br />

12


ecognize that the Ustaše were not just Nazis, like they were like<br />

ultra-Nazis. They created concentration camps that killed<br />

hundreds of thousands of people, mostly using non-industrial,<br />

primitive means like knives. And so a huge percentage of the<br />

population despises them and thinks that they're terrifying. And<br />

then a significant percentage that is a minority, but a vocal<br />

minority, believes that they're national heroes because they<br />

created Croatian independence for the first time, although it was<br />

as a puppet state under Nazi occupation. But they still regard<br />

that as the first period of independence. That's the kind of stuff<br />

we're just delving into because it's nearby and because it's<br />

actually weirdly poetic and beautiful, but it's also accessible, too.<br />

Right. I feel like there are specific textures of each place<br />

that you wouldn't even necessarily know exist without being<br />

there. And that might be something that bigger budget<br />

Hollywood filmmakers might miss whenever they kind of<br />

read books, research, and ultimately mythologize it or<br />

something.<br />

Well, and I think also, it's not even just big budget films, but even<br />

just any film with a crew is usually under tremendous time<br />

constraints. Because they don't have time to just say, “it's<br />

interesting looking over there, I'm gonna hang out here for a<br />

little.” But that's the way we do it. Like, we spend time and we sit<br />

and we listen. I'm obsessed with audio recording now, obsessed<br />

with it. And I have just a simple recorder with a shotgun mic that<br />

I use. I literally don't even know how I have that shotgun mic. It<br />

appeared in my gear 10 or 15 years ago. I asked everyone I knew<br />

if they had lent me a mic; I could never figure it out. It's just been<br />

my mic now. So someone will probably read this and then<br />

immediately demand the mic back, which would be justice. But,<br />

in any case, I go out with that microphone and I just listen for<br />

five to ten minutes in a place. And I'm like, what is happening<br />

with the microphone and the headphones that I'm not hearing<br />

with my naked ears? And it's remarkable what you discover. You<br />

just hear depth and narrative and weird distant sounds and<br />

menacing industrial sounds and weird conversations.<br />

It's just wonderful. Anyways, the way that they work, they're just<br />

not allowed to do that.<br />

So how did location fit into this new film? It's your parents'<br />

old house, is that correct?<br />

13


Yeah. So it's in Michigan, in a forest. The whole thing takes<br />

place in a park that is within 150 to 200 yards of my parents'<br />

home.<br />

We have that element of shooting around your parents'<br />

house, but we also have a second element where a second<br />

location, Vietnam, is transposed onto it. So I feel like you're<br />

playing with that location in a very interesting way here.<br />

Yeah. Thanks. Honestly, it was an expression of what was<br />

happening in my brain. You know, I hadn't been home in several<br />

years, and I love going into that forest. I lived in that town for a<br />

few years on and off throughout my life, although again, I didn't<br />

grow up there. I lived there more as an adult. And that particular<br />

park, which is called The Bluffs, it's in Ann Arbor. It's in the middle<br />

of the city, in the middle of a neighborhood. But it is like a dense<br />

forest that could be a very distant place. It could almost be like a<br />

jungle or something. Like, it's quite intense <strong>—</strong> with the exception<br />

of the sounds of the freeways that you can hear, especially if you<br />

put on the headphones. But other than that, it's extremely<br />

isolated, and no one ever goes in there. I've walked in probably<br />

hundreds of times in my life now, and I've seen people maybe<br />

20% of the time. And it's this place where I go to breathe, to<br />

exercise, to reflect. It's this space of contemplation for me. And<br />

when I was going there this summer, the light was magical and<br />

weird and just flowing like water into the leaves. And in the<br />

leaves I was seeing shadows and figures and faces, and it just<br />

felt alive to me.<br />

And so I just started documenting it. And as I was documenting it,<br />

I was thinking about the things that were in my head <strong>—</strong> the<br />

aftermath and narrative in my own mind of my dad's death. And it<br />

had to deal with the films that I was watching to reflect on that.<br />

I'm obsessed with watching films about the Vietnam War, and<br />

some of them are not so good and healthy for me apparently. I<br />

mean, for the American films, that's the case. But I've been doing<br />

video essay work even on the American films. I have been<br />

working on one about Apocalypse Now; I've been working on one<br />

about Full Metal Jacket. But I'm really, really drawn to these<br />

counter-narrative films. These films that are made from<br />

filmmakers that we haven't seen that are telling different stories<br />

about the war from different perspectives. And one is this film,<br />

The Abandoned Field: Free Fire Zone, which is just<br />

a fascinating and bizarre and unprecedented film. Once I<br />

encountered it, I just was like, how could I have never seen this<br />

film? It's just such a strange, beautiful, different film in which the<br />

perspective is just inverted and disrupted, but it's not just<br />

inverted because part of what's weird about that film is it has so<br />

much compassion even toward its villains. Which is often not the<br />

case at all in the American films. So that's what was happening. I<br />

was in that landscape. That movie was playing in my head. I was<br />

seeing memories and shadows and figures and dreams in the<br />

dappling light in the forest. It may seem hard to believe, but<br />

that's just what it was. And then there’s a funny thing about how<br />

this film came about.<br />

So my wife, I mentioned as a PhD candidate, was at a two-week<br />

summer intensive in Liverpool. So I was staying at my mom's<br />

house because my dad is gone now. And I had my two younger<br />

children. I was making sure they were in good shape, had proper<br />

snacks, and were comfortable and safe, and then I was taking my<br />

cell phone and then running 150 yards and filming. So it was like<br />

this extremely weird domestic thing. And of course, part of the<br />

reason your brain goes to these places is because you're<br />

avoiding being around children 24/7 [laughs], who are asking you<br />

for snacks and treats and demanding entertainment. So the<br />

landscape was really interconnected to all of those things at the<br />

same time.<br />

I noticed that it's not all shots of just this forest; I think you<br />

include these three or four haunting shots of the house<br />

itself. Do you have particular memories with that specific<br />

house?<br />

The primary memories I have of the house at this point are like a<br />

set of different memories that are cordoned off. So I have these<br />

memories of it being a house that I would go to spend time with<br />

my parents. And then to see my brother and sister. It was often<br />

around specific holidays. I lived in the city, but not in that place.<br />

So again, it would've been a place we would go for Sunday dinner<br />

or, you know, just time with the family. And then later it became<br />

very much associated for me with my father's disease. Because<br />

that was like the epicenter of where he was being cared for. And<br />

the furniture had to change. He went from like these chairs and<br />

sofas that they'd always had to suddenly these things that had a<br />

motor that would lift you up or push you back.<br />

<strong>14</strong>


So, because he couldn't move around, he needed these different<br />

devices. And that became a big association for me because,<br />

because for several years in a row, I was going back either in<br />

order to deal with my dad's health situation and to be a member<br />

of the family in that process, or going to a family occasion that<br />

was being defined by the fact that he was terminally ill. So, if it<br />

was Christmas, it's like, well, is this gonna be the last Christmas?<br />

So it was always this charged space. I think in my own brain it's<br />

sort of hard for me to know how to separate all those out. Like<br />

there's a lot of really, really wonderful memories. And then there<br />

are also some memories that are challenging, right? But I would<br />

say that little sequence was shot at night exactly as it seems.<br />

Everybody was asleep, and I was definitely channeling that sense<br />

of anxiety that I associated with it at that point, for sure.<br />

I’ve noticed that a lot of your films recently have really<br />

focused on the audio aspect, especially narration. Whenever<br />

I see a film of yours now, I think that I should prepare for it<br />

like a visual radio show. So, are there particular pieces of<br />

media that you would listen to in order to prepare for that?<br />

You know, I feel like there was a time when I was thinking that<br />

way, but not so much anymore. I feel like it's almost like the<br />

landscape issue. It's very rooted in what's practical for me and<br />

what's available to me. I actually really love it when I come up<br />

with ideas that don't involve me doing any talking, but there's just<br />

other ones that, if I did it that way, it wouldn't be honest, you<br />

know? In terms of the sound more broadly, I can really identify<br />

the moment where sound kind of changed for me. And that was<br />

when I started collaborating, initially informally and then<br />

eventually more formally, with my wife, Erin. That was the first<br />

time that it was possible for me to have a second person,<br />

so-to-speak, so suddenly one of us could have the camera, and<br />

one of us could have the audio recorder. And I don't think I<br />

understood when that first started happening. When I was doing<br />

some shooting for Los Angeles Red Squad, she helped me a lot.<br />

And I remember as I started listening to these recordings, I was<br />

like, oh, instead of getting one minute of the tone of that place,<br />

she recorded ten or eleven or twelve minutes while I was filming.<br />

And then sometimes she would shoot a thing here or there, and<br />

we would reverse. And it was just so vibrant for me. I felt at that<br />

moment that I had been neglecting sound, not as a lack of<br />

understanding that it's an important part of film, but just not<br />

making priority of it until I started hearing it good enough.<br />

And so from that point on, I started saying to myself that I am<br />

always going to dedicate roughly as much time to the sound as I<br />

am to the image. I have a backpack where I carry my audio gear<br />

and then just a tripod. And I just say to myself, okay, in this<br />

space, if I can, my goal is always to have at least five minutes of<br />

me just still in the space. And sometimes I do it longer, because<br />

sometimes, like when I was in the jungles in Singapore, I'd hear<br />

this narrative of the life of the jungle going up and down for<br />

twenty minutes straight. So then I would just sit there for twenty<br />

minutes and just listen to this insane chorus of these crazy<br />

jungles. So now, instead of grabbing images and then grabbing<br />

sounds to match as an afterthought, I'm always thinking of it as<br />

interconnected. And I'm also always running around with the<br />

sound recorder. For example, if I hear fireworks outside any<br />

place I live, I immediately get my sound recorder and I record the<br />

fireworks. Because fireworks sound terrifying when you listen<br />

from a distance, recorded with a good microphone. It sounds<br />

combative, it sounds like war, it sounds like violence. It's always<br />

terrifying. And I now have them in Los Angeles, some of the most<br />

insane ones you've ever heard. I also have them in Spain. I also<br />

have them in Singapore. I also have them in Croatia now. And<br />

they're all kind of amazing.<br />

Going back to Vietnamese cinema: I watched The Abandoned<br />

Field yesterday. And by complete coincidence, I've been<br />

watching more Vietnamese cinema in general. And it's<br />

interesting to see in what ways it develops. I watched one<br />

from 1961, called A Phu and His Wife, and the same concerns<br />

as The Abandoned Field are there. And because of the<br />

Vietnamese method of film production, they can all kind of<br />

almost blend together because they're kind of made with the<br />

same method, same monetary support, and often the same<br />

gear. So that 1961 film can look contemporaneous with a 1988<br />

film I also watched yesterday called The Traveling Circus,<br />

even though their styles and concerns are distinct. I'm<br />

wondering if you learned anything surprising in your lifelong<br />

research into this.<br />

I feel like the main thing I take away from the films is what I take<br />

away from the war itself, which is I'm pretty astonished by the<br />

improvisation of the Vietnamese people. And I feel like the films<br />

15


have that, too. It really goes far back for me, as I first began to<br />

encounter these ideas when I spent six months in and around<br />

Havana, mostly with Santiago Álvarez, which would've been in<br />

1995. I was in my twenties, and it was this extremely powerful<br />

experience for me of meeting this filmmaker who just had this<br />

mentality that said, “I want to express the following things in a<br />

film,” and then he didn't necessarily then go and say that these<br />

are the resources that I need. He would say, “these are the<br />

resources I have,” and then he'd make something good with it.<br />

And so this mentality was very interwoven with the way the<br />

Vietnamese were approaching the war as well. I mean, they<br />

obviously were collaborating with the Cubans culturally and<br />

politically and socially. So the films are improvisational in the<br />

sense that they're saying, “what do we have?” I mean, The Little<br />

Girl of Hanoi, to me, is a really, really special and weird and<br />

beautiful film <strong>—</strong> a very odd set of genres, again, blended together<br />

in a very unexpected way. But at its core it was asking: “How do<br />

we make a narrative out of the fact that we now have this<br />

immediate live footage of this concentrated bombing of the city<br />

during the Christmas bombing campaign?” I think a lot of people<br />

could say that that was a nightmare. But somehow, they said that<br />

this is an opportunity as well, and they seized that opportunity to<br />

make something that I find extremely powerful.<br />

Sometimes it's hard to get access to their reality and to have<br />

real meaningful empathy for the Vietnamese because we don't<br />

see it very often. It's not described in Western media. So, you<br />

know, it was the Christmas bombing campaign. We had the<br />

fiftieth anniversary just this last year, and I remember that I<br />

looked on CNN, and their article was about how many American<br />

pilots had been shot down in the Christmas bombing campaign.<br />

So, arguably the most concentrated bombing in human history<br />

against the people who had already won the war, designed to<br />

change negotiating tactics, and this article is just about pilots<br />

who got shot down during it. I can get that you have both<br />

perspectives. I can get that. You tell an American story, you tell<br />

the Vietnamese; but it was a strange article and that narrative<br />

is really interconnected to the American way of perceiving<br />

things.<br />

In terms of the relationship of the films, I would say the films<br />

speak to me because I have that particular bias already rather<br />

leading me to that position. They've deepened my beliefs about<br />

that, but I also feel like we tend to identify with media that<br />

reinforce our views to some extent. I think I do that as much as<br />

anybody else. <strong>—</strong> INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY ZACH LEWIS<br />

16


KICKING THE CANON<br />

SILVER LODE<br />

Allan Dwan<br />

By the time he helmed Silver<br />

Lode in 1954, Allan Dwan had been directing<br />

films for four decades, trying his hand at every genre<br />

one could think of (as Peter Bogdanovich puts it in his introduction to Who the Devil Made It, ‘from 1909 to 1961, he [Dwan] was involved<br />

in the making of something like one thousand films, directing more than four hundred of them’). Closer then to the end of his career<br />

than the beginning of it, Dwan nonetheless released a string of some of his best (and best known) features from 1954 - 1956: Silver<br />

Lode, Passion, Tennessee’s Partner, Slightly Scarlett, Escape to Burma, and Cattle Queen of Montana (all produced by Benedict Bogeaus<br />

for RKO Pictures and all photographed by the great John Alton). They represent a tidy summation of Dwan’s oeuvre, his penchant for<br />

approaching a wide variety of stories (westerns, exotic action-adventure tales, noir-tinged crime thrillers) with the same unflappable<br />

energy and keen eye for straightforward staging. Perhaps his lack of an instantly noticeable ‘style’ is what has kept him from the<br />

same acclaim as many of his more famous peers - Ford, Hawks, Walsh, and Hitchcock, but also Griffith (Dwan became a director only<br />

two years after D.W., and created the first crane shot for Intolerance in 1916), Tourneur, and the slightly younger guys like Welles, Ray,<br />

and de Toth, But make no mistake, Dwan is as much a case for auteurism as this coterie of geniuses. 2013 marked something of a<br />

renaissance for Dwan fans; despite longtime admirers like Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese carrying a torch for him (alongside<br />

forward-thinking critics like Dave Kehr), the release of Frederic Lombardi's book Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood<br />

Studio alongside a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York signaled something of a sea change in terms of<br />

mainstream recognition. While Dwan's most popular films remain his biggest (in terms of scale and budget), like the John Wayne war<br />

picture Sands of Iwo Jima, a reevaluation was now well under way.<br />

17


KICKING THE CANON<br />

For those looking to dive into this dauntingly large filmography,<br />

Silver Lode is as good a starting point as any. A self-reflexive<br />

Western (don’t call it revisionist, a mostly useless term), Silver<br />

Lode transpires across one long day in the titular town; festooned<br />

with decorations for a 4th of July celebration, it’s a symbolically<br />

loaded morality tale about the cowardice and avarice of the<br />

average American. The film begins as U.S. Marshall Fred McCarty<br />

(Dan Duryea) and a posse of deputies arrive in town looking to<br />

arrest Dan Ballard (John Payne). Ballard is smack in the middle of<br />

a wedding ceremony to Rose (Lizabeth Scott), and the assembled<br />

townsfolk are shocked at the presence of this lawman. But<br />

Ballard and McCarty have a history together, and Ballard doesn’t<br />

believe that McCarty is a real Marshall. What follows is a<br />

complicated narrative of greed, revenge, and questionable<br />

identities. The town judge declares that the warrant for Ballard’s<br />

arrest is legitimate, even as Ballard repeatedly declares his<br />

innocence. McCarty throws his weight around and, since he is<br />

played by Duryea, one of the great sneering slime balls of the era,<br />

Rose’s family and the local sheriff are very inclined to take<br />

Ballard’s word. But the law is the law, and eventually everyone<br />

agrees that Ballard must go with McCarty. Ballard buys himself<br />

two hours to settle some business, and the ticking clock begins.<br />

He must figure out a way to prove that McCarty is an imposter<br />

and thereby prove his own innocence, all under the watchful eye<br />

of an increasingly agitated town.<br />

Silver Lode is generally considered a thinly-veiled indictment of<br />

McCarthyism, which seems like a fairly obvious read on the<br />

material. Dwan expertly charts the townsfolk’s increasing<br />

animosity towards Ballard as they buckle under the pressure of<br />

the aggressive and wily McCarty. Using the rule of law and<br />

hypocritical standards of decorum, they gradually transform<br />

from friends to foe and eventually a rabid mob. As befits this<br />

searing critique of small minded mob mentality, the only people<br />

who continue to stand by Ballard are his fiancée and the town<br />

prostitute, Dolly (Dolores Moran), whom Ballard carried on with<br />

before meeting the more respectable Rose. It all builds to rousing<br />

climax set in the town church (another bit of heavy symbolism)<br />

and a metaphoric ‘act of god’ that snaps the mob out of its<br />

frenzied state. But the damage is done, and the heart of<br />

darkness has been exposed for all to see. A lot to chew on in this<br />

low budget oater that clocks in at barely 80 minutes.<br />

Of course, Dwan shoots the heck out of all of this. McCarty is<br />

introduced via a shot peering from the ground up to him on<br />

horseback, ominous and portentous (another shot of children<br />

gleefully setting off fireworks seems to presage a similar shot in<br />

Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch). But other than the occasional pan<br />

left or right, Dwan and Alton prefer simple setups that allow them<br />

to stack bodies in a static frame. It makes for lovely, bustling<br />

images, allowing the actors to interact with each other in<br />

carefully choreographed bits of movement. And when Dwan<br />

chooses to insert something more audacious, it really pops. As<br />

tensions mount and Ballard evades the mob, the camera begins<br />

to shoot through windows and curtains, bisecting the image and<br />

enclosing Ballard. The film also features one of the great<br />

tracking shots, as Ballard finds himself running across an empty<br />

town square while pursuers emerge from the recesses of the<br />

background. The camera stays on him as he cuts across the<br />

open space, a flurry of movement that contrasts sharply with the<br />

rest of the film’s visual scheme. It’s breathtakingly kinetic. In a<br />

long, excellent 2013 piece for Bright Lights Film Journal, titled<br />

Allan Dwan: Between the Lines, critic<br />

Imogen Sara Smith quotes Chris Fujiwara,<br />

that Dwan’s ‘is a cinema of the return of<br />

the exile and the acceptance and<br />

embrace of home.’ Silver Lode suggests<br />

something much darker than that - you<br />

can’t go home again, not when your<br />

friends and neighbors have revealed their<br />

true nature. This is a damning portrait of<br />

Americana gone horribly wrong. <strong>—</strong> DANIEL<br />

GORMAN<br />

18


BEYOND THE QUALITIES THAT MONEY CAN BUY<br />

Select Shorts From Cinéma du Réel<br />

One of the many privileges of attending a film festival lies in<br />

watching the programs of shorts, cleverly curated such that one<br />

does not take longer to find their seat than watch the movies, but<br />

also brief enough to, well, earn the distinction. While narrative<br />

shorts can cynically serve as pitches to potential investors in the<br />

audience, the documentary short is thankfully useless as a demo<br />

reel, its subjects hardly ever marketable. Think of Les Blank’s<br />

31-minute Gap Toothed Women, where the subject is mesmerizing,<br />

almost perfect in Blank’s frame, but hardly a call-to-action affair<br />

for HBO nor of murderous intrigue for Netflix. In this<br />

undemanding environment <strong>—</strong> in which audiences are asked for a<br />

mere five-to-forty minutes of their lives, and where the budget<br />

sits closer to zero than it does the price tags of its narrative<br />

cousins <strong>—</strong> films can pretend to be an artform free of the<br />

constraints of the budgeteer and the marketing department. Of<br />

course, that’s not exactly true, but shorts screenings tend to be<br />

the only screenings at your average film festival in which<br />

audiences don’t look for the qualities that money can buy. An<br />

interesting subject or, to those who care about such things, an<br />

interesting form can make or break these pensées. This invites<br />

many half-finished thoughts and boring copycats to crowd these<br />

spaces <strong>—</strong> for instance, an entire genre that this writer and his<br />

friends refer to as “vacation films,” in which the filmmaker<br />

shoots a foreign, perhaps “exotic,” land in shaky 16mm and<br />

overlays the footage as a series of dissolves. It also invites,<br />

however, the potential for honest-to-god new<br />

images. Or, if one’s luck holds up, the film, born in the<br />

documentary shorts realm where anything is possible, may also<br />

be funny. Cinéma du Réel’s program this year played host to a<br />

little of everything.<br />

Piblokto, an anthropological documentary from Anastasia Subina<br />

and Timofey Glinin, sticks close to the techniques and images<br />

one may expect from its category, following a fringe community<br />

who live much different lives than those of their Western<br />

counterparts. Here, near the Arctic region of Chukotka (Eastern<br />

Siberia), groups of families work together to beach and<br />

disembowel the blubbery massive whale that will later serve as<br />

food, oil, and raw material for the whole village. They chant while<br />

human-sized organs and viscera spill to the side, and the pink,<br />

jiggly carcass presents itself as a stable deposit for local dogs’<br />

licking. The villagers swap horror stories about just how easy it is<br />

to lose fingers or die by wrangling whales or walruses; one leads<br />

us to a grave and meditates on the drunken nights that he spent<br />

with his lost friend. Subina and Glinin, both anthropologists, steer<br />

the film away from the habits of older anthropological<br />

filmmakers such as Timothy Asch or Robert Gardner; instead of<br />

using voiceover or text to explain the habits, rituals, and<br />

hierarchies of these Ahabs and Ishmaels, they opt for one filmed<br />

event <strong>—</strong> the whale carving <strong>—</strong> to serve as a key image for the<br />

village’s casual relationship with death. We do not learn<br />

19


much about these people, at least not in any scholarly way, nor<br />

do the directors focus completely on the audio-visual experience<br />

of being there, as the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s alumni might.<br />

But Piblokto does capture the imagistic majesty of an infinite<br />

horizon that meets the sea as the village’s young boys mount dog<br />

sleds and surf the grass and stone and arid fields. It’s thanks to<br />

this landscape that one might better understand a culture<br />

birthed from flatness, similar to the Indigenous peoples of the<br />

Great Plains, where a sort of stable madness (”piblokto” being a<br />

controversial medical anthropology term for “arctic madness”) is<br />

brought on by consuming nautical mammal livers that prepare a<br />

person for their own time as a carcass.<br />

Sitting somewhere between an informative documentary and<br />

something more experimental, Quentin Papapietro’s Saintonge<br />

giratoire focuses on both the titular giratoire’s (roundabout)<br />

French origins and the<br />

titular Saintonge’s<br />

record-breaking number<br />

of them. Papapietro<br />

opens his film with a<br />

quick zoom, the universal<br />

piece of cinema<br />

grammar that, here, at<br />

least, tells us not to take<br />

things too seriously.<br />

Indeed, after<br />

Papatrieto’s narrator (Eugène Green!) points out the most<br />

obvious example of the roundabout being ontologically French<br />

<strong>—</strong> L’Arc de Triomphe <strong>—</strong> the film charges into a structuralist<br />

mode, but casually so, as the camera makes a complete orbit<br />

around a roundabout, then cuts to the next, then the next, with<br />

other shots (of architecture, snails, and the surrounding<br />

landscapes of Saintonge) interrupting only when the narration<br />

demands it. However, you can’t shoot roundabouts if you’re<br />

driving over them; instead, Papapietro’s camera captures the<br />

sculptures at the center of each roundabout, showing a city (or<br />

at least one artist) with a sense of humor and whimsy. There’s<br />

no big reveal about the roundabouts, but the artist behind the<br />

sculptures <strong>—</strong> a snail, grapes, villagers <strong>—</strong> does reveal that he<br />

makes them out of foam to protect drunk drivers. Unlike<br />

Piblokto, Saintongue giratoire wants you to learn something, if<br />

only to appreciate those little circular paths.<br />

Traversing a circle is a holy act, like spinning around a Maypole<br />

or walking the destinationless journey that onlya circle can<br />

accommodate, in order to move deeper and deeper into a<br />

trance-like thought. Papapietro himself brings up Stonehenge as<br />

the original roundabout in a cheeky half-joke. This levity and<br />

humor in the narration (with plenty of cheesy camera moves to<br />

punctuate the asides) works well here, possibly because Luc<br />

Moullet’s voice suddenly takes over halfway through, adding his<br />

signature sly sarcasm to the mix. Papapietro’s film follows from<br />

Moullet’s style and legacy, proving that experimental<br />

documentary can be smart, austere, playful, and that<br />

ever-missing quality in today’s arts: funny.<br />

The most experimental of this bunch, Pablo Mazzolo’s The Newest<br />

Olds, is not very funny, much to our collective dismay, but it’s still<br />

fun to look at. Mazzolo’s works generally follow the structure of<br />

those dire “vacation films,”<br />

though they manage to<br />

escape the clutches of<br />

mediocrity by way of<br />

Mazzolo’s light collages.<br />

Every shot in this latest<br />

work lacks white space, as<br />

Mazzolo stacks his layers<br />

of film until the image<br />

becomes a moving fractal.<br />

In his<br />

previous effort, Green Ash (2019), the director used a similar<br />

technique on a pattern as loud and bright as grass and<br />

shrubbery, giving a disorienting movement effect akin to<br />

psychedelic tracers. But here, Mazzolo captures cinematic<br />

landscapes of Detroit and neighboring Windsor, Ontario <strong>—</strong> they<br />

still move, thanks to the hand-cranking of his 16 and 35 mm<br />

cameras, but the illusion is a flickering and fluttering of light on<br />

the windows such that America’s forgotten city comes alive. A<br />

few other shots capture the rivers and greenery nearby, but<br />

audio samples of recorded voices hint that they, much like the<br />

city itself, are poisoned. Mazzolo doesn’t complicate it further;<br />

this political narrative is simply one more layer. Much like<br />

Piblokto and Saintonge giratoire, The Newest Olds is a portrait of a<br />

particular place, and each one, no matter how simple or<br />

experimental in form, allows the land, natural or paved, to guide<br />

them. <strong>—</strong> ZACH LEWIS<br />

20


FILM REVIEWS<br />

HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE<br />

Daniel Goldhaber<br />

Adapted from Andreas Malm’s 2021 climate change manifesto of<br />

the same name, Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline<br />

shoots out of the gate with a level of urgency it’s rarely able to<br />

recapture. Calling to mind Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, we’re<br />

introduced to our eight eco-revolutionaries–collectively<br />

representing a cross section of races, classes, sexual<br />

orientations and faiths–as they move in synchronicity around the<br />

country. Committing random acts of sabotage against gas<br />

guzzling SUVs, texting countdowns to clandestine group threads<br />

and dumping their phones, and piling into the back of vehicles<br />

loaded up with gas masks and sacks of ammonium nitrate they<br />

behave practically as a hivemind, all backed by a slithery<br />

electronic score. These twenty-somethings move with purpose<br />

and coordination in service of a single-minded objective that’s<br />

right there in the film’s title, like a less fascism-curious version of<br />

Project Mayhem. Self-radicalized by the internet as well as living<br />

on the frontlines of an impending climate catastrophe, the<br />

characters dispel the canard of apathetic, social media<br />

obsessed, young adults content with performative “slacktivism.”<br />

Gathering in the middle of Texas in the days leading up to<br />

Christmas with enough homemade explosive materials to blow a<br />

large hole in the planet, this group hopes to bring the oil industry<br />

to its knees and force a nationwide reckoning on the real cost of<br />

burning fossil fuels.<br />

It’s a proudly political piece of filmmaking, viewing the motives of<br />

its characters as not only unambiguously righteous but the<br />

absence of their actions as unforgivable in the face of looming<br />

global disaster. There’s no place here for equivocating or<br />

self-doubt–questions of collateral damage or consequences to<br />

the average person and/or the domestic economy are hastily<br />

brushed past–and one can almost sense the film cheering on its<br />

characters as if they were Danny Ocean and his ten wisecracking<br />

cohorts knocking over three Vegas casinos. But like the<br />

Soderbergh film, that sort of complicity between the filmmakers<br />

and the characters encourages a form of anti-drama with the<br />

film contorting itself to remove impediments or elliding any sort<br />

of interpersonal conflict, the kind of which would almost<br />

certainly be endemic to a gathering of personalities this eclectic.<br />

No matter what obstacles are placed in its way or digressions<br />

21


FILM REVIEWS<br />

are briefly humored, the film never deviates from its exceedingly<br />

linear journey of getting from point A to point B. It’s important to<br />

Goldhaber and his collaborators that their characters succeed in<br />

their onscreen objective, almost as if to illustrate a path forward<br />

for the audience. Dramatic stakes or entertainment value, as<br />

they’re conventionally understood, be damned.<br />

The film’s primary M.O. is taciturn competence. Working out of an<br />

abandoned farm not far from their targets in the Texas oil fields,<br />

the characters brusquely go about their assigned tasks, carefully<br />

measuring out liquid pipe cleaner and granulated stump<br />

remover, building blasting caps and remote detonators, all too<br />

aware that one wrong move could draw the attention of the<br />

authorities or, worse, blow themselves up. Idle chit-chat is kept<br />

to a minimum and even when the characters do cut loose in their<br />

off hours they sound like Rage Against the Machine lyrics (“If the<br />

American Empire calls us terrorists we must be doing something<br />

right” proclaims Forrest Goodluck’s perpetually glowering<br />

explosives expert, Michael). At regular intervals we’re given<br />

self-contained biographical modules, flashing back to the<br />

characters’ prior lives and the exact moment they were pulled<br />

into the cause. De facto leader Xochitl (co-writer and producer<br />

Ariela Barer) lost her mom to a freak heatwave, a tragic side<br />

effect of “the fucking world we live in now” and subsequently<br />

became disenfranchised with ineffectual college protests. Her<br />

childhood friend Theo (Sasha Lane) is dying of late-term<br />

Leukemia, only underscored by the carcinogen-spitting<br />

smokestacks which loom ominously behind Xochitl’s house (the<br />

film loves nothing more than shooting its actors against<br />

backdrops of flare stacks and oil refineries). God-fearing, good ol’<br />

boy Dwayne (Jake Weary) has an axe to grind with the oil industry<br />

after he lost his home to eminent domain making him a strange<br />

bedfellow with this group of well-educated leftists, not that the<br />

film’s especially interested in his politics, such that he actually<br />

has any. And so on.<br />

Dwayne, who on the face of it would seem to be something of an<br />

outlier in this group, is indicative of the limitations in attempting<br />

to adapt an explicitly ideological work of nonfiction into a<br />

narrative. Introduced saying grace at a family meal, wearing<br />

camo and carrying a sidearm on his person at all times (the film<br />

flouts the trope of Chekhov's gun, with the piece never leaving its<br />

holster), the character provides an essential narrative<br />

purpose–his knowledge of the pipeline and its operations is<br />

indispensable to carrying out the attack–but if he has any<br />

misgivings about this rainbow coalition of out-of-state activists<br />

playing enemy insurgent or concerns about his young daughter<br />

being raised without a father because he might be rotting in a<br />

prison cell, he keeps them to himself. That’s because none of<br />

these characters behave like living, breathing, human beings<br />

with competing interests or larger concerns beyond the<br />

immediate needs of the mission; they’re merely symptoms of a<br />

societal illness that touches everyone, from rich white kids in<br />

Portland to poor indigenous activists in North Dakota.<br />

Commonplace responses to stressful circumstances such as<br />

frustration, fear or ego are conveniently held in check. That’s<br />

SHOWING UP<br />

Kelly Reichardt<br />

“Reichardt's humor is never mean-spirited, and despite these jabs never disparages the art itself. Jo's artwork is later presented<br />

with equal reverence and intrigue afforded to everybody else, and in one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Lizzy walks<br />

through Jo's exhibition feeling both appreciative, daunted by its scope and reception, and insecure about her place in the art<br />

world. A lesser script/director might reduce Jo to an easy antagonist by posing her art as vapid or ridiculous when contrasted<br />

with the protagonist's sincere output, but Reichardt’s film is just as concerned with the craft as it is with its main character, so<br />

even if Jo tends to be careless with others and oblivious to her privilege, her commitment to her art and practice remains a<br />

serious matter worthy of consideration and respect.”<strong>—</strong> IGOR FISHMAN [Originally published as part of <strong>InRO</strong>’s NYFF 2022 coverage.]<br />

DIRECTOR: Kelly Reichardt; CAST: Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, John Magaro, André Benjamin; DISTRIBUTOR: A24; IN<br />

THEATERS: April 7; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 48 min.<br />

22


FILM REVIEWS<br />

because these people are merely empty vessels, filled up with<br />

equal parts zealotry and pragmatism where personalities or<br />

character flaws might otherwise exist. It’s admirable from a<br />

group project standpoint but it makes for middling drama.<br />

That goes double for the execution of the plan. Ostensibly<br />

structured like a thriller (all the unstable explosive materials and<br />

navigating bumpy, dirt roads allows for superficial comparisons<br />

to Wages of Fear or Sorcerer), how thrilling one finds the film is<br />

entirely dependent on their tolerance for a near total absence of<br />

dramatic complications. Things invariably go wrong along the<br />

way (bones are broken, armed oil company surveyors arrive on<br />

the scene, there’s even an FBI informant amidst the group) yet<br />

they create remarkably few problems downstream or the<br />

necessity for the characters to pivot. It’s the kind of film that<br />

takes considerable pains to show the physical exertion required<br />

for six people to hoist a heavy metal drum several feet off the<br />

ground and strap it to an above ground pipe. At the same time,<br />

after the strap rips in half and a couple of team members go<br />

down with injuries, the film simply cuts to a sequence showing<br />

three people lifting the barrel, no worse for wear. It all plays like<br />

someone entered a cheat code, mitigating all consequences or<br />

hardships (by the end of the film every character is exactly in the<br />

place they chose to be) because the outcome is simply too damn<br />

important to be impeded by something as gauche as garden<br />

variety dramatic beats. Perhaps all that matters is that the film<br />

inspires viewers to pick up where it leaves off and continue the<br />

important mission of its characters. Afterall, they make it look so<br />

easy. <strong>—</strong> ANDREW DIGNAN<br />

DIRECTOR: Daniel Goldhaber; CAST: Ariela Barer, Forrest<br />

Goodluck, Sasha Lane, Marcus Scribner; DISTRIBUTOR: NEON; IN<br />

THEATERS: April 7; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 39 min.<br />

AIR<br />

Ben Affleck<br />

Let’s say you wanted to define the dramatic stakes in Ben<br />

Affleck’s new, based-on-a-true-story movie Air. Start with the<br />

premise: it’s 1984, and Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt<br />

Damon) needs to convince his boss, Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck,<br />

pulling double-duty), to spend the company’s entire advertising<br />

budget, in an unprecedented move, on a single player, the<br />

upcoming NBA rookie Michael Jordan (Damian Young). The pitch:<br />

build a shoe around the athlete. What follows is a sports<br />

underdog story but devoid of any sports, and the so-called<br />

underdogs are people who are already very rich. The stakes are<br />

further lessened by the fact that if you are alive, you have heard<br />

of Air Jordans, and so you also know they are about to get a<br />

whole lot richer.<br />

So what is Air actually about? Is this a triumph of spirit? No,<br />

although it certainly seems to think it is, painting Sonny’s almost<br />

desperate attempts to sway his colleagues as some sort of David<br />

vs. Goliath odyssey. Is it about a legendary athlete? No, we never<br />

actually see or hear Young as Jordan, and his skill on the court is<br />

only glimpsed in archival footage on a screen. Is it about how the<br />

superstar’s mother (Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan, stealing the<br />

show) wisely saw the value in her son and demanded a piece of<br />

the shoe sales? Technically that happens, but only in the film’s<br />

final moments. So really, the stakes here are about… marketing?<br />

Cool…<br />

Air sort of positions Jordan as the Christ of market capitalism,<br />

and these executives are then his apostles. We watch as<br />

Vaccaro, Knight, and the shoe’s designer, Peter Moore (Matthew<br />

Maher), gaze in awe at their creation, which, by the way, we don’t<br />

see until the end of the movie. Vacarro asks Deloris if he can<br />

speak to Michael, and she responds that “It’s not time.” Late in<br />

the film, he makes a dramatic speech and tells Michael that<br />

“everyone in this room will be forgotten except you.” That’s sort of<br />

true, but also, at the end of the movie, we’re granted a<br />

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montage of photos of the characters’ real-life counterparts,<br />

informing us of how rich they got or how much money, in the<br />

case of Knight, they have donated to charity (no mention of<br />

Nike’s use of sweatshop labor or human rights violations, of<br />

course).<br />

So we can draw the conclusion that, subtextually at least, Air is<br />

both gross and weird <strong>—</strong> an ode to capitalism. But is it any fun to<br />

watch? Sort of. Damon is possibly the only guy on Earth who<br />

could sell this shit, and he’s delightful to watch in all of Sonny’s<br />

paunchy, beige glory. It’s always fun to see a guy good at his job,<br />

and the script (credited to Alex Convery) is filled with a lot of<br />

jocular swearing and boasting, especially from Jordan’s agent,<br />

David Falk (Chris Messina), who is unsurprisingly played as an<br />

antagonist whom everyone hates but who actually does secure<br />

the best deal for his client, making them both unbelievably rich.<br />

JOYLAND<br />

Saim Sadiq<br />

“Joyland would have made for a searing indictment of<br />

patriarchal cruelty if it had sustained the masterful concision<br />

displayed in its opening scene. Instead, Haider’s insecurities<br />

over his masculinity <strong>—</strong> he is unemployed and his wife, Mumtaz<br />

(Rasti Farooq), is the sole breadwinner <strong>—</strong> provide the filter<br />

through which audiences are made to view the women in his<br />

life, especially Mumtaz and Biba (Alina Khan), a trans dancer<br />

with whom he has an affair. When Haider lands a job as a<br />

backup dancer for Biba, Mumtaz is begrudgingly forced to give<br />

up her career as a make-up artist in order to take care of<br />

Haider’s father and Nucchi’s children. Just as she is pushed to<br />

the margins by her father-in-law, Sadiq’s script also diminishes<br />

Mumtaz’s role in the narrative in the film’s latter half; she’s<br />

reduced to only her palpable sadness over Haider’s lingering<br />

absences. By the final act, Mumtaz all but disappears entirely.”<br />

<strong>—</strong> SHAR TAN [Originally published as part of <strong>InRO</strong>’s Sundance<br />

2023 coverage.]<br />

DIRECTOR: Saim Sadiq; CAST: Ali Junejo, Rasti Farooq, Alina<br />

Khan; DISTRIBUTOR: Oscilloscope Laboratories; IN<br />

THEATERS: April 7; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 6 min.<br />

Affleck’s direction is, as usual, unfussy and uncomplicated. Most<br />

of Air is shot in a pretty standard handheld docudrama style,<br />

although given that it’s shot by the great Robert Richardson, you<br />

might want to ask yourself why it sort of doesn’t look like much<br />

of anything, let alone something impressive. But the film’s most<br />

annoying aesthetic trait is an endless litany of ‘80s needle drops,<br />

some more anachronistic than others, all of them just<br />

obnoxiously shoehorned into every last moment. Night Ranger<br />

blasting on the soundtrack while Sonny…walks into his office.<br />

Someone’s pulling into the parking lot at Nike headquarters, time<br />

to play some REO Speedwagon. It’s all terribly exhausting.<br />

Still, perhaps the most galling and telling overall moment in Air<br />

involves Nike head marketer Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman)<br />

mentioning that he’s been really into Bruce Springsteen’s new hit<br />

“Born in the USA” and has been playing it over and over in the car.<br />

He explains that once he actually listened to the lyrics, he<br />

realized that this song that’s already been canonized as an<br />

uplifting American anthem is in fact a depressing report on the<br />

state of things. Then, at the end of Air, that montage detailing<br />

how much money everyone made is set to… you guessed it, “Born<br />

in the USA” <strong>—</strong> one punctuating yikes in a cinematic catalog of<br />

them. <strong>—</strong> MATT LYNCH<br />

DIRECTOR: Ben Affleck; CAST: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Viola<br />

Davis, Jason Bateman; DISTRIBUTOR: Amazon Studios; IN<br />

THEATERS: April 5; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 52 min.<br />

THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE<br />

Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic<br />

It has been 30 years since audiences were treated to a<br />

big-screen iteration of the beloved Nintendo video game series<br />

Super Mario Bros., with Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo starring<br />

as the titular Brooklyn siblings and plumbers-turned-heroes,<br />

Mario and Luigi. That live-action adaptation, however, was at the<br />

time universally loathed by critics and audiences alike and<br />

ultimately failed to recoup its hefty budget, resulting in Nintendo<br />

CEOs’ refusal to license out the property in fear of another<br />

gargantuan boondoggle. It was only upon meeting with Chris<br />

Meledandri, the head of animation studio Illumination <strong>—</strong><br />

otherwise known as the house that Despicable Me built <strong>—</strong> that<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

Nintendo had a change of heart, leading to this week’s release of<br />

the fully-animated The Super Mario Bros. Movie.<br />

It was always a curious decision why Disney decided to go the<br />

live-action route all those years ago, as the property had<br />

generally catered to a younger demographic, and the derring-do<br />

involved in the franchise’s action seemed nearly impossible to<br />

replicate in the real world <strong>—</strong> especially when you have a<br />

50-year-old actor playing the bouncy lead character, traversing a<br />

fantastical world made up of giant talking turtles and<br />

mushrooms. 1993’s version was indeed an undeniable shitshow<br />

on its face, but it also had something resembling a point of<br />

viewand clear personality, elements sorely lacking from 2023’s<br />

exercise in brand extension, the definition of art by committee;<br />

even to dub the final product “soulless” wouldn’t be quite<br />

accurate, as that would imply there were ever aspirations for<br />

something greater than nostalgia. Make no mistake, while the<br />

candy-colored animation and emphasis on kinetic action<br />

SAINT-NARCISSE<br />

Bruce LaBruce<br />

“Lord knows that many an exhausting script has been reverse engineered from similar sorts of faux-eclectic groupings of trope<br />

and archetype, but Saint-Narcisse is founded on a remarkably deft script that manages to thread all these strands together in a<br />

way that makes a shocking amount of sense. Yet, while this might be the film’s most impressive aspect, it's also what holds it<br />

back, for at times things make a little too much sense. This is to say that the screenplay does too good a job of underplaying its<br />

more gonzo elements, prioritizing tonal consistency above all else. Still, what may have been lost in terms of edge and verve can<br />

hardly negate the joy of LaBruce’s debauched gay sensibility.” <strong>—</strong> M.G. MAILLOUX [Originally published as part of <strong>InRO</strong>’s Venice 2020<br />

coverage.]<br />

DIRECTOR: Bruce La Bruce; CAST: Félix-Antoine Duval, Tania Kontoyanni, Alexandra Petrachuk; DISTRIBUTOR: Film Movement;<br />

STREAMING: April 4; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 41 min.<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

sequences suggests that the film is intended for children, it’s<br />

really a ploy for those 25- to 55-year-olds who have nothing but<br />

fond memories of playing the original series and its various<br />

spin-offs, wistful in their longing for a simpler time (even as a<br />

good percentage of that demo still spend their current free<br />

time… playing video games). The snake is indeed eating its own<br />

tale, resulting in a movie that is nothing but callbacks and Easter<br />

eggs to the video games themselves, allowing its older viewers to<br />

furiously masturbate with one hand while high-fiving their bud<br />

with the other, a self-congratulatory chorus of “I know what that<br />

is!” filling auditoriums across the country.<br />

It’s predictable, then, that The Super Mario Bros. Movie has only<br />

the faintest wisp of a plot. Koopa baddie Bowser (Jack Black)<br />

plans to attack the appropriately named Mushroom Kingdom in a<br />

last-ditch effort to woo his beloved, Princess Peach (Anya<br />

Taylor-Joy). Meanwhile, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day)<br />

have just started their own plumbing business after enduring<br />

constant harassment from former boss, Spike (Sebastian<br />

Maniscalco), a move which seems both entirely understandable<br />

and healthy, but one which causes Mario’s father to call him both<br />

a bum and a loser, because animated films are seemingly only a<br />

vessel for Daddy <strong>Issue</strong>s these days. It’s while trying to stop a<br />

massive line break in the sewers of Brooklyn that the two<br />

brothers are sucked through a magical warp pipe and<br />

transported to another dimension, one with a giant<br />

anthropomorphized turtle monster who desperately wants to<br />

make love to a human. They inadvertently get separated on their<br />

journey, with Mario winding up in the aforementioned Mushroom<br />

Kingdom while Luigi is forced to endure various tortures at the<br />

hands of one King Bowser. Mario ultimately teams up with<br />

Princess Peach in an effort to save both the kingdom and his<br />

little brother, relying on some help from raging narcissist Donkey<br />

Kong (Seth Rogen) along the way. And there we are.<br />

So much of the action in The Super Mario Bros. Movie is<br />

predicated on the gameplay itself, which certainly makes sense<br />

in theory, but is rendered here with all of the subtlety of a<br />

barrel-throwing gorilla, consistency be damned. The end result<br />

feels as though someone threw the entire series in a Cuisinart<br />

and pressed “pulverize.” A car race a la Mario Kart? Yep. Mario’s<br />

raccoon suit from part three? You bet. Princess Peach’s floating<br />

dress from part two? Yes, it’s all here, but incorporated in the<br />

most facile ways possible. The animation is as obvious as the<br />

film’s desperation for audience approval, a combination of<br />

photorealistic backgrounds and characters with bulbous,<br />

over-exaggerated features that stick out like sore thumbs. The<br />

voice work is likewise generally uninspired, with Pratt spitting<br />

out a “Mamma mia!” every couple of minutes and speaking of his<br />

brother with a passionate reverence that brings to mind not a<br />

beloved sibling, but a particularly successful Grindr hook-up.<br />

Black tries his hardest and predictably fares best, even getting to<br />

perform an ‘80s-era pop rock power ballad that recalls some of<br />

the lesser works of his own Tenacious D, but even that is<br />

presented in a way that feels more Spring Breakers and less<br />

music video, which sounds awesome in theory but really just<br />

reminds audience members that they could be watching that<br />

masterpiece instead of this dung heap.<br />

Props, however, are due for composer Brian Tyler, who takes the<br />

various themes of the original games and gives them a wholly<br />

appropriate and energized 21 st -century spin that captivates more<br />

than anything else on screen. Indeed, Tyler succeeds where<br />

directors Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath completely fail <strong>—</strong><br />

specifically, in delivering a modern update that feels<br />

simultaneously singular and reverent. The only thing this Super<br />

Mario Bros. has admiration for are the contents of the audience's<br />

wallets, all in the name of hollow nostalgia-baiting, and while also<br />

delivering a message that, to those unfamiliar with the series,<br />

basically amounts to: “You will need performance-enhancing<br />

drugs to defeat your enemy and get the girl.” On second thought,<br />

maybe this really is a movie for our current time. Let’s-a go! <strong>—</strong><br />

STEVEN WARNER<br />

DIRECTOR: Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic; CAST: Chris Pratt,<br />

Charlie Day, Jack Black, Seth Rogen; DISTRIBUTOR: Universal<br />

Pictures; IN THEATERS: April 5; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 32 min.<br />

PAINT<br />

Brit Mcadams<br />

In case you couldn’t tell from the big goofy afro, pleasant<br />

demeanor, and paintbrush, the character of Carl Nargle in Brit<br />

Mcadams’ Paint, played by Owen Wilson, is basically a stand-in for<br />

the legendary painter, TV host, and meme, Bob Ross. The film,<br />

well, paints this guy as a good-intentioned but generally sort of<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

tiptoeing and circumventing on which Paint relies simply do not<br />

work. <strong>—</strong> MATT LYNCH<br />

DIRECTOR: Brit Mcadams; CAST: Owen Wilson, Michael Watkins,<br />

Stephen Root, Wendy McClendon-Covey; DISTRIBUTOR: IFC Films;<br />

IN THEATERS: April 7; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 36 min.<br />

FIST OF THE CONDOR<br />

Ernesto Díaz Espinoza<br />

Some action movies are best watched in the afternoon, the way<br />

they used to be shown on American television in the days before<br />

infomercials took over the airwaves. You’d flip around the TV and<br />

come across something you’d never heard of <strong>—</strong> unfamiliar actors<br />

speaking a weird kind of language where the words don’t match<br />

the movement of their lips and the movements of their bodies<br />

don’t match your understanding of physics. The movies would<br />

have simple plots, really not much more than a chance for the<br />

actors to rest between action scenes, so it didn’t matter if you<br />

start watching an hour in or right at the beginning. Maybe you’d<br />

see something weird and gross, a beheading or a demonic<br />

contraption, a gooey demon surrounded by cheap smoke effects<br />

or stunt men doing kung fu in gorilla suits with visible zippers. If<br />

you were lucky, you’d see an actor or a stunt person do<br />

something that should be impossible, but isn’t because they did it<br />

and a film camera was there to record it. It was a good feeling,<br />

as you’d sit there on the couch digging your way through, say, a<br />

five-pound box of Twizzlers, knowing that some humans out<br />

there are doing some amazing things.<br />

Some other action movies are best watched late at night, when<br />

you’re just tired enough that the borderline between sleep and<br />

consciousness is porous to an extent that the movie world and<br />

your dream state seem to almost merge. These movies are short<br />

on dialogue and comic relief. They have lots of scenes of people<br />

looking at stuff: at the sky, at the ocean, at the mountains, at<br />

other people who are trying, for some reason no one can quite<br />

comprehend but that is nonetheless inevitable, to kill them.<br />

These are movies of shadows, of eerie scores and landscapes,<br />

movies that aim to conjure the vestiges of ancient myths and<br />

rituals and tell stories older than words. If you’re sleepy enough,<br />

it can all seem quite profound.<br />

Fist of the Condor is a late night movie, one of the best we’ve<br />

seen since John Hyams tackled the Universal Soldier franchise.<br />

Marko Zaror, Chilean martial artist and action star (Savage Dog,<br />

Undisputed III, John Wick 4), plays a man who has dedicated<br />

himself to mastering the martial art taught by an Incan manual<br />

rescued 500 years ago from the European invaders and passed<br />

down since then from teacher to student in a hidden location<br />

high in the mountains. He claims to have a twin brother, but<br />

we’re not so sure.<br />

The narrative is a tangled web of forward action and flashbacks,<br />

both of which make heavy use of the training montage. Present<br />

Marko (credited only as “The Warrior”) has a shaved head and<br />

rides a motorcycle, but doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. He<br />

spends his time training, eating properly (diet is apparently a<br />

subject dear to the impeccably-muscled Zaror’s heart), and riding<br />

around on his motorcycle. On his travels, people try to fight him.<br />

They lose. Director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza <strong>—</strong> who has worked with<br />

Zaror before on several films, ones with titles like Killtro and<br />

Mirageman <strong>—</strong> divides his film into ten chapters, complete with<br />

title cards (best title: “The Season of No Legs”), which neatly<br />

separate the various episodes, many of which relate The<br />

Warrior’s backstory: how he learned of the secret fighting style,<br />

his training under the master called The Condor Woman, his<br />

complicated relationship with his twin.<br />

As we see it, the twin is The Warrior’s dark reflection, a killer who<br />

murders teachers and family alike for some unknown reason.<br />

The question is always present, however, of just how<br />

metaphorical the twin is. It’s not a Fight Club situation; this is a<br />

much less literal film than that. In his obsession with honing his<br />

body to superhuman levels, The Warrior seems to have split his<br />

consciousness, just as he’s had to cut himself off from humanity<br />

(metaphorically, or literally, murdering them). He spends much of<br />

the present trying and failing to meditate <strong>—</strong> trying, perhaps, to<br />

reunite these disparate aspects of himself. In flashbacks, the<br />

dark version of The Warrior sends one of his students after his<br />

brother. Or rather, the student wishes to challenge the brother, to<br />

win back the manual that he’s supposed to have stolen so that<br />

the student can learn from it himself.<br />

The quest for a lost martial arts manual is a plotline as old as<br />

this genre itself. But the book in Fist of the Condor, like<br />

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THE SEVERING<br />

Mark Pellington<br />

everything else in the movie, is more of a state of mind than<br />

anything else. We don’t know which twin stole the manual: both<br />

claim the other one has it. At one point, we see the book, but only<br />

in a flashback. Maybe it doesn’t exist anymore. If there is no twin,<br />

then the student is tasked with killing his master in order to<br />

advance to a higher plane of artistry, a dark inversion of the<br />

typical master-student dynamic. Everything in Fist of the Condor<br />

is slippery, itself and its opposite. The twin gimmick is less a kind<br />

of Fight Club-style projection than it is a reflection of unavoidable<br />

divisions, both in and around the text: the sacrifices required to<br />

achieve inhuman perfection; the split in Latin American<br />

consciousness between colonizer and colonized; the melding<br />

together of Andean legend with Chinese martial arts narrative<br />

traditions. In the present, we never see a showdown between the<br />

twins. The film, before the chapter headings begin, calls itself<br />

Fist of the Condor Part 1. It was apparently at one time going to be<br />

a TV series, and not a film. So maybe there is more to the story,<br />

maybe there really is a twin and in Part 2 we’ll see the two Markos<br />

fight. That would be pretty cool, but I hope we never see it. The<br />

movie is better off leaving us in this late night liminal space,<br />

where nothing is reconcilable but everything makes sense. <strong>—</strong><br />

SEAN GILMAN<br />

DIRECTOR: Ernesto Díaz Espinoza; CAST: Marko Zaror, Eyal<br />

Meyer, Gina Aguad; DISTRIBUTOR: Well Go USA; IN THEATERS &<br />

STREAMING: April 7; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 25 min.<br />

Film boasts a rich history of dance. From the halcyon,<br />

mid-century years of studio musicals all the way to the<br />

early-aughts onslaught of middling, tween-demo’d disposables<br />

like Save the Last Dance, Honey, You Got Served, and Stomp the<br />

Yard, there’s been a(n ebb-and-flow) consistency to Hollywood’s<br />

fixation on the art of movement. These chronal poles, of course,<br />

don’t account for the subversions and inversions that have<br />

dotted the genre’s history: Saturday Night Fever remains a pulsive<br />

all-timer; Robert Altman made unfussy study of the profession’s<br />

grind and de-glammed backstage in the excellent The Company;<br />

the Jon Chu days of the Step Up franchise located the kinetic<br />

vitality missing from so many appropriative and culture-angled<br />

millennium dancecapades; and then there are works like Shirley<br />

Clarke’s Dance in the Sun, wherein an avant-garde approach to<br />

capturing the form was first subsumed into the film medium.<br />

It’s into the lineage of this latter space that Mark Pellington’s The<br />

Severing forcefully, frustratingly tries to assert itself. The film’s<br />

logline reads: “A cathartic movement film expressing feelings and<br />

emotions through a ‘story of movement and text,’ rather than a<br />

plot. Capturing emotion and physicality on an experiential and<br />

non-linear narrative level.” Given that description, it shouldn’t<br />

surprise viewers that Pellington’s film superficially situates itself<br />

within an avant-garde tradition, the first 20 or so minutes<br />

passing with only the promised art of the move <strong>—</strong> courtesy of ace<br />

Climax choreographer Nina Mcneely <strong>—</strong> and a score that moves<br />

between Sigur Rós-esque post-rock ambience, droning<br />

electronica, and lightly classical crescendo. But it’s clear from the<br />

start that Pellington doesn’t trust the material (i.e., dance).<br />

Rather than reveling in Mcneely’s visceral, haunting choreo work,<br />

the director lacquers his film with all manner of unnecessary<br />

visual phantasmagoria, performers painted in bruise colors and<br />

stripped to undergarments, faces made up to look like haunted<br />

house employees, leaving them to look like a troupe of<br />

creepypasta players. Plus, the whole thing takes place in some<br />

dank, cement-block basement with drips of light leaking in<br />

through small windows or cracks in doors, shadows cast<br />

everywhere. The effect is an embellishment rather than<br />

celebration of motion, and Pellington’s overt applications rob the<br />

film’s dance of its potential for organic narrativity. What’s<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

abstracted and primal in the performers’ work is suffocated<br />

under the weight of the film’s ostentatious and insistent<br />

aestheticizing.<br />

Another essential problem with The Severing can be found within<br />

its logline: “and text.” The film flirts with a certain a-g character<br />

in its early minutes, with the fascinating intimation that rather<br />

than documentary, it could rather be viewed as fictional text. But<br />

then Pellington makes the baffling decision to introduce<br />

voiceover and on-screen text, which not only persists across the<br />

film’s remaining runtime, but builds in saturation as we move<br />

forward. This formal layering frustrates both any explicit<br />

avant-garde or fictional reading, but could still work if executed<br />

with some poetic skill or intellectual impetus. Instead, it proves<br />

entirely fatal. Not only does it functionally prove to be a constant<br />

visual distraction that offers no value, but it entirely undermines<br />

any attempts at non-linguistic narrative. Both voiceover and text<br />

<strong>—</strong> the latter of which is hilariously flipped or rotated sometimes<br />

for no discernable reason <strong>—</strong> are even more self-conscious<br />

thanPellington’s ill-advised formal flourishes, introducing oblique<br />

babbling about the fourth dimension and decorating the screen<br />

with words that read like sub-ChatGPT attempts at<br />

philosophizing. It’s the kind of dimwitted gobbledygook that an<br />

Instapoet like Atticus might fart out after getting real<br />

metaphysical on an ayahuasca retreat, but woven together with<br />

excerpts from a #FeelDeep teen’s diary (“INVISIBLE. Forever”).<br />

“Hands up to your God,” an overlay reads at one point. Sure,<br />

totally.<br />

There’s also the question of why this is being put to film at all. As<br />

a general rule, the medium needs to bring something to that<br />

which it captures, and here that means a reorientation or<br />

elevation of what viewers would experience from the<br />

foundational performance piece at The Severing’s core.<br />

Occasionally, this is accomplished via Evelin Rei’s<br />

cinematography, which snakes through the dancers’ spatial<br />

canvas and weaves around their bodies, and in the film’s best<br />

moments, helping to convey the spectrum of humanity their<br />

physicality seeks to articulate. But more often, the<br />

angle-ambivalent approach and setting-dictated reliance on<br />

closeups obscures more than it enhances, the full impression of<br />

each of the film’s “movements” lost to the out-of-frame ether. So<br />

we’re left only to answer the why of it all with Pellington’s<br />

intrusive contributions, which work merely to short circuit any<br />

ofthe film’s elemental power with conspicuous overindulgence<br />

and brainless gibberish cosplaying as poetry. This is particularly<br />

30


FILM REVIEWS<br />

irksome for a work arriving in a dance film landscape where the<br />

narrative, the abstract, and the purely kinetic have been so<br />

successfully amalgamated recently in films like Damien Manivel’s<br />

Isadora’s Children or Gaspar Noé’s aforementioned Climax, as well<br />

as more a–g-tempered shorts like Michael Portnoy’s cheeky<br />

Progressive Touch. Even Jonathan Glazer’s divisive Strasbourg<br />

1518 had the decency of restraint, which is something Pellington<br />

exhibits nothing of here. Instead, he can’t seem to stop putting<br />

hats on hats formally speaking, and the brutal, moving work at<br />

the core of The Severing is sadly stifled within such graceless<br />

excess. <strong>—</strong> LUKE GORHAM<br />

DIRECTOR: Mark Pellington; CAST: <strong>—</strong>; DISTRIBUTOR: Kino<br />

Lorber; IN THEATERS: March 31; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 10 min.<br />

ACIDMAN<br />

Alex Lehmann<br />

Let’s just get this out of the way: the most honest way to quantify<br />

Alex Lehmann’s Acidman is as thoroughly mid. The film stars<br />

Dianna Agron, alum of the Ryan Murphy school of acting, as<br />

Maggie, daughter to Thomas Haden Church’s Loyd. Maggie,<br />

seeking some kind of reconnection with her estranged father,<br />

treks across the country to visit him in his remote Pacific<br />

Northwest trailer. Upon arrival, she finds that her father has<br />

come to believe three hovering dots on the horizon are aliens<br />

with whom he must communicate. As the two embark on the<br />

process of getting to know each other again, she humors his<br />

eccentricities, even joining him on his nightly jaunts to talk to the<br />

extraterrestrial beings. But when Maggie attempts to break<br />

through existing walls with her father and gain some clarity on<br />

her abandonment, he seems to dissociate, staring off into the<br />

distance until the situation passes. It proceeds this way until the<br />

film’s climax, wherein Loyd’s dog is shot by a local hunter while<br />

under Maggie’s care. Predictably, this sets off an emotional<br />

reckoning in Loyd, and he is finally able to have a meaningful<br />

conversation with Maggie, who it turns out has some big news of<br />

her own to share. It’s all perfectly fine, and the film’s essential<br />

problem is that… it’s all perfectly fine.<br />

The script, which is typically where such small-scale character<br />

dramas earn their stripes, is… perfectly fine (okay, retiring that<br />

joke). Featured are the predictable daddy issues beats and the<br />

requisite heartwarming interactions, mostly of the usual flavor<br />

though thankfully without skewing too maudlin (despite a<br />

snot-filled monologue from Agron). Lehmann, who co-wrote the<br />

film with Chris Dowling, drew inspiration from his own reclusive<br />

father, but that intimacy with the material frustratingly never<br />

really registers or elevates this script above the standard fare.<br />

The performances are similarly sturdy but banal: Church is a tidy<br />

fit as the grisled conspiracy theorist, while Agron channels the<br />

necessary histrionics (see: snot) demanded of any deserted<br />

daughter role, but there isn’t much substantive ground on which<br />

either actor is able to find purchase. It’s a problem because,<br />

outside of Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris (who plays Charlie, a<br />

confidant for both Maggie and Loyd), it’s largely only the two of<br />

them on screen, but they don’t so much meaningfully engage<br />

with each other as they do throw words into the ether and hope<br />

viewers will read meaning into them. Lehmann chooses to shoot<br />

most of the film in handheld closeup, which at times works to<br />

build a deeper sense of disarray into Maggie and Loyd’s<br />

interactions, but quickly begins to feel like an aesthetic crutch,<br />

its overuse lessening any effect it otherwise has.<br />

The film’s most interesting element, and the only aspect that<br />

inspires anything more than general apathy in the viewer, is its<br />

cinematography. Shot in the Rogue Valley of Oregon, DP John<br />

Matysiak takes full advantage of the region’s arresting natural<br />

landscapes and golden-hour sunsets, using this calm corner of<br />

the natural world to imbue an unexpected peace into the<br />

proceedings, tempering some of the overdramatics innate to the<br />

narrative. But like the use of handheld, these vistas begin to feel<br />

somewhat forced in the film’s second half, rendering but another<br />

ingredient in the rest of the film’s spoon-fed metaphorizing. By<br />

the end of Acidman, all of these mostly middling characteristics<br />

coalesce into an ending that viewers will have seen coming since<br />

the opening frames, and once again the film frustrates by<br />

leading the audience to the precipice of some sort of genuine,<br />

earned emotion, without actually getting there. Perhaps this is by<br />

design to some degree: it’s a familiar narrative tactic to edge<br />

viewers for a film’s duration until they are so desperate for<br />

climax that whatever ultimately comes feels like catharsis. But<br />

there’s simply too little here that rises above mediocrity for even<br />

that bit of audience finessing to fully distract. Viewers craving a<br />

dose of feels cinema will likely find Acidman diverting enough,<br />

maybe even lightly moving, but anyone looking for more than<br />

31


FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

stimulus for an emotional response is sure to check out long<br />

before the end credits roll. <strong>—</strong> EMILY DUGRANRUT<br />

DIRECTOR: Alex Lehmann; CAST: Thomas Haden Church, Dianna<br />

Agron, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris; DISTRIBUTOR: Brainstorm<br />

Media; IN THEATERS & STREAMING: March 31; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 27<br />

min.<br />

LIVING WITH CHUCKY<br />

Kyra Elise Gardner<br />

It isn’t hard to believe that writer-director Kyra Elise Gardner’s<br />

Living with Chucky <strong>—</strong> a feature-length documentary about the<br />

venerable horror film series Child’s Play <strong>—</strong> is debuting on<br />

streaming service Screambox; what is decidedly a more difficult<br />

pill to swallow is that this glorified DVD bonus feature has been<br />

playing at various film festivals for the past year. Are horror fans<br />

really that hard up for a little nostalgia? Ever since his debut in<br />

the 1988 original, living doll/serial killer Chucky has always been<br />

a bit of a mixed bag, delivering the occasional one-liner while<br />

dispatching his victims in ways seemingly impossible<br />

considering the toy’s size and strength. It was certainly Brad<br />

Dourif’s commitment to the voice work that often rendered the<br />

occasional questioning moot, even as the series flirted <strong>—</strong> and, in<br />

some cases, outright made out <strong>—</strong> with camp in each subsequent<br />

entry, until creator Don Mancini sought to course correct in 2013.<br />

The first hour of Living with Chucky is devoted to a surface-level<br />

analysis of each of the films in the series, filled with current-day<br />

talking head interviews with various cast and crew members, as<br />

well as movie clips and archival footage. It’s all as bland in<br />

execution as it sounds, with nary a hint of actual filmmaking<br />

artistry on display. It’s also rather humorous that parts two and<br />

three get a combined total of five minutes of screen time, leaving<br />

audience members to ponder if Mancini and company hated<br />

them as much as viewers did at the time of their release. Then<br />

again, if you had to choose between dissecting the movie where<br />

Chucky invades a military school or the one that was a spoof of a<br />

spoof of a spoof and featured not only Jennifer Tilly in multiple<br />

roles, including herself, but the first transgender doll/killer ever<br />

featured on screen <strong>—</strong> the one and only Seed of Chucky <strong>—</strong> you’re<br />

probably picking the one that features John Waters getting a vat<br />

of acid dropped on his head.<br />

As one of only a handful of openly gay horror filmmakers working<br />

within the studio system, Mancini sought to incorporate queer<br />

themes into his work, a rather remarkable achievement for a<br />

series as mainstream as Child’s Play. In fact, had Gardner chosen<br />

to focus on this particular facet, it would have made for a far<br />

more enriching documentary. Instead, we only get a bit of lip<br />

service, because apparently what this Living with Chucky truly<br />

needed were interviews with various random actors and<br />

actresses, including Abigail Breslin, Marlon Wayans, Elle Lorraine,<br />

and Lin Shaye. Keep in mind, none of these individuals have ever<br />

appeared in the Child’s Play series, and aside from Breslin, it’s<br />

hard to determine if they are even fans. The end result is simply<br />

a lot of needless filler.<br />

This feels especially true when the film’s true focus finally clicks<br />

into place in the final half-hour, as it’s revealed that<br />

writer-director Gardner is the daughter of Tony Gardner, a<br />

special effects designer and puppeteer who worked on the<br />

Child’s Play films for over 20 years. Kyra discusses the effect that<br />

her father’s absence had on her upbringing, as he was constantly<br />

away on film shoots. This in turn caused her to adopt the various<br />

Child’s Play casts and crews as her own sort of makeshift family<br />

in those rare opportunities she was allowed to visit. Meanwhile,<br />

Kyra delves into how these particular individuals have become<br />

extended family to one another based on the sheer number of<br />

years they have worked together. And in fact, this is one of the<br />

only horror series in film history whose original creator has had a<br />

hand in each entry <strong>—</strong> save for the 2019 reboot, which is not even<br />

acknowledged here, and which utilized CGI that Mancini and<br />

company have steadfastly refused. This kinship is further<br />

reinforced by the fact that, in 2013’s Curse of Chucky, Brad<br />

Dourif’s daughter, Fiona, was cast in the lead role, and the two<br />

are interviewed here while sitting literally side-by-side. So<br />

basically what we have is a rather sweet portrait of both literal<br />

and metaphorical “family” filtered through the lens of a beloved<br />

horror series… but only in the last reel. Viewers would be wise to<br />

save themselves 70 minutes and simply fast-forward through the<br />

tired film analysis. Only then will you find anything that feels<br />

remotely alive in Living with Chucky. <strong>—</strong> STEVEN WARNER<br />

DIRECTOR: Kyra Elise Gardner; CAST: Brad Dourif, Jennifer Tilly,<br />

Don Mancini ; DISTRIBUTOR: Cinedigm; STREAMING: April 4;<br />

RUNTIME: 1 hr. 40 min.<br />

32


Photo Credits:<br />

Cover - Courtesy NEON; Page 1 - Courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center; Page 3 - Courtesy of David<br />

Gross; Page 4, 5 - Courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center; Page 7 - Courtesy of Arenamedia; Page 8 -<br />

Courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center; Page 9 - Erin Wilkerson; Page 13 - Travis Wilkerson/Cinéma du<br />

Réel; Page 13 - Travis Wilkerson; Page 16 - Giai Phong Film Studios; Page 17 - TV Guide; Page 18-<br />

Letterboxd; Page 19 - Anastasia Shubina/Cinéema du Réel; Page 20 - Pablo Mazzolo/Cinéma du<br />

Réel; Page 21 - Courtesy NEON; Page 23 - Ana Carballosa/Amazon Content Services LLC; Page 25-<br />

Nintendo Illumination Universal; Page 27 - IFCFilms; Page 29 - WellGoUSA; Page 30 - Kino Lorber;<br />

Back Cover - Cinedigm

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