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InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21

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IN REVIEW ONLINE<br />

FEATURES<br />

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL<br />

MONSTER <strong>—</strong> 1<br />

ONLY THE RIVER FLOWS <strong>—</strong> 2<br />

MARGUERITE’S THEOREM <strong>—</strong> 3<br />

THE POT-AU-FEU <strong>—</strong> 4<br />

A PRINCE <strong>—</strong> 6<br />

VINCENT MUST DIE <strong>—</strong> 7<br />

LEGUA <strong>—</strong> 8<br />

OMEN <strong>—</strong> 10<br />

KICKING THE CANON<br />

JANET. <strong>—</strong> 11<br />

THE TERRORIZERS <strong>—</strong> 13<br />

FILM REVIEWS<br />

THE LITTLE MERMAID <strong>—</strong> 16<br />

YOU HURT MY FEELINGS <strong>—</strong> 17<br />

REALITY <strong>—</strong> 19<br />

WILL-O-THE-WISP <strong>—</strong> <strong>21</strong><br />

THE POTEMKINISTS <strong>—</strong> <strong>21</strong><br />

KANDAHAR <strong>—</strong> 22<br />

ABOUT MY FATHER <strong>—</strong> 24<br />

STAY AWAKE <strong>—</strong> 25<br />

UNCLENCHING<br />

THE FISTS <strong>—</strong> 25<br />

ROBOTS <strong>—</strong> 27<br />

INFLUENCER <strong>—</strong> 29<br />

WHITE BALLS ON WALLS <strong>—</strong> 30<br />

ALBUM REVIEWS<br />

Kesha <strong>—</strong> 32<br />

Aespa <strong>—</strong> 33<br />

Jonas Brothers <strong>—</strong> 34<br />

May 26, 2023<br />

<strong>Volume</strong> 1, <strong>Issue</strong> <strong>21</strong>


CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2023<br />

MONSTER<br />

Hirokazu Kore-eda<br />

With his latest film, Monster, Hirokazu Kore-eda has outdone<br />

himself. Rather than make one bad film, as he usually does, the<br />

Japanese director has made the equivalent of three, each one<br />

worse and more wrongheaded than the last. The first of the<br />

film’s three parts opens promisingly enough, centered on a single<br />

mother, Saori (Ando Sakura), who finds out that her son, Minato<br />

(Kurokawa Soya), is apparently being verbally and physically<br />

abused by his schoolteacher, Mr. Hori (Nagayama Eita). Short<br />

scenes advance the narrative at a brisk clip, following Saori’s<br />

attempts to seek restitution from the school, while deliberately<br />

obscuring the motivations of every other character. Indeed, the<br />

response to Saori’s efforts by the school principal and the other<br />

schoolteachers is so inexplicable, so extreme in its bureaucratic<br />

politesse, that it would not have been inconceivable for them to<br />

be revealed as aliens à la Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish<br />

(2017).<br />

The screenplay by Yuji Sakamoto does not have anything quite so<br />

high-concept in mind. For better and worse, neither the second<br />

nor the third sections, which retell the same events from the<br />

perspectives of Mr. Hori and Minato respectively, go anywhere<br />

near sci-fi territory. What they do include are a series of<br />

revelations that gradually drain any sort of mystery from the<br />

story, functioning not unlike the hoary network narratives of a<br />

previous era, such as Paul Haggis’ monumentally misguided<br />

Crash (2004). While Kore-eda’s ostensible aim is to add emotional<br />

depth to the story by “humanizing” initially antagonistic figures,<br />

Monster effectively does the opposite, turning all and sundry into<br />

mere plot mechanisms, gears around which the script’s<br />

increasingly nonsensical pile-up of complications may turn. The<br />

emotionless behavior of the school’s principal (Tanaka Yuko), for<br />

example, is first explained by the fact that she is still grieving the<br />

recent death of her grandchild. Later, we learn that her husband<br />

was responsible, having accidentally run the child over in a<br />

driveway. Still later, we learn that she was the one responsible<br />

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FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

and chose to let her husband take the rap to save face. Similarly,<br />

one scene in the final act reveals what we previously assumed is<br />

the film's non-diegetic score to be a product of said principal<br />

encouraging Minato to blow his feelings away by playing an<br />

instrument in the school’s music room.<br />

This pattern of misdirection and revelation is indicative of<br />

Monster as a whole, but it emerges in full force in the film’s final<br />

act, with a reveal that everything we’ve seen thus far is explained<br />

by Minato’s incipient same-sex attraction to another student, and<br />

his socially-fueled repression of the very same. Some critics<br />

have remarked that Monster marks a kind of departure for<br />

Kore-eda, as it involves subjects such as child abuse, which<br />

considerably darken the palette of his typically gentle,<br />

family-centered dramas. Monster proves, though, that Kore-eda’s<br />

so-called “humanism” is fully compatible with exploitation. For if<br />

the film contains horror, it’s in the way that it uses<br />

homosexuality as a mere plot twist. <strong>—</strong> LAWRENCE GARCIA<br />

ONLY THE RIVER FLOWS<br />

Wei Shujun<br />

Although his name may be unfamiliar to some, Chinese director<br />

Wei Shujun has already made several feature films, including<br />

20<strong>21</strong>’s Ripples of Life, which also debuted at Cannes. But Wei<br />

seems poised for a significant breakout with Only the River Flows.<br />

This knotty, complex police drama combines elements from<br />

genre masters like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Bong Joon-ho,<br />

but nevertheless displays a highly<br />

individualistic sensibility. The story<br />

centers on a highly regarded police<br />

detective, Ma Zhe (Zhu Yilong), in the<br />

rural town of Banpo. He’s been tasked<br />

with solving the murder of an elderly<br />

woman (Cao Yang). But what at first<br />

appears to be an open-and-shut case<br />

soon reveals unexpected layers of<br />

social dysfunction.<br />

to show just how burdened Ma’s task force is with oversight from<br />

the CCP, and the oppressive need for a neat conclusion and the<br />

positive PR that would come with it. When Ma voices that he<br />

thinks the cops have maybe rushed to judgment, he is told, in no<br />

uncertain terms by his boss (Hou Tianlai), to sign off on the<br />

paperwork and move on, because “our superiors are watching.”<br />

One notices something quite remarkable about Only the River<br />

Flows right off the bat. The first Chinese feature in many years to<br />

be shot on celluloid, the film looks very much like an actual<br />

artifact of the mid-’90s. Exhibiting the same muted palette and<br />

soft lens one sees in early Hou Hsiao-hsien or Jia Zhang-ke<br />

films, River exhibits a physicality that feels genuinely oppressive.<br />

When one considers that Wei has Ma’s team set their offices up<br />

in an abandoned movie palace, it’s evident this director isn’t only<br />

interested in the investigative mindset, but also its imbrication<br />

with filmmaking <strong>—</strong> the way cinema and police work are two<br />

complementary technologies for managing the populace.<br />

Once it becomes apparent that the wrong man may have been<br />

arrested for the old woman’s murder, Ma is forced to battle<br />

against his own instincts which, he discovers, are tied to<br />

common social prejudices. Is the old woman’s ward, referred to<br />

as “the madman” (Kang Chunlei), under suspicion because of his<br />

cognitive impairments? Is Xu Liang (Wang Jianyu), the<br />

hairdresser, actually guilty, or is he confessing because he<br />

knows his queer sexuality ensures he’ll be framed? These ethical<br />

crises only intensify when Ma and his pregnant wife (Chloe<br />

This is a fairly standard noir set-up:<br />

that one case that the genius<br />

detective couldn’t solve. However, by<br />

setting the action in 1995, Wei is able<br />

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CANNES 2023<br />

Maayan) learn that their unborn son has a high risk of birth<br />

defects, which would mark him as another unwanted “other” in a<br />

society of rampant xenophobia.<br />

To his credit, Wei offers no easy solutions to these problems <strong>—</strong><br />

nor to the crime itself. Not unlike Bong’s Memories of Murder or<br />

Dominik Moll’s recent French film The Night of the 12th, Only the<br />

River Flows examines crime not as a rift in the social fabric, but<br />

as the logical outcome of oppression so complete that it tends to<br />

elude notice. It’s no secret that Chinese cinema has suffered<br />

artistically under Xi Jinping’s regime, even as it has reaped<br />

truckloads of money. Only the River Flows provides a very<br />

welcome sign of life. <strong>—</strong> MICHAEL SICINSKI<br />

MARGUERITE’S THEOREM<br />

Anna Novion<br />

Advanced mathematics on film is often treated as a gateway to<br />

mental illness (Pi) or espionage (The Imitation Game) or in some<br />

instances both (A Beautiful Mind); rarely is it foregrounded to the<br />

extent that it is in Anna Novion’s Marguerite’s Theorem, the<br />

reasons for which are obvious in hindsight. There is questionable<br />

cinematic value in watching someone excitedly scribble long,<br />

inscrutable formulae on a chalkboard, there’s little incentive for<br />

genuinely brilliant characters to stop and explain<br />

what they’re doing for the benefit of the audience, and, even if<br />

they did, it all runs the risk of turning into, well, school. Inferring<br />

successes and setbacks, then, relies almost entirely upon<br />

contextual clues, such as elevated breathing and a quickening of<br />

pace as a proof is written out, or murmuring from the peanut<br />

gallery followed by a furrowed brow of the person standing in<br />

front of the class to signal something is amiss. One can be<br />

watching someone triumphantly prove a theorem that’s eluded<br />

mathematicians for centuries, or having years worth of work<br />

invalidated, in the blink of an eye <strong>—</strong> and in both instances, the<br />

viewer must patiently wait to be told which is which.<br />

The Marguerite of this film’s title is a 25-year-old PhD candidate<br />

at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris played by Swiss actress<br />

Ella Rumpf (Raw). The only woman in her discipline at ENS <strong>—</strong> the<br />

film opens with the character being interviewed for a newsletter<br />

which allows us to quickly get up to speed on someone who<br />

concertedly refuses to reveal more of herself <strong>—</strong> Marguerite is in<br />

the final year of her studies, having dedicated years to making<br />

incremental progress in solving Goldbach's conjecture, a theorem<br />

from the 1700’s that still remains unproven. We learn that math is<br />

her entire life (when pressed on her hobbies, the best she can<br />

muster is taking walks to clear her head and playing Yahtzee<br />

with her mother) and that she is weeks away from presenting her<br />

thesis, the culmination of her studies,<br />

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FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

paving the way to publication and advancement in her field. But<br />

while presenting her work for peer review, a previously<br />

undetected yet catastrophic error is discovered in Marguerite’s<br />

work, invalidating her theorem and forcing her to consider<br />

abandoning it entirely and devising an entirely new thesis in a<br />

matter of months. Like much of the film, this moment of<br />

complete and total professional devastation plays against quiet<br />

disbelief from learned observers and Rumpf’s steely outer<br />

resolve.<br />

But on the inside, Marguerite is spiraling out. She questions her<br />

talents and even her life’s pursuit, all exacerbated by her<br />

longtime faculty advisor, Professor Werner (Jean-Pierre<br />

Darroussin), who drops her to focus on Lucas (Julien Frison), a<br />

hotshot transfer from Oxford. Confronted by failure and an<br />

uncertain future, Marguerite impulsively drops out of ENS and<br />

contemplates a life outside of math only to find that a head full<br />

of numbers can be both a blessing and a curse. She’s quickly<br />

bounced from a data collection job after demonstrating a<br />

greater understanding of surveys than her impatient supervisor.<br />

However, she also displays a real aptitude for mahjong, besting<br />

seasoned gamblers in illicit backroom games seemingly seconds<br />

after sitting down at the table, ensuring she’ll always have rent<br />

money. It’s while playing mahjong that an epiphany has her<br />

reconsidering her flawed theorem. With the spark of inspiration<br />

returning to her, she rededicates herself to proving not only her<br />

own thesis, but potentially unlocking Goldbach's conjecture itself.<br />

Novion rests much of her film’s success on the shoulders of<br />

Rumpf, playing a character who’s told, point blank, that she’s “too<br />

cold and too closed.” Marguerite has a nasty tendency of<br />

alienating Lucas before he can get too close to her <strong>—</strong> the side<br />

effect of a fraught relationship with her absentee father <strong>—</strong> which<br />

leads to her repeatedly crawling back to him, brusquely<br />

imploring him to resume their work together in what<br />

increasingly becomes a flimsy pretext to obscure her feelings.<br />

This is a prickly yet bloodless character study of a solitary<br />

woman prone to irritability, rudeness, and obsession: the further<br />

she goes into her work, the more it takes over the her small,<br />

shared apartment, her scrawlings covering every surface, post-it<br />

note, pane of glass, and even working their way around a roll of<br />

toilet paper. It's not so much a question of whether Marguerite<br />

can have it all as it is will she allow herself to accept happiness<br />

<strong>—</strong> a somewhat banal character arc, but one mitigated by a<br />

welcomingly prickly performance by the film's lead actress.<br />

For all the attention paid to theorems and formulae, Marguerite’s<br />

Theorem does little to obscure how conventional and almost trite<br />

the film can be. Marguerite’s adventures at the mahjong table<br />

play like something out of Rain Man or The Hangover, complete<br />

with complex equations superimposed over Rumpf’s face as she<br />

takes down game after game. There’s also no getting around the<br />

fact that Rumpf is one of the most glamorous young actresses in<br />

the world (she even briefly appeared on Succession as a<br />

Contessa) and that costuming her in glasses and frumpy<br />

sweaters does not begin to explain her almost nonexistent social<br />

life. Theoretically, the film resembles a sports movie in which<br />

Marguerite must <strong>—</strong> metaphorically <strong>—</strong> pick herself up off the mat,<br />

build her confidence back up, and step back into the ring; in its<br />

approach, however, it always keeps the viewer at arm’s length.<br />

Marguerite frequently finds inspiration in the everyday, her face<br />

lighting up as something dawns on her, causing her to rush off<br />

and resume her work. Yet throughout, we are little more than her<br />

dispassionate observers, at a loss over what it all means, taking<br />

our cues from imperceptible changes in her face as to whether a<br />

development is positive or negative. It all feels a bit like auditing<br />

a graduate course where you spend the entire time praying that<br />

nobody calls on you. <strong>—</strong> ANDREW DIGNAN<br />

THE POT-AU-FEU<br />

Trần Anh Hùng<br />

Trần Anh Hùng’s The Pot-au-Feu charts a romance between<br />

gourmet chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoit Magimel) and his cook,<br />

Eugenie (Juliette Binoche), in late 18th-century France. Their<br />

relationship as creative collaborators and lovers sidesteps the<br />

typical pitfalls of complicated entanglement or fraught power<br />

dynamics, Hùng instead taking a more interesting view on the<br />

relationship in refusing to establish a firm dichotomy between<br />

admiration for a person and admiration for their work. Rather<br />

than focusing on any conversational back-and-forth or intense<br />

physical desire, The Pot-au-Feu is interested in understanding<br />

this romance as it flows through their work. As such, a large part<br />

of the film revels in the striking, meticulous demonstration of<br />

preparing delicious food. The billowing steam of stews, the<br />

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CANNES 2023<br />

crunch of fresh vegetables, the succulence of various meats,<br />

and the delicacy of assorted desserts <strong>—</strong> these are all depicted<br />

with a romantic, sometimes even carnal eye; you might even say<br />

that to watch this film on an empty stomach would invite<br />

genuine agony.<br />

The Pot-au-Feu, however, is not a celebration of pure decadence.<br />

An internationally recognized and respected chef, Dodin’s feasts<br />

and methodology have managed to attract even European royalty<br />

to his fine-dining parties. While these gorgeously photographed<br />

feasts are prepared for their guests, Dodin dutifully serves as<br />

consummate host, passionately explaining his creative process<br />

and culinary ideals. Magimel is exceptional in the role. At one<br />

point, Dodin is described by someone as the “Napoleon of fine<br />

dining,” and bristles, and Magimel fully<br />

conveys why this character might be so dubbed: Dodin<br />

describes his convictions for the art of the feast with a confident<br />

intensity, criticizing others’ inability to understand haute cuisine<br />

as a cultural and artistic expression rather than just an<br />

opportunity to gorge in style. But it’s also clear why Dodin<br />

would object to this description; in his romance with Boniche’s<br />

Eugenie, we see the chef capture beauty and express deep<br />

affection for his lover through his cooking, as well as his struggle<br />

to prepare the meals precisely for her. Cooking is not dogma for<br />

Dodin <strong>—</strong> it’s communication. He has no desire to be<br />

dictatorial, but to more precisely articulate himself. Food is a<br />

conversation, a relationship being developed between cook and<br />

consumer, one that should not be overpowered by either parties’<br />

indulgences.<br />

As an actor, Magimel communicates impeccably through<br />

gestures <strong>—</strong> a curl at the corner of his mouth, can speak volumes<br />

to how he’s assessing his peers, indicating whether his high<br />

standards have been met. There’s an intensity to his stare, but<br />

also curiosity, a sense of expectation, and of course a strong<br />

feeling of desire when directed at his co-star. It’s a performance<br />

of earnest wanting, replete with all the intimidation and<br />

flattering that might invoke. Binoche responds with a physical<br />

performance honed through process <strong>—</strong> much of the labor in the<br />

kitchen, preparing recipes and organizing complex feasts, lies<br />

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FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

with her, and we see her work and sweat it out with the wait<br />

staff, making sure that everything is on time and in order. At<br />

the same time, there’s an undercurrent of warm humanism to<br />

the performance, detectable when you see her on her breaks<br />

sharing generous portions of the prepared feasts with her<br />

staff.<br />

The differences between these two characters’ and their<br />

approach to their work are what distinguish this creative<br />

partnership and make their romance so intense; they<br />

compliment each other in form and function, the practical one<br />

and the idealist. They two struggle to define where their love for<br />

each other and their love of their profession begins and ends <strong>—</strong><br />

but the question is essentially meaningless. Eugenie is her<br />

cooking, her process, her care; Dodin is his taste and his intense<br />

curiosity. If cooking in this film really is treated as a form of<br />

personal communication, then these two speak the same<br />

seductive language to each other throughout the film <strong>—</strong><br />

dialoguing through carefully presented, beautifully realized, and<br />

laboriously prepared meals.<br />

Later, tragic events intrude upon this seduction <strong>—</strong> telegraphed in<br />

an early fainting <strong>—</strong> but these moments prove less intoxicating<br />

and more familiar in their presentation; interruptions in an<br />

admiringly modest film. Thankfully, Hùng mostly sticks to images<br />

of cooking and eating, the respective work and pleasure of these<br />

activities making up a majority of The Pot-au-Feu’s runtime;<br />

tragedy is but a course rather than the whole meal. It’s an<br />

approach that Dodin himself echoes when talking to his guests,<br />

clarifying the ideals of his creative expression: most importantly,<br />

that meals should always have lightness, should never be too<br />

decadent or heavy or overbearing. A feast properly prepared<br />

should be balanced, should make you contemplate its<br />

components and how they function as a collective whole. Hùng’s<br />

film respects this clarity that defines Dodin’s cuisine, and so<br />

largely allows its characters to luxuriate in its intimate and<br />

charming and sexy spaces. Dodin and Eugenie’s differences are<br />

explicated purely in how they work in the kitchen and in how<br />

they enjoy the fruits (and vegetables and meats and broths) of<br />

each other's labor. There’s no need for validation for their<br />

relationship beyond that, the work. There’s no need to drown the<br />

film in maudlin emotion or ponderous conversation. In observing<br />

how beautifully a peeled pear is presented, how thoroughly a<br />

duck is stuffed, and how early one must rise to produce a proper<br />

omelet, we are able to better understand the particulars and<br />

depth of how two lovers at the heart of The Pot-au-Feu feel about<br />

each other. <strong>—</strong> EMILIO DIAZ<br />

A PRINCE<br />

Pierre Creton<br />

Pierre Creton’s acclaimed 2017 documentary Va, Toto! was,<br />

among other things, an examination of the lives of elderly gay<br />

men in rural France, depicting their aging bodies as they work<br />

the land, and one another. Creton brings this subject matter into<br />

the fictional realm with A Prince, a film that combines narrative<br />

convolutions with a rare formal limpidity. In its awkward<br />

precision, A Prince is likely to remind some viewers of the early<br />

films of Alain Guiraudie, but Creton replaces that director’s<br />

bucolic surrealism with an almost Straubian directness. And<br />

while more conventional aspects of cinema, things like plot<br />

and characterization, remain opaque, Creton makes the<br />

themes and subtext of A Prince so blatant as to be almost<br />

inane.<br />

The film centers on a young man named Pierre-Joseph, a<br />

seemingly simple soul who, almost by accident, discovers a<br />

penchant for gardening. By devoting his life to horticulture,<br />

Pierre-Joseph finds not only a vocation, but a seemingly endless<br />

string of male lovers. In one of the film’s most unique and bizarre<br />

strategies, the main character roles are split, with one actor<br />

appearing on-screen while another articulates their thoughts in<br />

voiceover. For example, young Pierre-Joseph is vocalized by<br />

Grégory Gadebois, but physically manifested by Antoine Pirotte.<br />

That’s until the final third of the film, however, when in a single<br />

scene, young Pierre-Joseph is replaced by middle-aged<br />

Pierre-Joseph, played by the director himself. P-J’s journey<br />

eventually lands him in a three-man polycule with two elderly<br />

gardeners: Alberto (Vincent Barré on-screen, voice of Mathieu<br />

Amalric), his original botany teacher, and Adrien (Pierre Barray,<br />

mostly silent), who owns a nursery with his wife.<br />

Although the floral and sexual education of P-J represents the<br />

main dramatic thread of A Prince, there is another character<br />

who, although appearing only near the end, is discussed and<br />

alluded to throughout the film. This is Kutta (Chiman Dangi), an<br />

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CANNES 2023<br />

Indian child who was adopted and raised in France by Françoise<br />

Brown (Manon Schapp / Françoise Lebrun), a schoolteacher (and<br />

Alberto’s sister). In her interstitial musings, Ms. Brown discusses<br />

Kutta’s difficulty growing up as an immigrant, a problem that the<br />

film explicitly compares to the transplantation of non-native<br />

flora. That’s right: Creton lays his symbolic cards on the table,<br />

likening human beings to plants, and gardening to the exercise<br />

of control.<br />

A Prince, while often pleasurable, presents significant challenges<br />

for the viewer. At times it is difficult to even be sure who is<br />

speaking, since image and sound exist in separate realms. This<br />

means that certain aspects of these characters and even their<br />

basic narrative trajectories often remain opaque. This is<br />

frustrating, of course, but it’s fairly evident that this is Creton’s<br />

way of keeping the viewer at a distance. We are asked to admire<br />

these men, their efforts, and their often ample appendages, as<br />

we might a flourishing rhododendron. Surface, not interiority, is<br />

Creton’s bailiwick. It’s a theoretically compelling approach, but at<br />

times it’s hard not to feel like A Prince is all plant, no payoff. <strong>—</strong><br />

MICHAEL SICINSKI<br />

VINCENT MUST DIE<br />

Karim Leklou<br />

Karim Leklou has a fascinating face, a seemingly unremarkable<br />

assemblage of features that acts like a blank slate; it's a<br />

Kuleshov-effect visage. Director Clément Cogitore put this<br />

phenomenon to great use in last year’s Sons of Ramses, an<br />

as-yet-undistributed sorta-thriller that cast Leklou as a fake<br />

medium who cons people out of money in exchange for<br />

pretending to communicate with their deceased loved ones. It’s<br />

remarkably easy to project onto Leklou; his doughy, slightly<br />

saggy features and hangdog eyes seem to invite pity and<br />

commiseration. He’s once again cast to excellent effect in<br />

Stéphan Castang’s Vincent Must Die, a pitch-black comedy that<br />

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FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

gradually transforms into an apocalyptic horror film about<br />

mankind's capacity for violence.<br />

True to the film’s title, Vincent awakes one day to find that<br />

random people wish to do him extreme bodily harm. An intern at<br />

his office drone job smashes a computer keyboard across his<br />

head. Another colleague stabs Vincent in the hand and wrist with<br />

a pin. Of course, the office’s HR rep not so subtly suggests that<br />

Vincent probably did something to antagonize his attackers and<br />

that he should simply work from home for his own safety. But it’s<br />

not just the people he is tangentially connected to; completely<br />

anonymous strangers try to attack him, too. Dejected from a<br />

date gone bad, Vincent slinks back to his apartment just in time<br />

for his neighbor’s kids <strong>—</strong> a pair of polite, friendly pre-teens <strong>—</strong> to<br />

suddenly attack. When he defends himself against the children,<br />

his neighbors gang up on him and threaten to call the police.<br />

This guy just can’t catch a break.<br />

Eventually, Vincent decides to leave the city and head for his<br />

family’s secluded farm. He learns a few things along the way<br />

when he meets an unhoused person outside of a fast-food place.<br />

Desperately hungry, the man exchanges information for some<br />

food. What’s happening to Vincent happened to him, too. The<br />

man tells Vincent to avoid eye contact at all costs, which seems<br />

to trigger potential assailants, and suggests getting a dog, as<br />

they can somehow sense when an attack is imminent.<br />

Furthermore, there’s a website with an active message board full<br />

of people experiencing this same phenomenon, each sharing<br />

their own stories about friends and family suddenly becoming<br />

bloodthirsty maniacs. Seeking refuge in the deserted farm<br />

house, Vincent tries to avoid people, but keeps being forced into<br />

conversations; an old childhood friend stops by to say hello,<br />

while a backed-up septic tank leads to a visit from an elderly<br />

neighbor. Both encounters lead to violence. It's harder to<br />

disappear from society than one might imagine.<br />

There’s a curious conservative undercurrent here (presumably<br />

unintended by the filmmakers) about the average white male<br />

being besieged by all sides: through no fault of his own, Vincent<br />

is driven from his home, disenfranchised, and literally forced to<br />

cower under threat of potential harm, and that the film would<br />

feel radically different with a person of color and/or a woman as<br />

the protagonist perhaps speaks to the malleability of its<br />

premise. Unintentional parallels to contemporary white male<br />

grievances aside, the film thankfully casts this subtext off once<br />

it expands in scope. What was once isolated to a few poor,<br />

unfortunate souls escalates into a much larger scaled event <strong>—</strong><br />

call it a pseudo-apocalypse. Vincent eventually meets Margaux<br />

(Vimala Pons), a free-spirited waitress who believes his<br />

unbelievable story, and the duo strike up a kind of romance.<br />

Unfortunately, either one of them could attack the other at any<br />

moment, which proves a real roadblock to intimacy. Vincent's<br />

father eventually joins them, and what began as an oddball<br />

comedy of errors becomes full-on survival horror.<br />

Castang has a keen sense of building tension, aided<br />

immeasurably by Leklou's sad-sack performance. This<br />

unremarkable everyman becomes a free-floating metaphor for<br />

the incoherent, unexpected rage that permeates the world, a<br />

hostage to forces beyond control or even understanding. For<br />

thrillseekers, there are a couple of outstanding suspense<br />

sequences here, including a melee in a traffic jam that devolves<br />

into startling brutality. There are also a few parallels here to<br />

Ulrich Köhler's 2018 film In My Room, another quirky character<br />

study that takes an outlandish sci-fi conceit <strong>—</strong> in this case a 'last<br />

man on earth' scenario <strong>—</strong> and grounds it, with an attention to<br />

quotidian detail that infuses the proceedings with just enough<br />

realism. But where Köhler's film is opaque enough to invite<br />

different readings, Castang’s seems content in the end to simply<br />

ratchet up the thrills. Still, both suggest that there's still some life<br />

left in these tropes, which have otherwise been run into the<br />

ground after years of tired zombie apocalypse cheapies. <strong>—</strong><br />

DANIEL GORMAN<br />

LEGUA<br />

João Miller Guerra & Filipa Reis<br />

It’s been five years since Djon Africa, the last feature from<br />

co-directors João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis. That film <strong>—</strong> about<br />

a Cape Verdean man in Portugal who decides to return to his<br />

birthplace in search of the father who left him years ago <strong>—</strong> in<br />

certain respects, was a reversal of the trajectory taken by Miller<br />

Guerra and Reis’ new one. Légua is about the bonds of family,<br />

biological and chosen, and the steadfast refusal to leave one’s<br />

home behind, even when staying is no longer a viable option. At<br />

the heart of the film is the relationship between Ana (Carla<br />

8


CANNES 2023<br />

Maciel), a wife and mother in her late 40s, and her much older<br />

friend, Emilia (Fátima Soares), the head housekeeper at a<br />

Portuguese manor house. The owners of the house never come<br />

around, but Emilia is almost fanatically devoted to keeping the<br />

place in perfect condition, should they ever deign to appear. This<br />

inflexibility becomes a problem once Emilia is diagnosed with<br />

advanced cancer, and Ana feels compelled to care for her friend<br />

during her protracted decline.<br />

The primary conflict in Légua has to do with Ana’s sense of duty.<br />

It’s implied that Emilia helped Ana at a particularly low point in<br />

her life, and she feels obligated to return the favor. This is<br />

complicated by the fact that Ana’s husband Vitor (Paolo Calatré)<br />

lives and works in France, and very much wants her to join him;<br />

she refuses, because she must care for Emilia. This creates<br />

tension not only in the marriage but in Ana’s relationship with her<br />

college-age daughter, Mónica (Vitória Nogueira de Silva), who,<br />

not without reason, feels her mother is choosing an outsider<br />

over her own family.<br />

In its early moments, Légua resembles Carla Simón’s Golden Bear<br />

winner Alcarràs, observing the activities of numerous people in a<br />

rural setting and allowing the specifics of their relationships to<br />

gradually become apparent. But where Simón’s film was about<br />

family standing together at all costs, Légua is about dissolution<br />

and loss. At the end of the first third of the film, we see a<br />

celebration for Ana’s birthday, a scene filled with family and<br />

friends. In time, though, Ana’s entire world is reduced to Emilia,<br />

someone who was an irascible character even at the best of<br />

times. Ana steals private moments <strong>—</strong> to lay out in the sun or<br />

listen to pop radio, for instance <strong>—</strong> but in the end everything<br />

comes back to the grueling, painful process of tending to a dying<br />

loved one, an experience the directors depict with great acuity.<br />

In a rather unexpected manner, Légua doesn’t end so much as it<br />

peters out <strong>—</strong> something that could well be another thematic<br />

expression of the complicated timeframe of end-of-life care, the<br />

way illness produces its own disconnected affective bubble. But<br />

what is clear at the film’s conclusion is that all those who<br />

counted on Emilia <strong>—</strong> her employers as well as her own family <strong>—</strong><br />

have completely forgotten about her. Ana refuses to follow suit,<br />

making Légua an admirably knotty depiction of the ethics of<br />

care, the refusal to let a fellow human being die alone. <strong>—</strong><br />

MICHAEL SICINSKI<br />

LEGUA<br />

João Miller Guerra & Filipa Reis<br />

9<br />

2


FESTIVAL COVERAGE<br />

OMEN<br />

Baloji<br />

Belgian-Congolese rapper Baloji’s feature directorial debut,<br />

Omen, is a promising if not confident fable. Koffi (Mark Zinga)<br />

and Alice (Lucie Debay) return home to the former’s birth<br />

country, from which he was sent away for a Rorschach-esque<br />

blot on his face and the resulting allegations of sorcery, to ask<br />

for their marriage to be blessed. Koffi’s isolation for his alleged<br />

sorcery is entwined with his outsider status after returning from<br />

Europe. The sweat stains on his shirts and uneasy memories of<br />

language isolate him just as much as the mystical rumors about<br />

him do: a stranger to his own family, tactfully demonstrated as<br />

they watch with unease as he coos at his baby nephew, unaware<br />

of their distrust. Alice is particularly uneasy during this<br />

homecoming; she doesn't know whether to be apprehensive, and<br />

has no context for how her fiancé is treated and feared. The<br />

couple had thought Alice’s pregnancy would make their<br />

impending marriage easier to explain, but it only complicates<br />

how Koffi has to justify his life outside of home (an unnamed<br />

city, mostly filmed in, but not stated as, Kinshasa) <strong>—</strong> even when<br />

“home” found it easier with him gone.<br />

Omen is hyper-sensory, opting for spectacle over document<br />

wherever possible. True to tradition, the masks and costumes<br />

are bright and beautifully crafted, though they evoke more Mardi<br />

Gras influence than cultural accuracy. Thick clouds of colorful<br />

smoke, shades of fuchsia and magenta, ceremonially engulf the<br />

characters; smoke whirling to<br />

the tune of a soundtrack that’s<br />

more standalone mixtape than<br />

complementary score. These<br />

flashy visuals make returning<br />

home for Koffi feel otherworldly,<br />

where something as mundane as<br />

a nosebleed can be construed as<br />

the ritualistic spilling of blood.<br />

Such visual excess is particularly<br />

present when young magician<br />

Paco, (Marcel Otete Kabaya) and<br />

his pink dress-clad gang,<br />

crosses paths with Koffi. Paco<br />

received the same leveled<br />

accusations growing up as Koffi did, but learned to monetize the<br />

circumstance and live with his ostracism. Encounters with<br />

others treated the same way as him, including his sister<br />

independent-minded Tshala, only serve to complicate the Koffi’s<br />

relationship to home, as he finds out how these others have<br />

learned to exist in balance.<br />

Where Baloji’s film begins to falter is in its structure. The<br />

respective, sorcery-specific storylines of Koffi, Paco, Tshala, and<br />

Mujila (Koffi’s mother) are loosely woven, and the film straddles<br />

an awkward line between anthology film and multi-lead,<br />

Magnolia-esque odyssey, without ever firmly amounting to either<br />

(though it’s somewhat billed as the latter). Omen’s meandering,<br />

multi-threaded structure sets Koffi as our primary lead <strong>—</strong> and<br />

something of an audience surrogate <strong>—</strong> at the expense of<br />

exploring how the women are treated for their similar<br />

instantiations of witchcraft. Among the recent wave of African<br />

magical realism arriving to the Croisette, Omen is on shakier<br />

ground than such breakouts as I Am Not a Witch or Neptune Frost,<br />

simply by failing to meaningfully explore all four leads and<br />

rendering some as footnotes. As family members of our<br />

alienated protagonist, and as women who <strong>—</strong> in their world <strong>—</strong> are<br />

trapped within the world of superstition due to their status as<br />

accused, Tshala and Mujila have a fascinating relation to the<br />

religion that surrounds them, a promising conceit which the<br />

film’s short runtime sadly only teases. Omen’s lasting impression<br />

is but a taste of the sprawling family omnibus of faith and<br />

isolation that the film could have been. <strong>—</strong> SARAH WILLIAMS<br />

10


KICKING THE CANON<br />

JANET.<br />

Janet Jackson<br />

In 1972, struggling to follow up his generation-defining and career-redefining What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye had writer's block. The<br />

ambitious concept album detailing the social strifes of the Vietnam era was hailed as groundbreaking and had become Motown’s<br />

biggest record to date. Following its success, Gaye renegotiated his contract with the label, winning more creative control and a<br />

million dollar record deal <strong>—</strong> making him the highest-earning Black artist at the time. With this newfound freedom, Gaye switched<br />

gears from the socially conscious songwriting of What’s Going On and dove headfirst into the erotic. 1973’s Let’s Get It On pushed the<br />

11


KICKING THE CANON<br />

limit on sexual themes in popular music and served as a<br />

blueprint for quiet storm and slow jam R&B. In 1993, when asked<br />

by author David Ritz which artists have had the biggest influence<br />

on her musically, Janet Jackson broke into a grin. “Aside from<br />

my brothers… Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder… and jazz.” Marvin’s<br />

moves during this period offer the closest prototype to the kind<br />

of moves Janet made between her fourth album, Rhythm Nation,<br />

and her fifth, janet., which celebrates its 30th anniversary this<br />

month.<br />

On the heels of two number-one records, Janet was at a<br />

crossroads in her career. Her breakthrough album, 1987’s Control,<br />

saw her declaring herself in charge of her life and destiny.<br />

Terminating all business arrangements with her family, Janet<br />

teamed up with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, then<br />

little-known Prince associates, to reinvent herself on her own<br />

terms. The result was a critical and commercial success. Control<br />

made Janet a teen sensation, and its bubbly and mechanical<br />

synth soundscape helped pioneer the new jack swing genre.<br />

Rather than making a Control Part 2, Janet and her collaborators<br />

reached for a more ambitious project, 1989’s Janet Jackson’s<br />

Rhythm Nation 1814, which served as her political awakening.<br />

Exploring racism, poverty, substance abuse, and romance,<br />

Rhythm Nation catapulted Janet into superstardom and<br />

fashioned her into a role model for young people <strong>—</strong> the kind of<br />

upstanding and informed young Americans that parents and<br />

teachers could be proud of. (Rhythm Nation is to this day the only<br />

album in Billboard Hot 100 history to have seven commercial<br />

singles peak within the top five positions.) In the four years<br />

between Rhythm Nation and her follow-up, Janet found herself at<br />

the center of an industry-wide bidding war. She eventually<br />

signed a $40 million contract with Virgin, making her the highest<br />

paid music act in the world. Public scrutiny quickly followed, with<br />

critics casting doubt on everything from her singing voice to her<br />

reliance on Jam and Lewis. Her next record would need to be a<br />

statement on par with Control <strong>—</strong> a reinvention of her image and<br />

music.<br />

Come 1993, and janet. did all that and more. Elvis. Diana.<br />

Madonna. Prince. The artists able to operate on a first-name<br />

basis exist in another world of fame and influence. By naming<br />

the album “janet period,” Janet further shed the weight of her<br />

family name and made the leap from mere superstar to<br />

full-blown pop icon. If Rhythm Nation was her political<br />

awakening, janet. was her sexual awakening, and it doesn’t take<br />

a close listen to see that this is the direction she was heading for<br />

a while. From Control’s abstinence anthem “Let’s Wait Awhile” to<br />

Rhythm Nation’s first-time slow jam “Someday Is Tonight,” Janet<br />

had been inching toward this moment. janet. set her free to<br />

explore the kind of sex she wanted to have. And the record’s<br />

musical texture was made to match: positively warm and lush,<br />

compared to the icy new jack swing that dominated her two<br />

previous albums. It’s also more sonically diverse, blending<br />

elements of R&B, rock, opera, house, funk, jazz, pop, and <strong>—</strong><br />

significantly <strong>—</strong> hip hop. Chuck D appears on "New Agenda,” at a<br />

time when rap features were rare for pop albums, assisting<br />

Janet on one of her most joyful and effective political tracks.<br />

Also of particular note is the use of sampling on janet., with Jam<br />

and Lewis flipping cuts from James Brown, the Supremes, Kool &<br />

the Gang, and more.<br />

Just as there’s no singular sound to the album, there’s no<br />

singular type of sex: on “If,” her sex is alternative and fierce; on<br />

“That’s The Way Love Goes,” it’s romantic; and on “Any Time, Any<br />

Place,” it’s casually sensual. The tracklist reflects an artist willing<br />

to try anything in the studio and the bedroom. Sexually<br />

adventurous in her music and videos, while soft and reserved in<br />

her interviews, Janet was also able to maintain a certain<br />

innocence as she ventured into eroticism, setting her apart from<br />

peers like Madonna (ever the provocateur) and carving a path for<br />

future pop divas like Britney and Beyoncé who would follow in<br />

her footsteps <strong>—</strong> the legacy is undeniable. From her tightly<br />

choreographed narrative music videos to her use of the album<br />

format as a storytelling vessel for her celebrity, and from her<br />

fusing of genres to pioneering the kind of “good girl gone bad”<br />

career turn that has become cliché and almost perfunctory<br />

among today’s major stars, Janet laid the blueprint for a good<br />

deal of what we consider pop stardom. It was on janet. that much<br />

of this truly started to click, showing the world her versatility and<br />

establishing her cultural longevity. These days, more than ever,<br />

the concept of “eras” is core to a pop star’s story arc. Janet’s<br />

self-titled era was as defining and successful as they come<br />

<strong>—</strong> transforming her career, and the landscape of pop in the<br />

process. If you ever needed an excuse to dive deep into Janet’s<br />

discography, there’s no better time than now. <strong>—</strong> NICK SEIP<br />

12


KICKING THE CANON<br />

THE TERRORIZERS<br />

Edward Yang<br />

Ever since its explosion into the Hollywood mainstream, and that of its globalized imitators, in the <strong>21</strong>st century, hyperlink cinema has<br />

become one of the most bloviated genres, with some of its resident auteurs amassing a broad range of stories across various<br />

socio-political strata by tethering them together with the tenuous thread of “humanity” <strong>—</strong> a superficial exploration that has<br />

successfully wooed the pompous, self-important Oscar voters by tugging at their heartstrings. Depth is naturally compromised for<br />

overstuffed spectacles laced with frequent invocations of “human nature,” the mere presence of which is enough to sweep aside all<br />

the amorphousness associated with the term, itself a coinage of the <strong>21</strong>st century superseding the modest network narrative,<br />

presumably because the overarching Theme of such a film subsumes all its constituents. The term hyperlink is disconnected from its<br />

postmodern allusions and sociopolitical implications, but its simultaneous vagueness echoes the hollowness of shameless Hollywood<br />

and those who follow.<br />

13


KICKING THE CANON<br />

It isn’t surprising that Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers doesn’t<br />

figure in these discussions of hyperlink cinema, as its glaring<br />

lack of distribution (though currently available on MUBI) and its<br />

title not being A Brighter Summer Day or Yi Yi relegate it to the<br />

status of a dry run, although the film is being gradually revived<br />

as something ambitious in its own right. Yang seldom provides<br />

us the comfort of a grand theme with his elliptical and<br />

ambiguous narrative, where, contrary to most interlocking<br />

narratives, connections emerge as a source of suspicion that<br />

splinter rather than suture relationships. Character motivations<br />

are deliberately obscured, and the narrative momentum is<br />

thwarted by sharp, disjunctive edits. Sociological causes are not<br />

explicitly mentioned, and narrative threads spawn more<br />

narrative threads, denying any possibility of closure. However,<br />

looking at The Terrorizers through these antiquated lenses fails<br />

to confront the paralysis and unknowability at the center of its<br />

narrative, an unknowability wrought by a rapidly globalizing<br />

world and its multi-layered illusions.<br />

The film is loosely structured around the lives of four different<br />

characters in Taipei: an impassive doctor, Li, concerned about<br />

his professional advancement; his writer-wife Chou, struggling<br />

with inspiration for her latest fiction; a photographer living with<br />

his girlfriend and off the income from his rich father; and a<br />

Eurasian girl nicknamed “the white chick,” who poses as a<br />

prostitute to blackmail her clients with the help of her pimp.<br />

Yang establishes their linkages in various disquieting opening<br />

sequences, in which he employs long shots to frame the<br />

characters in their compartmentalized spaces. The steady drone<br />

of the city is disrupted by a police siren, and this piques the<br />

residents of the neighborhood, especially the photographer.<br />

These scenes are intercut with those of the doctor-wife couple<br />

and their palpable alienation from each other, before the camera<br />

turns its attention to a shootout involving the white chick and<br />

the police.<br />

The photographer snaps photos of the police as gunshots are<br />

heard in the background. Even as his inferiors jolt at the sounds,<br />

the police chief, Gu, calmly instructs the photographer to stop.<br />

This attitude of composure toward the ensuing violence is<br />

reflected in Yang’s filming of the sequence itself <strong>—</strong> the awkward,<br />

unhurried violence meriting the same treatment as the<br />

dissolving marriage of the couple. The juxtaposition of these<br />

different strands, along with their meticulous compositions, long<br />

shots, and unexpected edits, imbues the sequences with a sense<br />

of foreboding as the disaffected characters struggle to assert<br />

their identities within the labyrinthine cages of their city.<br />

If the term wasn’t bloated to mean something else, one could say<br />

that Yang puts the hyper in hyperlink cinema, in that his<br />

characters mediate their linkages with others through fiction.<br />

The white chick has managed to escape from the police, albeit<br />

with a broken leg, and her departure is captured by the<br />

photographer. Obsessed with his photograph and the mysterious<br />

glance of his art object, he enshrines her image in the form of a<br />

large portrait fragmented by several photographs on paper held<br />

together by tape. The fragments fluttering in the wind have<br />

become a metaphor for the film itself; fiction incapable of just<br />

being fiction and reality incapable of just being reality, both<br />

perturbing each other and dissolving any supposed boundaries<br />

erected by convention. The photographer converts the<br />

apartment to a dark room, fastidiously isolating his photos from<br />

even the slightest disturbances of the external world, leaving<br />

behind the illusion of “pure” fiction.<br />

The white chick, on the other hand, is grounded by her mother.<br />

Stuck at home, she prank calls random numbers, one of whom is<br />

Chou, which, surprisingly, provides the spark for Chou to churn<br />

out a lurid melodrama from her existing marital situation and the<br />

excuse to depart from it. While the photographer and Chou deal<br />

directly with fictions, Li does so indirectly, especially since his<br />

fiction of stability and advancement are considered hallmarks of<br />

reality. It’s almost unbelievable how blind Li is to Chou’s artistic<br />

and domestic struggles, consoling her with vacuous statements<br />

on how writing should not be so deadly (an ironic statement that<br />

returns with redoubled mystery in the film’s morbid ending), but<br />

his obsession with stability pushes him down the path of<br />

non-interference, almost as if hoping the marriage would fix<br />

itself. (He’s more pointed at work, sabotaging his colleague to<br />

improve his chances of promotion.) After the prank call, however,<br />

his illusions begin to crumble as he scrambles to re-establish<br />

this stability.<br />

Considering that all of the characters attempt to reconfigure<br />

their lives through fictions, it’s ironic that the characters who<br />

deal most overtly with fiction (Chou, who writes it, and the<br />

14


KICKING THE CANON<br />

photographer’s girlfriend, who buries her nose in it) insist on its<br />

difference from reality, even trivializing it as a mere diversion.<br />

Part of this might be rooted in the aspect of fiction hijacking its<br />

themes from reality and autobiography <strong>—</strong> an admission that their<br />

constructed world is ultimately derivative. Yang, however, bears<br />

none of these illusions, as he shows reality and fiction to exist in<br />

an indistinguishable blur. The film revels in mirrors and<br />

reflections, along with frequent long shots of cars and roads<br />

sandwiched between buildings. The city imposes its<br />

consciousness on its unsuspecting denizens, and this<br />

consciousness follows an unfathomable logic that is accepted as<br />

“reality.” Even when characters look outside their windows,<br />

Yang’s observant camera captures their reflections on glass<br />

surfaces, their attempts at reconfiguration not moving beyond<br />

the towering skyscrapers of the city. Light itself appears to<br />

emanate from a nearby building, trapped by the towering walls<br />

and glassy sheen of the city, inspiring Fredric Jameson’s apt<br />

pronouncement of the multiplicities it illuminates as<br />

“postmodern.”<br />

Reality in The Terrorizers is mediated through a series of socially<br />

accepted fictions, which in turn transform reality itself. Chou, a<br />

woman who couldn’t even gaze properly at her husband without<br />

being obstructed by walls and meticulously arranged objects in<br />

the living room, required a prank phone call as pretext to<br />

separate from him. The marriage was dead a long time ago <strong>—</strong> it’s<br />

impossible to understand how they came to be wed in the first<br />

place <strong>—</strong> but alienation doesn’t appear to be sufficient grounds<br />

for separation as an affair, however apocryphal, does. Chou uses<br />

fiction to move on to the next stage of her life <strong>—</strong> her first story of<br />

her high-school love affair propelling her toward marriage, and<br />

her next ending her marriage <strong>—</strong> only to return to the nostalgic<br />

comforts of her first affair. She might have come full circle, but<br />

her fiction takes a life of its own in Li’s hands, his psyche<br />

completely shaken by the fiction that lends a duality to the<br />

ending, which Yang deliberately leaves unresolved.<br />

The contemporaneousness of such a film makes it appear<br />

universal, especially in its piercing observations of<br />

(post?)modern alienation. But this universality does arise out of<br />

specificity, even though Yang doesn’t leave any obvious markers<br />

of Taiwanese culture, barring the language. As Jonathan<br />

Rosenbaum noted, Taiwan’s colonial history obliquely hovers over<br />

Yang’s films, despite their modern settings. The absence of the<br />

historical in some senses, brings it more to the fore, as Taiwan’s<br />

rapid industrialization and Westernization point toward an<br />

abstract future that refuses to engage with the past (unless<br />

there’s a threat of violence from its colonizer). Yang has<br />

expressed his doubts about globalization in Taiwan and wrote<br />

the following for New Left Review: “Under authoritarian rule, you<br />

can go<br />

underground<br />

with a feeling of<br />

purpose. But<br />

now everything<br />

looks fair, yet<br />

there’s no real<br />

participation in<br />

the system.” In a<br />

posthistorical<br />

world,<br />

his words<br />

continue to<br />

haunt the<br />

cluelessness of<br />

his characters.<br />

<strong>—</strong> ANAND<br />

SUDHA<br />

15


FILM REVIEWS<br />

THE LITTLE MERMAID<br />

Rob Marshall<br />

Typically, calling a film a faithful adaptation of its source<br />

material can constitute praise. It’s a signal of approval, a fan’s<br />

casual imprimatur. It’s a definitive blessing that this new entry<br />

has retained enough of the source’s initial look, feel, and spirit so<br />

as to be worthy of its name and justify its existence. Calling the<br />

Halle Bailey-led The Little Mermaid a faithful adaptation is true on<br />

its face, but to say fidelity is a film’s chief creative merit is to<br />

unwittingly reveal a lot about how movies are made, viewed, and<br />

judged these days. The thing about Disney’s live-action<br />

adaptations is that too often they are remakes marketed as<br />

reimaginings. Promotional attention goes to the revamped cast,<br />

plot diversions, and computer-generated spectacle, the gaudy<br />

elements forming the shell of the Trojan Horse that carries<br />

what’s ultimately a reenactment of released material. Without<br />

any nostalgic connection to the original property, The Little<br />

Mermaid is a peculiarly ambivalent experience, all its elevating<br />

touches counterbalanced by its new flaws.<br />

This new live-action version of The Little Mermaid pads out the<br />

animated original’s runtime by more than 50 minutes. The extra<br />

story that amounts to feels partially in service of a narrative<br />

ambition, but it also smacks of Disney's insistence on marketing<br />

its remakes as “reimaginings.” Stretching the story means more<br />

content, more gags, more dance numbers, more photorealistic<br />

crabs and fish that flirt with the uncanny valley, more memeable<br />

parcels ready to be plucked and circulated as reaction gifs and<br />

first-look film account posts. Still, this “new” content does offer<br />

something new, which is noticeable especially in comparison to<br />

the retread of story beats often adhered to so slavishly<br />

elsewhere. It goes beyond freeze-frame, Spot the Difference<br />

discrepancies, or how the imitative editing can conjure such a<br />

déjà vu effect that watching the initial descent into Atlantica or<br />

experiencing the crescendo of “Under the Sea” can feel like<br />

retracing old footsteps. When matters just move along as they’re<br />

supposed to, as they were always going to, that predictability<br />

numbs. We’re left to sit back in our seats, happy to be on a<br />

guided tour, wondering how Disney’s technicians will “bring to<br />

life” that thing we know is coming because we already know all<br />

the loops on the ride. To their credit, the technicians do their jobs<br />

well here. But no matter how immersive the effects or colorful<br />

the sets are, any wonder or amusement conjured never really<br />

lingers once a scene transitions.<br />

Something essential is lost in the transition from fully animated<br />

fantasy to the realm of live-action. Unbounded by reality’s<br />

constraints, animated works can possess an elasticity, a<br />

dynamism, a larger-than-life ridiculousness that paradoxically is<br />

uniquely suited for capturing new expressions of deeply human<br />

preoccupations and desires. Put another way, animated<br />

characters with their exaggerated faces and proportions can<br />

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communicate feelings in ways we humans simply cannot. On<br />

paper, much of the casting in this version is well thought-out, yet<br />

in execution the results are often less than the sum of their<br />

parts. Javier Bardem is a stiffer, blander King Triton, lacking his<br />

namesake’s imperious grandiosity and balance of harshness and<br />

tenderness. Melissa McCarthy is entertaining as Ursula, but never<br />

quite nails the character’s expressive range, Ursula’s devious<br />

charisma in no small part due to the many terrifying looks she<br />

can pull off with her eyes, brows, and lips. The voice work from<br />

the likes of Daveed Diggs, Jacob Tremblay, and Awkwafina is<br />

competent across the board, but it’s almost a disservice to inject<br />

those voices into lifelike renderings incapable of fully emoting<br />

and matching the performances.<br />

At the center of it all is Ariel, portrayed by Halle Bailey in what<br />

could prove to be a star-making turn. Bailey has the charm and<br />

poise to be instantly believable as the heroine, as well as a voice<br />

that could end up giving Jodi Benson’s exceptional work a run for<br />

its money in the collective filmgoing memory. Jonah Hauer-King<br />

is a pleasant surprise as Ariel’s beloved, Eric, benefitting from<br />

this version’s expanded characterization and feeling more like a<br />

person as opposed to a conventionally attractive prize Ariel sets<br />

out to win. A healthy chunk of the new runtime details their<br />

budding romance, fleshing out a section of the original film that<br />

is poorly paced, and this version explores further parallels<br />

between the two, which works to convince of their chemistry.<br />

Ariel <strong>—</strong> defined by her idealism, rebellious spirit, and cultural<br />

curiosity <strong>—</strong> discovers a true companion who similarly yearns for<br />

liberation beyond the borders of their xenophobic empire. But in<br />

the end, these added dimensions only serve to fill in some gaps,<br />

as come time for the climax, it’s back to the formula.<br />

Sans the cynicism about the film industry and the direction of<br />

our cultural appetites, The Little Mermaid is bright and innocuous<br />

enough to make the kids happy, as well as those who enjoy<br />

resurrecting the feelings they had as kids. It’s not too tough of a<br />

bar to clear, and the fact that this is where the bar’s been set<br />

might be the most lasting takeaway for viewers after the credits<br />

roll. <strong>—</strong> TRAVIS DESHONG<br />

DIRECTOR: Rob Marshall; CAST: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King,<br />

Melissa McCarthy; DISTRIBUTOR: Disney; IN THEATERS: May 24;<br />

RUNTIME: 2 hr. 15 min.<br />

YOU HURT MY FEELINGS<br />

Nicole Holofcener<br />

Even within the world of American independent filmmaking,<br />

there’s something endearingly out-of-step about the films of<br />

Nicole Holofcener. Warm and chatty when angst and calling card<br />

flash are largely the coin of the realm; unapologetically<br />

homogeneous and wryly observant of class and privilege from<br />

the inside looking out when diversity and outsider voices are<br />

being prioritized; proudly influenced by the films of Woody Allen,<br />

when most filmmakers would rather pretend he never existed.<br />

There was a time, not so long ago, when seemingly most of what<br />

came out of Sundance reflected something like that description,<br />

but presently it feels like Holofcener has a lane almost all to<br />

herself. True to form, her new film, You Hurt My Feelings, is about<br />

the anxieties and insecurities of upper middle-class,<br />

middle-aged New Yorkers who, for all their professional success,<br />

find their sense of personal worth and emotional well-being<br />

hanging by a thread. The setting may be insular, the characters<br />

self-absorbed, but in its observations of relationships and the<br />

fickle nature of happiness, Holofcener’s latest feels universal.<br />

Specifically, the idea that the world runs on little white lies and<br />

the elision of painful truths whenever feasible.<br />

“In its observations of<br />

relationships and the fickle<br />

nature of happiness,<br />

Holofcener’s latest feels<br />

universal.<br />

Reuniting with her Enough Said director, Julia Louis-Dreyfus<br />

stars as Beth, a creative writing professor and author who’s<br />

attempting to follow up a critically acclaimed memoir with her<br />

first novel. Her unerringly supportive husband, Don (Tobias<br />

Menzies of The Crown), is a therapist who’s begun to ponder<br />

whether he might be happier if he went ahead and got plastic<br />

surgery to fix his crow’s feet. Beth’s sister, Sarah (Michaela<br />

Watkins), is an interior decorator who muses that the world is<br />

ending and spends her days shopping for “cashmere-lined walls”<br />

and garish light fixtures to appease indecisive yuppies. Both Beth<br />

and Sarah volunteer at a local church overseeing a clothing<br />

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drive for the homeless as a sort of do-gooder contrition for how<br />

much the universe has lined up behind them (a recurring theme<br />

in Holofcener’s work, having previously been the subject of<br />

Please Give). While out running errands, the two women stumble<br />

upon Don and Beth’s husband, Mark (Succession actor Arian<br />

Moayed), shopping for designer socks and eavesdrop on their<br />

private conversation, learning Don’s most shameful secret, which<br />

shakes Beth to her very core: all this time, he’s only been<br />

pretending to like her new book.<br />

As sins go, it’s decidedly venial, and one could argue even<br />

compassionate at its core. Yet the implications are deeply<br />

wounding to Beth, eroding confidence in herself as well as trust<br />

in her husband. Sneaking away to avoid a confrontation, Beth<br />

wanders home in a daze, silently nursing her bruised ego <strong>—</strong> the<br />

film is a masterclass in conveying uncomfortable body language<br />

and physical distance between its characters, saying everything<br />

we need to know about where things stand simply in the way<br />

people resituate themselves on a couch <strong>—</strong> while the film goes on<br />

to explore the myriad small ways people hold their tongues or tell<br />

pleasant half-truths to spare themselves awkwardness or the<br />

feelings of someone else. Through a series of comedic<br />

exchanges that take us from Mark’s flailing acting career to Don’s<br />

practice <strong>—</strong> real life couple David Cross and Amber Tamblyn are<br />

cast as a contentious couple who have an unorthodox proposal<br />

to redress their frustration with years of therapy <strong>—</strong> to the home<br />

of Beth’s mother (Jeannie Berlin, an inspired choice to play the<br />

woman who birthed Louis-Dreyfus and Watkins), You Hurt My<br />

Feelings interrogates the entire notion of being unsparingly<br />

candid in your day-to-day life and whether supporting someone’s<br />

choices, even when you disagree with them, is ultimately a sign<br />

of love or merely self-preservation.<br />

Having honed her craft over decades in some of TV’s squirmiest<br />

comedies, there is no one better suited for this material than<br />

Louis-Dreyfus. In her scenes with Don, Beth gets to<br />

passive-aggressively seeth, registering a thousand needle pricks<br />

everytime he gives her a now transparently dishonest<br />

compliment about her book. It’s the rare film where vocalizing an<br />

affirmation is treated as a blistering verbal assault.<br />

Louis-Dreyfus and Menzies have a wonderfully unforced<br />

chemistry with one another, particularly in the film’s earlier<br />

scenes; fully at ease in their banter and domestic routines, like<br />

their tendency to share food off of one another’s plates, much to<br />

the disgust of their post-grad son, Eliot (Owen Teague). They<br />

bounce their fears off of one another <strong>—</strong> in addition to worrying<br />

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that he’s starting to look old, Don questions whether he’s even a<br />

good therapist <strong>—</strong> picking each other up when they’re down. But,<br />

as he rightly points out, Beth doesn’t actually know whether he’s<br />

exceptional at his job yet, she falls into the practiced habit of<br />

telling him he is anyway. And is Don’s compartmentalization of<br />

his own personal feelings to champion Beth’s work really any<br />

different than her own blind encouragement of Eliot’s nascent<br />

writing career, merely assuming he’s talented in his own right<br />

based on scant evidence (a point the film is, perhaps, a little too<br />

emphatic in making)?<br />

Holofcener treats all of this as a neurotic comedy of manners,<br />

taking a magnifying glass to every strained interaction or<br />

perceived slight and luxuriating in the discomfort. No complaint<br />

mumbled under someone’s breath goes unnoticed, no small<br />

demonstration of vulnerability too mortifying or beyond<br />

detection. Beth’s repeatedly reminded that her memoir of verbal<br />

abuse at the hands of her domineering father didn’t sell<br />

especially well, leading her to flippantly grumble (to her own<br />

mother, no less) that it might have sold more units if she was<br />

physically abused as well. She frequents book shops where she<br />

pulls copies of her memoir off the shelves and places them<br />

prominently on the bestseller table, a would-be covert mission<br />

the film makes a point of showing has been observed by the<br />

store’s amused employees (there’s also a fantastic running gag<br />

where Beth observes effusive praise for a new author<br />

emblazoned on a book jacket, only to contrast it with the more<br />

measured blurbs on her own work). You Hurt My Feelings allows<br />

us to see these people at their lowest and most self-centered,<br />

while still maintaining their basic decency and compassion for<br />

one another; it’s uncomfortable precisely because these<br />

characters are so likable and their foibles so recognizable. The<br />

filmmaking itself isn’t quite as elegant, functional and perhaps<br />

allowing for too many subplots to build around its central theme,<br />

but observations on human weakness and the virtues of<br />

insincerity are all smartly rendered. It’s as if the film were a cozy<br />

sweater in a slightly unflattering color <strong>—</strong> although one might be<br />

inclined to keep the second part to themselves. <strong>—</strong> ANDREW<br />

DIGNAN<br />

REALITY<br />

Tina Satter<br />

Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning <strong>—</strong> these whistleblowers,<br />

through their defiance, would define the creeping American<br />

military industrial and security complex in the years after 9/11.<br />

We know their stories, which have been abundantly documented,<br />

disseminated, filmed. But there’s less chance you’ve heard of<br />

Reality Winner, whose own leak has now been adapted by<br />

first-time filmmaker Tina Satter (following a stage play she<br />

directed based on this saga). The events of Reality all unfolded in<br />

2017, in the aftermath of the United States’ controversial 2016<br />

presidential election. From her office in rural Georgia, Reality<br />

Winner <strong>—</strong> a “cryptologic linguist” working, under contract, for the<br />

NSA <strong>—</strong> stumbled across a classified document which revealed<br />

evidence of Russian interference in the contested election at a<br />

time when the U.S. government was vehemently denying these<br />

reports. This document, which Reality leaked to The Intercept,<br />

DIRECTOR: Nicole Holofcener; CAST: Julia Louis-Drefus, Tobias<br />

Menzies, Michaela Watkins; DISTRIBUTOR: A24; IN THEATERS:<br />

May 25; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

would be traced back to only a handful of individuals who had<br />

both the necessary clearance and who had “opened” the film. The<br />

interrogation of Reality herself, then <strong>—</strong> which represents the<br />

meat of this film <strong>—</strong> was undertaken in an effort to prove her guilt.<br />

Satter’s film is a chamber piece, almost entirely unfolding within<br />

Reality’s home (and front yard), where she is interrogated, cat<br />

and mouse style, by an ever-increasing host of FBI agents, who<br />

seem almost to coagulate around her. The film is also a piece of<br />

archival work, using audio of the actual interrogation overlaid<br />

onto the performance of Sydney Sweeney (who plays Reality) <strong>—</strong> at<br />

least initially. Throughout the film, this audio will occasionally<br />

resurface, merging back into the proceedings and establishing a<br />

strangely affecting tension between the “real” interrogation and<br />

the scenes that play out in front of us on screen. These moments<br />

are like jolts, dissonances that remind us of the stakes and bring<br />

us <strong>—</strong> quite literally <strong>—</strong> back to Reality/reality, before soon enough<br />

tearing us away from it again. Crucially, the entire script is lifted<br />

verbatim from the interrogation transcript itself, offering another<br />

powerful dose of the authentic.<br />

Sweeney is magnetic in the role. You can feel the gulp of her<br />

rising panic and her efforts to tamp it down. Satter spends a lot<br />

of time in a medium close-up, where each tense blink, fluttered<br />

breath, and anxiously bitten lip is registered and documented.<br />

Since the the film began life as a play <strong>—</strong> where the stage is<br />

necessarily “wide” <strong>—</strong> Satter here indulges in the corporeal<br />

benefits of what cinema can bring to this story: proximity,<br />

closeness, intimacy. This is not “filmed theater,” but is instead its<br />

own cinematic entity. It’s only later that you realize how much<br />

time you’ve spent looking <strong>—</strong> closely <strong>—</strong> at faces and bodies; it’s<br />

impossible to escape them. Satter keeps the film’s lighting even,<br />

so that nothing is accented, nothing shadowed or submerged<br />

except, of course, the intangible warp and weft of the power<br />

relations that structure the entire ordeal. The mise-en-scène is<br />

unsettlingly “banal”: AR-15 in pink decal; Pikachu bedspread;<br />

domestic desiderata.<br />

Indeed, the “banality of evil” is an oft-used and frequently<br />

misapplied term, rarely fitting the context into which it’s dropped.<br />

It has a certain stretchiness. With Reality, Satter draws very close<br />

to a particular aesthetics of malignant banality,<br />

honing in on the blandly precise figurations of the security state.<br />

Blocking, set design, and above all, bodies <strong>—</strong> the bodies of FBI<br />

agents and policemen, of whom there are so many seen in the<br />

film <strong>—</strong> which become fleshy monoliths of state power. They are<br />

not fearful so much as ordinary, and this is how their horror<br />

properly arrives. Stretched-tight polo shirts, oakleys wrapped<br />

around sweating heads, visible crotch prints from too-tight khaki<br />

trousers <strong>—</strong> the men who slowly, unstoppably, close in around<br />

Reality seem more like lumps of dull meat than shadowy agents<br />

of the state (a long way from the elfin youthfulness of Mulder and<br />

Scully). Satter fills Reality’s small, tidy home almost-to-bursting<br />

with all this shuffling physicality <strong>—</strong> pressing against her without<br />

coming into actual physical contact. There’s a feeling of<br />

suffocation. They know more than her. They are the arbiters of<br />

reality. The effect recalls Alexei German’s very vaudevillian<br />

Khrustalyov, my Car! (1998) and My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), both<br />

of which unfold, densely, within packed-tight apartments. Here,<br />

however, the humor is vacuumed out, and that same corporeality<br />

and blocking is wielded to more oppressive ends. Reality feels<br />

lifted from the lifeworld of Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), where<br />

domestic space is inverted, its boundaries penetrated, and its<br />

signification <strong>—</strong> of comfort and safety <strong>—</strong> disrupted.<br />

The primary “handlers” who deal with Reality <strong>—</strong> you can pun<br />

easily on the name and its relationship to “truthiness” <strong>—</strong> play a<br />

grim game of empathy: talking about bench presses (she lifts),<br />

dogs, the weather, the neighborhood. They smile and appear<br />

agreeable, but they are not, obviously, agreeable. Small gestures<br />

are loaded with implications of authority and power structures.<br />

The veil of false friendliness quickly snaps back into a visible<br />

band of control. For much of Reality, we’re suspended in a space<br />

without the crutch of dramatic irony; we don’t know, can only<br />

intuit, Reality’s innocence, or her guilt. This approach is<br />

refreshing <strong>—</strong> and makes us complicit. It also, cleverly, reproduces<br />

the information blackout that Reality herself experienced. Only<br />

the state knows what it does, and we are left to fumble in the<br />

darkness.<br />

Still, Reality might overreach. In the final third, Satter introduces<br />

certain editorial flourishes and effects. When Reality utters the<br />

content of the redacted documents, her body is “redacted” from<br />

the film with an editorial snap <strong>—</strong> it’s clever, but a bit too TV.<br />

These breakages will date the film quickly, and represent its<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

least interesting elements, dismantling a little of the carefully<br />

naturalistic camerawork and blocking that had held until this<br />

point. The same goes for scenes in which we see Reality in her<br />

office, removing the printed documents and pausing by a<br />

postbox (presumably after dispatching them). It’s here that the<br />

film begins to feel more didactic and uninterestingly<br />

“documentarian.” Whenever we’re present at the interrogation,<br />

Reality vibrates with a magnetic tension <strong>—</strong> between Sweeney’s<br />

darting eyes and the hard-now-soft smiles of her interlocutors,<br />

the sound of distant shuffling and knocking as a legion of FBI<br />

officers sift through her apartment. This is the world, the<br />

moment, that matters, and it’s here that one wonders how much<br />

more affecting Reality might have been if it didn’t lean on these<br />

fragments from outside and instead kept us locked within the<br />

context of the interrogation itself. Escapology without an exit. <strong>—</strong><br />

OWEN VINCE<br />

DIRECTOR: Tina Satter; CAST: Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton,<br />

Marchánt Davis; DISTRIBUTOR: HBO; STREAMING: May 29;<br />

RUNTIME: 1 hr. 23 min.<br />

WILL-O’-THE-WISP<br />

João Pedro Rodrigues<br />

“Indeed, sensual absurdity is a fitting phrase word for a film<br />

whose primary sex scene, between the White Alfredo and his<br />

mentor Black firefighter Afonso, features exceptionally<br />

fake-looking penises; it’s not as if Rodrigues is afraid of<br />

showing nudity, even displaying a slideshow of penises that<br />

each correspond to a forest in Portugal. But the limits of<br />

showing reality are openly challenged by Will-o’-the-Wisp, a<br />

film where firefighters are never actually seen in front of a<br />

blaze, where a supposedly disastrous simulation is a<br />

lighthearted form of hazing, where futuristic clothing is<br />

beautifully tacky, and firefighters seem to have amassed<br />

considerable power in the intervening decades.” <strong>—</strong> RYAN SWEN<br />

DIRECTOR: João Pedro Rodrigues; CAST: Mauro Costa, André<br />

Cabral, Joel Branco; DISTRIBUTOR: Strand Releasing; IN<br />

THEATERS: May 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 7 min.<br />

THE POTEMKINISTS<br />

Radu Jude<br />

Radu Jude’s new short, The Potemkinists, finds the director in<br />

typically didactic form, which is one of his greatest virtues <strong>—</strong> why<br />

not say what you mean, especially when it comes to politics? At<br />

the present moment, film holds perhaps the least cultural impact<br />

it has ever had, and short films even less, so there’s little hope for<br />

ideas buried under the propriety of subtext. In The Potemkinists,<br />

two Romanian characters <strong>—</strong> a sculptor and a bureaucrat from<br />

the ministry of culture <strong>—</strong> lay out their ideas in a vapid Socratic<br />

dialogue, debating what to make of a particularly meaningless<br />

statue that could be either a hammer, a flag, a flame, or a wing (it<br />

doesn’t really matter, since India has already built a bigger one).<br />

To make it the tallest statue in Europe and restore some of the<br />

country’s former Soviet glory, the sculptor suggests adding a<br />

tribute to the Potemkinists, those sailors who rose up on the<br />

eponymous Russian battleship, mostly because he loves<br />

Eisenstein’s film and its depiction of the event. The clarity and<br />

purpose of Battleship Potemkin create a stark contrast when<br />

intercut with these scenes of liberal yammering.<br />

The bureaucrat pushes back against this idea because it might<br />

be seen, by the people she represents and seems to assume very<br />

little of, as a eulogy to communists. But the sculptor insists it has<br />

nothing to do with ideology. (When he apologizes for bad<br />

language, it’s unclear if he’s referring to “fucking” or “socialist.”)<br />

Even though he’s borrowing imagery from a film he calls<br />

propaganda <strong>—</strong> the dead sailor laying on a hook <strong>—</strong> it’s okay<br />

because the real Potemkinists ended up fleeing to their native<br />

Romania, where they were taken in as refugees; he manages to<br />

twist it into some bizarre allusion to the refugee crisis and the<br />

charitable spirit of Europeans. His view of history is like that of<br />

any history nerd or liberal politician: it’s fragmented into amusing<br />

little facts that can never coalesce into concrete reality,<br />

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which allows them to be rearranged into whatever shape is<br />

desirable. The sculptor just wants to enjoy Eisenstein’s explicitly<br />

communist movie guilt-free without feeling ideologically impure,<br />

a desire hardly limited to liberals. (Many leftist cinephile types<br />

desperately try to convince themselves that right-wing artists<br />

like Zack Snyder are actually, secretly, woke.)<br />

But what Jude is hitting upon is a particularly European<br />

relationship to history. America has the ability to reduce its<br />

complexities into symbols, it being allegedly a nation built on<br />

ideas and consequently subsumable into myth. But Europe is so<br />

densely populated with histories both distant and close that the<br />

only way to obscure it is to complicate it further, to make it<br />

entirely relativistic so that one could argue, as the sculptor does,<br />

that the Potemkinists were idealists and not communists. His<br />

final compromise <strong>—</strong> the liberal’s medium <strong>—</strong> with the bureaucrat is<br />

to position his tribute to the Potemkinists alongside one to the<br />

victims of a Stalinist prison camp that was built nearby.<br />

The duo’s best justification for this gibberish collage is that “the<br />

twentieth century was a jumble anyway,” and thus there’s no<br />

point trying to interpret it or anything else. “You brute of a<br />

century,” the sculptor says, quoting Osip Mandelstam, a Russian<br />

poet who was sent to a labor camp, “who could look into the<br />

centers of your eyes?” But it seems easy enough to do with a<br />

theistic reverence for anti-ideology that no longer seeks to<br />

justify the past or the status quo, settling for passive acceptance<br />

through abstraction. The tragedy of The Potemkinists is hence<br />

thus: when the sculptor and bureaucrat look into those eyes, they<br />

don’t see the grandeur and cruelty of history, but a postmodern<br />

banality. <strong>—</strong> ESMÉ HOLDEN<br />

DIRECTOR: Radu Jude; CAST: Alexandru Dabija, Cristina<br />

Draghici; DISTRIBUTOR: MUBI; STREAMING: May 25; RUNTIME:<br />

18 min.<br />

KANDAHAR<br />

Ric Roman Waugh<br />

In a famous 1960 piece for Cahiers du Cinema, titled “In Defense<br />

of Violence,” Michel Mourlet bluntly states: "Charlton Heston is an<br />

axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any<br />

film being enough to instill beauty. The pent-up violence<br />

expressed by the sombre phosphorescence of his eyes... the<br />

stupendous strength of his torso <strong>—</strong> this is what he has been<br />

given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase.”<br />

Gerard Butler might be our modern Heston, all “stupendous<br />

strength,” only gone to seed. Critic Soraya Roberts praises<br />

Butler's “faithful portrayal of a rumpled-but-honorable<br />

masculinity” in a recent essay for The New York Times Magazine.<br />

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky once remarked in print that Butler looked<br />

like he “had eaten Rusell Crowe,” a far cry from the buff,<br />

perfectly-sculpted action heroes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Butler is<br />

the beefy, taciturn face of the modern mid-budget action movie,<br />

a genre largely displaced by superhero spectacle on the one<br />

hand and lo-fi, but wildly inventive, DTV features on the other.<br />

He's the last gasp of a dying breed, in other words, and how much<br />

one enjoys the new action-thriller Kandahar probably depends on<br />

how much one enjoys Butler himself.<br />

Essentially playing a variation on his Has Fallen character, Mike<br />

Bannon (although every Butler performance could be called a<br />

variation), here Butler is a CIA asset named Tom Harris.<br />

Introduced in the middle of a covert mission, Harris and his<br />

partner are infiltrating a secret Iranian nuclear base under the<br />

guise of Internet technicians upgrading some infrastructure.<br />

After the successful completion of the job, Harris kicks back with<br />

a cold beer while some military brass back in the States hack<br />

into the base's reactor and detonate it. Satisfied with his work,<br />

Harris plans to return home to his soon-to-be-ex-wife and<br />

teenage daughter, who's about to graduate high school. But<br />

Harris' handler, played by Travis Fimmel, coerces him into one<br />

more job. Harris is to cross over into Afghanistan and meet<br />

Mohammad (Navid Negahban), a translator who is from the area<br />

but has been living in the US for several years. Mohammad, or Mo,<br />

has his own reasons for returning to his war-ravaged homeland,<br />

and is using this mission with Harris for his own purposes.<br />

Meanwhile, a British journalist receives a dossier of leaked<br />

information incriminating the United States in the attack on Iran.<br />

This immediately leads to Farzad (Bahador Foladi), an Iranian<br />

Revolutionary Guard officer, kidnapping the journalist,<br />

interrogating her, and learning Harris' identity. With his cover<br />

now blown, Harris' new mission is aborted, and he and Mo are<br />

ordered to seek extraction at an old, abandoned US military<br />

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base. The only catch is that it's 400 miles away, and Harris and<br />

Mo will have to traverse a huge expanse of dangerous country to<br />

get there. Further complicating matters is a determined<br />

Pakistani agent named Kahil (Ali Fazal), who has been tasked by<br />

his commanding officers with capturing Harris. Kahil is in bed<br />

with a local Taliban warlord who he calls in for reinforcements,<br />

while all parties involved are on the lookout for various Isis sects<br />

still operating in the area.<br />

This is an awful lot of setup to get through, but director Ric<br />

Roman Waugh <strong>—</strong> now on his third collaboration with Butler <strong>—</strong><br />

handles the various threads with relative ease. It takes about 45<br />

minutes to establish all of these moving pieces, but eventually<br />

Kandahar turns into a pretty straightforward chase film. Iranian,<br />

Pakistani, Taliban, and Isis forces all have their own motives for<br />

capturing Harris, and each character is given some real<br />

personality. Kabul in particular makes an impression as a man<br />

with Westernized tastes who wants to leave the region and live<br />

somewhere in Europe <strong>—</strong> he’s an opportunist, not a true believer.<br />

Indeed, the filmmakers seem determined to portray the Middle<br />

East with at least the rare modicum of nuance, allowing for<br />

differences in the region to be carefully delineated and<br />

respecting various characters’ need to pray at specific times. For<br />

his part, Harris is well aware of the destruction that the US and<br />

its allies have wrought on the region, as well as the damage<br />

inflicted by our abrupt, disorganized departure in 20<strong>21</strong>. Given<br />

everything going on, Waugh has to toe a tricky line here,<br />

constantly vacillating between a reasonably serious political<br />

thriller and a straightforward action movie. And in an odd bit of<br />

happenstance, Harris and Mo's relationship mirrors the plot of<br />

the recent Guy Ritchie film, The Covenant, but there's also quite a<br />

bit of Ridley Scott's underrated Body of Lies in Kandahar's DNA.<br />

Still, the film really only comes alive during its infrequent but<br />

well-constructed shootouts and chases. A showdown on a<br />

crowded street is expertly staged by Waugh and mononymous<br />

cinematographer MacGregor. And the real showstopper is a<br />

nighttime sequence that finds Harris and Mo on the run from a<br />

helicopter. Waugh and MacGregor alternate between two<br />

different types of night-vision goggles <strong>—</strong> one pair, worn by Harris,<br />

renders in blown-out whites and dark grays; the other, from the<br />

vantage point of the helicopter, features a more familiar fuzzy,<br />

digital green. The difference in hues allows Waugh to cut freely<br />

while still maintaining a precise geography, each character's POV<br />

instantly recognizable even in the dead of night; it's thrilling<br />

stuff, perfectly realized and choreographed. That the film<br />

ultimately ends up exactly where you think it will is perhaps a<br />

knock against it, as are some fuzzy ideas about international<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

politics (it’s unclear if the filmmakers realize that the act of<br />

sabotage that opens the film is a very serious war crime). Which<br />

is to say, however sensitive the film is to its Muslim characters,<br />

this is still an American action movie that seeks to find thrills in<br />

our military interventions. How much you ultimately mind any of<br />

this probably depends on how much you like seeing Butler kick<br />

some ass. You know who you are. <strong>—</strong> DANIEL GORMAN<br />

DIRECTOR: Ric Roman Waugh; CAST: Gerard Butler, Navid<br />

Negahban, Travis Fimmel, Ali Fazal; DISTRIBUTOR: Open Road<br />

Films; IN THEATERS: May 26; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 0 min.<br />

ABOUT MY FATHER<br />

Laura Terruso<br />

Sadly, new romantic comedy About My Father is not a companion<br />

piece to Pedro Almodóvar’s magnificent All About My Mother, but<br />

instead an attempted star vehicle for rising stand-up comedian<br />

Sebastian Maniscalco, who makes a lot of jokes about being<br />

Italian that so inspire fits of wheezing laughter in the lucrative<br />

middle-aged white male demographic. Maniscalco himself<br />

co-wrote the script, inspired by the cantankerous but heartfelt<br />

relationship he shares with his own father, an Italian immigrant<br />

whose love of both the Old World and his family apparently makes<br />

him an easy target for jokes that would have seemed stale in<br />

1976. Any Italian stereotype you can imagine is trotted out here,<br />

and even some that seems entirely fabricated, such as how<br />

Italian men are known for their “resting bitch face.” Are they? Is<br />

this a thing people say? Based solely on the evidence presented<br />

on screen, Maniscalco seems to believe that Italian men are the<br />

most persecuted people on the planet <strong>—</strong> in this, the year of our<br />

Lord 2023. About My Father, then, operates as his plea for<br />

tolerance, even as the film only serves to reinforce outdated<br />

stereotypes in the grossest way possible, all while posing as yet<br />

another tired Meet the Parents retread.<br />

Maniscalco plays a man named Sebastian Maniscalco <strong>—</strong> but he’s<br />

not playing himself, so already what are we even doing? This<br />

Sebastian is a hotel manager in Chicago who is dating WASP-y<br />

artist Ellie (Leslie Bibb), who seems to paint the same picture of<br />

11<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

a sort of vagina over and over, and thus is successful. Sebastian<br />

is ready to propose, but his Sicilian father, Salvo (Robert De Niro),<br />

won’t give up the family ring until he meets the future in-laws,<br />

Bill (David Rasche) and Tigger (Kim Cattrall). As luck would have<br />

it, everyone is invited to a Fourth of July holiday weekend at the<br />

couple’s summer home, which is located in the kind of Cape<br />

Cod-y place where rich people gather and watch Fox News.<br />

Sebastian is worried that his father will embarrass him, because<br />

Salvo has a strong work ethic and values every dollar earned,<br />

plus he occasionally speaks in Italian, which, mamma mia! The<br />

rest of About My Father follows in this fashion, setting viewers up<br />

for all sorts of wacky comedic set pieces, such as a volatile<br />

tennis match between family members, the murder of a peacock<br />

(don’t ask), and a bout of inadvertent public nudity. Yet each one<br />

is executed in the most shrug-worthy way possible, as if the<br />

scenario itself was all that was necessary and not the jokes that<br />

should be located within them. Laura Terruso’s lifeless direction<br />

certainly doesn’t help matters, and neither does that fact that so<br />

much of About My Father consists of terribly written dialogue<br />

exchanges set in nondescript rooms, none more so than when it<br />

comes to Sebastian and Salvo, who spend the majority of the film<br />

having the same conversation over and over, always in the same<br />

clothes, but supposedly on different days <strong>—</strong> this is the level of<br />

lazy we’re talking about.<br />

And then there’s the fact that Sebastian is a terrible person,<br />

constantly putting down his father, at one point flat out stating,<br />

“I’m done with you, time to move on with my life.” About My Father<br />

certainly doesn’t provide pleasant company for what is ostensibly<br />

a comedy, though it does have the audacity to strive for tears in<br />

the home stretch, as father and son reconnect. Salvo is indeed<br />

stubborn, but aside from that aforementioned bird murder,<br />

nothing he does warrants the drama queen responses Sebastian<br />

is so prone to deliver. The movie is also weirdly fixated on New<br />

Age mysticism and the mocking of such, which again, is beyond<br />

tired in 2023. To call these “Dad jokes” is an insult to fathers<br />

everywhere, who are worthy of more than an overly spray-tanned<br />

comedian who somehow convinced a major Hollywood studio to<br />

film his therapy sessions. It would at least help if Maniscalco<br />

possessed something in the way of screen presence or charisma,<br />

but his performance is stiff and mannered, like a robot trying to<br />

impersonate a human prone to wild emotional vacillations. De<br />

Niro, the consummate<br />

professional, rarely phones anything in, and he indeed leans in to<br />

this underwhelming material, but he also looks severely pained<br />

for the majority of the film’s mercifully short runtime <strong>—</strong> totally<br />

understandable. If Maniscalco is truly under the impression that<br />

the final product he delivered here is a loving tribute to his<br />

father, then he’s in serious need of an influx of self-awareness,<br />

and perhaps a swift kick to the head by Pops himself. Unless the<br />

man is an escaped war criminal, he certainly didn’t deserve About<br />

My Father. No one does. <strong>—</strong> STEVEN WARNER<br />

DIRECTOR: Laura Terruso; CAST: Robert De Niro, Sebastian<br />

Maniscalco, Leslie Bibb, Anders Holm; DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate;<br />

IN THEATERS: May 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 29 min.<br />

STAY AWAKE<br />

Jamie Sisley<br />

Jamie Sisley’s directorial debut, Stay Awake, is an addiction story<br />

that situates its two primary characters outside the epicenter of<br />

the addiction <strong>—</strong> in its wake and at the periphery. Tremors of<br />

turmoil sweep through the family of three: a single mother and<br />

her two coming-of-age sons, the youngest, Ethan (Wyatt Oleff),<br />

UNCLENCHING THE FISTS<br />

Kira Kovalenko<br />

“Unclenching the Fists assuredly portrays the subjectivity of<br />

personal experience without resorting to the easy satisfaction<br />

of unraveling it. That the cast, especially Aguzarova and<br />

Karaev, appear muted in their performances, speaks not to a<br />

lack of ambition; but in capturing Adadza’s childlike precarity<br />

alongside her father’s physical and vocal frailty, Kovalenko<br />

amplifies the airless menace coursing through her sweltering<br />

drama, relentless in its openness to interpretation. The scars<br />

potentially run deep in Adadza’s family, and it would take more<br />

than the unclenching of fists <strong>—</strong> if and when that happens <strong>—</strong> to<br />

heal and be free.” <strong>—</strong> MORRIS YANG<br />

DIRECTOR: Kira Kovalenko; CAST: Milana Aguzarova, Alik<br />

Karaev, Soslan Khugaev; DISTRIBUTOR: MUBI; STREAMING:<br />

May 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 37 min.<br />

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and older brother, Derek (Steffan Fin Argus). Together, they wait<br />

for a lasting respite from their trauma <strong>—</strong> whether by slow<br />

decline or something more disruptive <strong>—</strong> a tension that fuels the<br />

film’s emotional conflict. Ethan has depressive tendencies, and<br />

he’s been accepted on full scholarship to Brown, far away from<br />

his family’s rural Virginia town. Derek, meanwhile, determinedly<br />

(toxically?) positive, has put his acting ambitions on hold to be<br />

there for their mother, Michelle (Chrissy Metz), as she fractures<br />

their futures in a spiral of prescription pill blackouts <strong>—</strong> being<br />

found, brought to the hospital, and discharged the next day, only<br />

to act as if nothing happened at all.<br />

Michelle rarely apologizes to the boys for their labor the morning<br />

after a hospital stay. We see in her the same tendency that Derek<br />

has adopted: the use of denial for survival. Ethan, on the other<br />

hand, is repelled by the passivity he sees in his mother and<br />

brother; he repeatedly bleats blame on their mother for her<br />

condition, and presses Derek to acknowledge the reality of their<br />

situation so that he doesn’t continue trending down his path of<br />

becoming “a pathetic person, a loser.” These emotional beats<br />

reverberate throughout the film <strong>—</strong> this now, then that again <strong>—</strong> in<br />

concentric cycles that are subtly developed enough and display<br />

sufficient insight to be in favor of its existence, though it must<br />

be noted that its visual style and rhythm offer little to<br />

complement its structure with its form.<br />

Sisley sporadically shifts between the independent lives of<br />

Michelle, Derek, and Ethan in the spaces at the edge of their<br />

family life, which is invariably brought to the brink of calamity<br />

every time the boys have to bring their mom to the hospital. The<br />

ambition of this structure is admirable in creating nuanced<br />

characters complex enough to differentiate this film’s various<br />

narrative threads, which bears many similarities to addiction<br />

films like Beautiful Boy, but unlike, say, Short Cuts or any number<br />

of Robert Altman films, Sisley fails to leverage rhythm to imbue<br />

these character digressions into a coherent emotional logic that<br />

might lend more depth.<br />

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an attempt. Intermittently, we learn<br />

many details of the family and their lives: Ethan has a crush on a<br />

male classmate who has pursued his ex-girlfriend after their<br />

breakup; Derek is stuck in place at a bowling alley, dating high<br />

school seniors and yearning to return to acting, if not in films,<br />

then to the same success he enjoyed as a regional commercial<br />

actor; Michelle continues to seek closure after being left by her<br />

husband and the father of the boys, and to become the mother<br />

she has failed to be time and again. But while it's easy to<br />

recognize how all of these character details could be used to<br />

shade complexity into the film, the effect instead feels like a<br />

family portrait drawn in highlighter yellows, pinks, and oranges,<br />

pushing the viewer, mechanistically, toward feeling. The irony of<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

Derek’s ambition to act in commercials is that it feels almost as<br />

if Argus is playing a character in a commercial for life insurance,<br />

with lingering shots seeming to shout, “Look! He’s crying.” The<br />

film’s pieces are carefully measured and laid out, but the<br />

forcefulness with which they are employed makes it difficult for<br />

the viewer to reconcile the onslaught of emotion.<br />

Sisley is more successful elsewhere. Stay Awake boasts a number<br />

of beautiful images, including a striking one of the two boys<br />

standing in front of what appears to be a massive salt dome. And<br />

the film is at its most affecting in moments of painful honesty,<br />

where the viewer is made privy to the promise of what could<br />

have been: some of the film’s most poignant moments take the<br />

form of match cuts of the boys waiting for their mother, day<br />

suddenly turned to night, or Derek processing his emotions with<br />

Styrofoam cup puppets, or a scene in which the sound of<br />

Michelle’s heart subtly bleeds into the film’s score. These<br />

moments feel less effortful, and as a result, less manufactured to<br />

coerce feeling; they flow more freely. There’s something to be<br />

said about Stay Awake’s climax, too: it’s one of the film’s few<br />

scenes that finally gets past the texture-less veneer to reveal the<br />

mutilated underbelly of the family’s draining, painful<br />

circumstances. But for too much of the film, we are left<br />

wondering about the emotional truth that exists between the<br />

family’s repeating tremors. Sisley shows us plenty, but ultimately<br />

very little is done to portray the emotional collateral of addiction<br />

in a way that couldn’t be conveyed in an anti-drug PSA. <strong>—</strong> CONOR<br />

TRUAX<br />

DIRECTOR: Jamie Sisley; CAST: Chrissy Metz, Wyatt Oleff, Fin<br />

Argus; DISTRIBUTOR: Mar Vista Entertainment; IN THEATERS:<br />

May 19; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 34 min.<br />

ROBOTS<br />

Casper Christensen & Anthony Hines<br />

Body doubles and deception have always been the fertile staples<br />

of romantic comedy <strong>—</strong> look no further than Shakespeare, who<br />

imbued such courtly antics with lively flourish to inspire the<br />

critical reflexivity and popular recognition that has come to<br />

define the Western (and thus modern) literary scene. The<br />

proliferation of mistaken identities in Much Ado About Nothing,<br />

some four centuries past, has endured past the script and stage<br />

to manifest on-screen as a medium for high and low culture<br />

alike to elucidate political aims, exorcize personal grudges, or<br />

even just provide a good gag. Remember 1994’s Dumb and<br />

Dumber? While Peter Farrelly’s deranged buddy comedy provided<br />

the archetypal character study of a ridiculous yet endlessly<br />

compelling tale of friendship and the desperation to get laid, its<br />

conceit lay squarely in Jim Carrey; more precisely, his<br />

physiognomic flexibility to squint, grimace, snarl, and cackle his<br />

way through rural America.<br />

You’d be hard-pressed to name a comedy this enamored by star<br />

presence <strong>—</strong> and not stardom <strong>—</strong> today, especially as IPs get<br />

generic and the next generation of DALL·E and ChatGPT<br />

developers take us one step closer to movie singularity: the day<br />

when a generation of screenwriters and acting students put<br />

down their placards and pick up their phones to proofread plot<br />

points instead. Stardom has enveloped streaming platforms and<br />

proliferated their capital, and where stardom can’t be had, the<br />

gag is next in line. Not in the conventional sense, as in Chaplin<br />

and Keaton with their innumerable burlesque portraits or Ernie<br />

Bushmiller’s delightful strip Nancy, but as a device attuned to<br />

modern attention spans and then further eroding them. “What if<br />

this, but that?” becomes the resounding TL;DR for the latest<br />

one-trick pony, and while it’s certainly a bit reductive to<br />

disparage all the equines in the room, the few unicorns that do<br />

exist are usually stampeded by mass content creation.<br />

All of which is to say that Robots, the directorial effort of Anthony<br />

Hines and Casper Christensen (brainchild of Danish sitcom<br />

Clown), proves to be a cheap-thrill disappointment inspiring the<br />

occasional chuckle and little more. Think: what if a rom-com, but<br />

with two couples, one of whom are rogue robotic clones of the<br />

other? Charlie (Jack Whitehall), a spoiled and good-for-nothing<br />

fuckboy who exclusively dates to hook up, crosses paths with<br />

Elaine (Shailene Woodley), an equally conniving gold-digger who<br />

pays her rent by bedding rich guys. Unbeknownst to either, the<br />

other has a robot double whom they each use to achieve their<br />

own nefarious ends: Charlie’s, C2, goes through the hassle of<br />

wooing Elaine so that he can get straight down to the action,<br />

while Elaine’s, E2, is purposed precisely for the action, and little<br />

more. While Charlie lounges with pizza and videogames, sending<br />

his productive facsimile to work for his rich papa, Elaine has<br />

mastered an itinerary of loaning out hers to the unsuspecting<br />

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FILM REVIEWS<br />

men she headhunts. One’s a toxic sorta-incel; the other’s a vapid<br />

hypocrite.<br />

The road to a blissfully unaware life of double deception is,<br />

however, blocked by two things. In this world, where credible and<br />

anatomically accurate robots are a thing, they’re illegal for<br />

personal use (an unexpectedly smart regulatory move!), so<br />

openly working two jobs at once is not an option. But having been<br />

modified explicitly for personal use, they’re proving not so<br />

credible after all; after the duo unwittingly coordinate a<br />

one-night stand between their silicone copies and fail to<br />

“emotionally deprogram” them, C2 and E2 fall in love, run away,<br />

and dump a steaming problem into the laps of their progenitors<br />

who are convinced they’ve been framed and impersonated, and<br />

are now wanted by the police. The entirety of Robots, then, is a<br />

similar cross-country run for the U.S.-Mexico border, where the<br />

robots are rumored to have gone. In Mexico, where doubles are<br />

legal, they have become both a respite for our antagonists who<br />

wish to live human lives and not slave over others, as well as a<br />

political scourge for… guess it, illegal immigrant humanoids<br />

whom American companies and corporations employ en masse<br />

at virtually zero operating cost.<br />

Based on Robert Sheckley’s short story “The Robot Who Looked<br />

Like Me,” Robots squanders even its potential to back up its<br />

sociopolitical premise beyond mainstream Twitter analytics. Its<br />

script would not be out-of-place in a folio of algorithmic<br />

prompts, and its character motivations are scant if even<br />

existent. Charlie and Elaine don’t quite learn from their moral<br />

follies, and their robots’ own awakenings are reduced point-blank<br />

to the behaviorist assumptions of computer programming. Quite<br />

literally so: after five hours of numbing robot sex, C2 and E2<br />

climax and, just like that, find love. There’s no reason why any of<br />

this matters beyond seeing our two real millennials err and<br />

bounce back, almost as cathartic reflection of our ideally more<br />

palatable selves coping with the perils and pleasures of artificial<br />

postmodernity. Perhaps it’s a little harsh to rag on a perfectly<br />

serviceable streaming flick, the kind that kids may vibe to (sans<br />

the sex part). But a counterpoint to this is the film’s context of<br />

production: with a budget of $<strong>21</strong> million (which is not Russo-level,<br />

but tons more than what many better films receive) and a<br />

distribution from NEON, you’d expect something more compelling<br />

to come out of a comedy of errors. Instead, what remains past its<br />

93 minutes are some vague, laugh-out-loud sequences which<br />

exemplify the vapid supremacy of the gag today: all comedy and<br />

no errors, cheapened for bot-friendly consumption. <strong>—</strong> MORRIS<br />

YANG<br />

DIRECTOR: Casper Christensen & Anthony Hines; CAST: Shailene<br />

Woodley, Jack Whitehall, Chelsea Edmundson; DISTRIBUTOR:<br />

NEON; IN THEATERS & STREAMING: May 19; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33<br />

min.<br />

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INFLUENCER<br />

Kurtis David Harder<br />

From Gwyneth Paltrow selling her vagina-scented candle that<br />

retails for a cool $70 to the Kardashians’ variety of extremely<br />

lucrative deals, influencer culture has taken over the Internet.<br />

The nature of influencer marketing isn’t new, however; popular<br />

figures have been brand “faces” for years <strong>—</strong> after all, when<br />

Regina George wears army pants and flip-flops, you’d better wear<br />

army pants and flip-flops. But as the always-online generation<br />

comes of age, more and more people are making their income by<br />

posting selfies on Instagram and dancing on TikTok. While there’s<br />

nothing inherently wrong with monetizing your own image,<br />

there’s a certain amount of self-centeredness that comes with it,<br />

a need to establish and communicate a unique identity that<br />

would have followers believe you are “special.” So when an<br />

influencer expresses exhaustion or implies they have it worse<br />

than others because of their followers’ expectations, it’s more<br />

than a little hard to muster much sympathy.<br />

Madison, the central character in Kurtis David Harder’s Influencer,<br />

is one of these people. To the online eye, she is solo backpacking<br />

around the world, currently located in Thailand where she’s<br />

meeting locals and getting the full experience of the foreign<br />

country. In reality, she’s barely leaving her resort and hasn’t<br />

talked to anyone. One night, she visits a local bar and gets hit on<br />

by a fellow traveler, before CW (Cassandra Naud) intervenes and<br />

rescues her from the slimy interaction. Later, Madison’s suite<br />

gets broken into and her passport stolen, and she befriends CW<br />

as she waits for new identification so that she can go home. But<br />

predictably, CW isn’t who she seems, and eventually she takes<br />

Madison on a surprise getaway to a deserted island where she<br />

promptly leaves her for dead. Through the use of some advanced<br />

tech, CW then begins to impersonate Madison online so that none<br />

of her followers know she’s gone, before moving on to her next<br />

target. Much to CW’s chagrin, Madison’s boyfriend, Ryan (Rory J.<br />

Saper), shows up to investigate the situation, and predictable<br />

chaos ensues from there.<br />

It’s precisely this predictability that is most unfortunate about<br />

Influencer, as the film attempts to live up to its thriller status but<br />

ends up spoon-feeding the audience and telegraphing every<br />

“twist.” It’s hard to overlook the plot conveniences <strong>—</strong> CW burns<br />

Madison’s belongings except her diary, which Ryan finds and uses<br />

to confirm his suspicions, for example, or cell service being<br />

spotty in exactly the right locations. The film then culminates in<br />

an underwater knife fight, the premise of which seems fun, but<br />

it’s so poorly choreographed and shot in such a haphazard way<br />

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that any intended dramatic effect or kinetic pleasure is lost. And<br />

to make matters worse, it never becomes clear if Harder is<br />

attempting to critique influencer culture or those who demonize<br />

it, which results in a disjointed film that isn’t successful in either<br />

regard. If the point was to show how Instagram and the like have<br />

ruined our society <strong>—</strong> they have, to be clear <strong>—</strong> Harder is much<br />

more of a Cady Heron than a Janis Ian <strong>—</strong> confused and oblivious.<br />

<strong>—</strong> EMILY DUGRANRUT<br />

DIRECTOR: Kurtis David Harder; CAST: Emily Tennant, Cassandra<br />

Naud, Sara Canning; DISTRIBUTOR: Shudder; STREAMING: May<br />

26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 32 min.<br />

WHITE BALLS ON WALLS<br />

Sarah Vos<br />

At the outset of White Balls on Walls, it’s so decreed: the Stedelijk<br />

Museum Amsterdam will remove the massive welcome at their<br />

entrance that reads “MEET THE ICONS OF MODERN ART.” Over the<br />

course of this Sarah Vos’ documentary, the filmmaker follows the<br />

creative team at the Stedelijk as they try to determine the<br />

answers to two questions: Who even are the icons of modern art?<br />

And who are we to say?<br />

On its surface, White Balls on Walls is a film about the balancing<br />

act undertaken by museum director Rein Wolfs and his staff as<br />

they attempt to challenge long-paraded, Eurocentric colonial art<br />

aesthetics in favor of a more diverse and nuanced perspective.<br />

Their starting point: a museum with no work by BIPOC artists on<br />

display, and a collection where male artists outnumber female<br />

artists nine to one. Wolf’s team labors over seemingly small-scale<br />

matters, like changing the title of a painting called The<br />

Prostitutes to The Sex Workers, while confronting larger and<br />

longer-term institutional ramifications, such as the issue of<br />

quotas. The team is all in agreement that there needs to be some<br />

change. Or rather, that’s at least what they say. Many of them<br />

admit to knowing this all along, although nothing actually<br />

materialized until Amsterdam’s deputy mayor initiated a new<br />

policy that would cut Stedelijk's funding if it didn’t develop and<br />

implement a plan to bolster its representation.<br />

The tension of White Balls on Walls is surprisingly palpable for a<br />

documentary with a fairly rote, linear narrative and nonchalant<br />

rhythm. At one juncture, Wolfs reveals that the Stedelijk had<br />

hired Vincent Van Velsen, a new photography curator who had,<br />

only two years before, publicly eviscerated the Stedelijk and<br />

refused public contact with members of its creative team. At the<br />

end of the film, the Stedelijk showcases the works of early<br />

German expressionists like Nolde and Kirchener in juxtaposition<br />

with the art of earlier Congolese and Papua New Guinean<br />

cultures, whom the Germans engaged with as voyeurs.<br />

Sometimes, however, White Balls on Walls feels emotionally<br />

overwrought, given its setting <strong>—</strong> it was shot during the height of<br />

the pandemic <strong>—</strong> and focus on diversity and inclusion. In the first<br />

scene, for example, a montage of paintings are overlaid with a<br />

creeping score reminiscent of those in B-horror films, complete<br />

with an Yves Klein jump scare. Fortunately, these moments of<br />

atonal provocation are few and far between in a film that does its<br />

best to reserve judgment and, in the space for observation<br />

created by this reservation, allows the viewer to react<br />

themselves to the questions the film asks instead of wholly<br />

capitulating to the director’s subjective lens.<br />

Yet it's also that very subjectivity that ultimately makes White<br />

Balls on Walls a fascinating film; after all, the conversations<br />

among museum staff are not exactly revelatory. In an<br />

institutional context with a persistent history so steeped in racial<br />

bias and colonialism, the Stedelijk team is really just getting on<br />

each other’s shoulders to pick the low-hanging fruit. What’s more<br />

interesting is Vos’ behind-the-scenes showcase of the museum,<br />

which serves as a case study in social performance. A primary<br />

point of investigation in the film is how to balance deliberate<br />

inclusion with meritocracy, both in the interest of those losing<br />

hierarchical social capital and for those gaining it. One can’t help<br />

but wonder to what extent the team’s deliberation is guided not<br />

by the question itself, but by the presence of a camera in the<br />

room. Not just the camera, but the director <strong>—</strong> a white Dutch<br />

woman <strong>—</strong> behind it, who in one instance trains her lens on and<br />

around Dr. Charl Landvreugd, a Black man and the head of the<br />

Research & Curatorial Practice at Stedelijk, as if he were the<br />

Empire State Building in a New York-set film. Here, the viewer<br />

can’t help feeling like a voyeur, a self-congratulatory citizen<br />

sitting alongside museum staff, passively holier-than-thou.<br />

One of the film’s more interesting characters is a security guard,<br />

who guides the camera through the labyrinth-like hallways of the<br />

30


FILM REVIEWS<br />

museum’s underbelly to unveil a former Muslim prayer spot <strong>—</strong> a<br />

desolate corner where you are more likely to be kicked by a<br />

passerby than pray in silence <strong>—</strong> and then a present one (a room<br />

re-carpeted and painted for silent worship). The room is still<br />

isolated and hidden, but it’s there. In a later scene, the guard<br />

shows the camera the old gender-specific bathroom signs<br />

(they’ve been switched out in favor of gender-neutral<br />

bathrooms), and he flatly expresses his confusion over the<br />

change. What’s so interesting about the guard isn’t his<br />

perspective, which borders on non-existence; it’s his apathy<br />

toward the camera. He shows the viewer around as if he were<br />

giving a tour to a random guest, which distinguishes his<br />

appearance in a flourish of cutting honesty, because for so much<br />

of the film we watch the Stedelijk’s creative team go back and<br />

forth in voices that do not sound like their own.<br />

For instance, rarely do we see the Stedelijk team express<br />

disagreement or tension, both being inevitable symptoms of<br />

transition or change. During another high point in the film, one<br />

female staff member mentions a previous effort to increase the<br />

diversity of the museum’s curatorial team (shown at the<br />

beginning of the film). This change is soon forgotten by museum<br />

staff and viewer alike, until Vos makes her first intervention on<br />

screen, à la<br />

Jean Rouch, to<br />

ask the<br />

question: what<br />

happened to<br />

that? Of course,<br />

we aren’t given<br />

an answer <strong>—</strong> it<br />

would turn too<br />

many heads.<br />

(Ironically, the<br />

notion of this<br />

change is the<br />

only proposition<br />

in the film that<br />

would<br />

substantially<br />

affect the lives<br />

of the mostly<br />

white decisionmakers<br />

running the cultural institution.) The film ends with Wolfs<br />

greeting the supervisory board laughingly, noting loudly, with a<br />

big limousine smile, that they are all gray old white men.<br />

This is not to say that the efforts at the Stedelijk were<br />

insubstantial. We watch as their Nolde-Kirchener exhibition<br />

sparks discussion and outrage in Dutch media. Making a<br />

definitive judgment would be too reductive of a conclusion for a<br />

film that subtly depicts a museum and culture in flux, as well as<br />

the performance of mostly white decision-makers on a stage<br />

directed (implicitly or not) by a white woman, as if to say: “Look<br />

at us, we’re diverse now.” Here, the expression of diversity comes<br />

before its embodiment, and its result is a curatorial output and<br />

institutional consistency that underwhelm. And so, despite<br />

over-indexed scenes and the occasional manipulative tactic,<br />

White Balls on Walls excels at leaving the viewer with a question<br />

that extends far beyond the film’s end: are we working<br />

collectively to paint a more colorful future, or is everything we<br />

are doing just motivated by money and the aesthetic<br />

performance of meaningful change? <strong>—</strong> CONOR TRUAX<br />

DIRECTOR: Sarah Vos; CAST: <strong>—</strong>; DISTRIBUTOR: Icarus Films; IN<br />

THEATERS: May 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.<br />

31


ALBUM REVIEWS<br />

GAG ORDER<br />

Kesha<br />

The Kesha of today is and isn’t the same<br />

as the Ke$ha of 2010, whose debut album<br />

Animal featured six Billboard-topping<br />

singles, including “TiK ToK,” then the<br />

highest-selling digital single in history. At<br />

that point, she was one of a number of<br />

artists messing around at the intersection<br />

of pop rap and the newly<br />

commercially viable brand of<br />

EDM Skrillex and deadmau5<br />

had made a name off.<br />

Primarily backed by Kelly<br />

Clarkson-hitmaker Dr. Luke<br />

(plus some assists from the<br />

legendary Max Martin), Ke$ha<br />

stood out as one of the few<br />

stars of that industry boom<br />

with a definable persona, even<br />

if it was seemingly crafted in<br />

response to the success of<br />

Lady Gaga. Less gay and<br />

drawing on an American strain<br />

of trashiness akin to the<br />

then-popular Jersey Shore (or<br />

earlier-on collaborator 3OH!3,<br />

from which much of her<br />

aesthetic was borrowed), Ke$ha found an<br />

audience that at one point likely rivaled<br />

Gaga’s, her purposefully stupid youth<br />

anthems and electropop celebrations of<br />

repercussion-free debauchery providing a<br />

better summation of the cultural attitudes<br />

of that moment than much else.<br />

But, of course, the culture has since<br />

shifted (though 3OH!3’s influence still<br />

looms large), and concurrently, Kesha has<br />

been ensnared in a very public, still<br />

ongoing legal battle with Dr. Luke, whom<br />

she’s accused of physical and sexual<br />

assault, as well as controlling her career<br />

and personhood to a frightening,<br />

tyrannical degree. While she’s still stuck<br />

in her contract with Luke’s Kemosabe<br />

Records, parent label Sony has since<br />

parted ways with the founder/producer,<br />

and Kesha has resumed making music<br />

for the company. Ditching the “$” and<br />

Diddy aspirations in favor of sychedelics<br />

and the supernatural (as explored on a<br />

podcast and Discovery+ program), this<br />

new Kesha is a bit more introspective and<br />

spiritual, yet still decidedly a Top<br />

40-minded act, even when she employs<br />

the likes of Rick Rubin and Hudson<br />

Mohawke for latest album, Gag Order.<br />

Admittedly, it's hard to be too critical of<br />

the music on Gag Order, Kesha’s fifth<br />

studio LP and the first where she (sort of)<br />

explicitly addresses the traumatic fallout<br />

and cursed success she shared with<br />

Luke. But with some exceptions, like the<br />

frank and explicit B-Side “Fine Line”<br />

(elevated to the album’s proper<br />

centerpiece) and the unapologetically<br />

grim “Too Far Gone,” the songs on Gag<br />

Order are overly generic, obviously keen<br />

on charting despite the artist expressing<br />

disinterest in all of that elsewhere on the<br />

album.<br />

Executive produced by Rubin, and with an<br />

eclectic crew of collaborators that<br />

includes the aforementioned HudMo, plus<br />

Mary Lattimore and Kurt Vile<br />

(relegated to a strange outro<br />

cover of “I Wanna Be<br />

Sedated” on track “The<br />

Drama”), Gag Order seemed<br />

poised to be a reinvention for<br />

an artist in need of a new<br />

angle, but it’s held back by<br />

the designs of the corporate<br />

music industry, its most<br />

bracing moments undercut<br />

by underwhelming new-agey<br />

EDM reworks and overly<br />

glossy vocals. There simply<br />

isn’t much of a cause for<br />

celebration here because<br />

there isn’t much of anything<br />

to dig into. Still, there’s at<br />

least enough of a shift to lend hope that<br />

Gag Order might be the start of something<br />

more interesting and free for Kesha, an<br />

artist who always had good instincts and<br />

existed in an aesthetic space somewhere<br />

near the trendy hyperpop material of<br />

now, but who hasn’t really figured out<br />

how to break away from the constraints<br />

of corporate production. <strong>—</strong> M.G.<br />

MAILLOUX<br />

LABEL: RCA Records; RELEASE DATE:<br />

May 19<br />

32


ALBUM REVIEWS<br />

MY WORLD<br />

Aespa<br />

The members of Aespa, the newest group<br />

from legendary K-pop company SM<br />

Entertainment, work two jobs: one as<br />

regular idols and performers, and another<br />

as characters in a sci-fi/fantasy universe<br />

of SM’s creation where the narrative<br />

advances with every comeback. SM has<br />

put a lot of work into creating new<br />

terminology to describe Aespa’s world (the<br />

Kwangya, which is just Korean for<br />

“wilderness”), incorporating intricate plot<br />

references into their lyrics and shooting<br />

expensive, Marvel-esque lore videos, but<br />

not quite as much work into making the<br />

music stand on its own. That doesn’t mean<br />

the songs are all outright bad (besides the<br />

lazy, self-satisfied “Next Level,” although<br />

that’s looking more and more like an early<br />

misstep). However, it’s hard to take lines<br />

like “I want to protect / First encountering<br />

Rekall / I will hug you so that you can feel /<br />

without Synk Dive” seriously <strong>—</strong> and for the<br />

most part, the electronic intensity of<br />

Aespa’s music does demand to be taken<br />

seriously <strong>—</strong> they’re not tricks, Hybe, they’re<br />

illusions! <strong>—</strong> so there’s a disconnect<br />

between the crunchy, gritty<br />

instrumentation of songs like “Girls” and<br />

“Aenergy” and such goofy moments as<br />

Karina earnestly rapping “I’m going<br />

Kwangya로, game in!” In short, SM has<br />

seemed to care a lot more about showing<br />

off the SMCU (yes, it’s really called that)<br />

than letting the talented members of<br />

Aespa shine in songs.<br />

Unless you’re a terminally online stan,<br />

Aespa’s releases are best consumed by<br />

ignoring everything going on in the<br />

Kwangya. Musically, their 2020 debut<br />

“Black Mamba” underwhelmed as a<br />

polished but uninspired Blackpink<br />

imitation, but their third single, “Savage,”<br />

is perhaps the most genuine K-pop take<br />

on hyperpop to date, and made for a<br />

much more interesting mission<br />

statement. Last year’s “Girls,” similarly,<br />

upped the urgency by mixing metal<br />

guitars, synth sirens, and crashing<br />

percussion to actually sound like the boss<br />

battle it narrated.<br />

Aespa’s newest title track “Spicy,” from<br />

their newly-released third mini album, My<br />

World, has a brash electronic<br />

instrumental in line with their previous<br />

work <strong>—</strong> but, in a new move for the group,<br />

it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. In the last<br />

episode, Aespa defeated the villain Black<br />

Mamba and traveled from the Kwangya to<br />

the real world, or whatever <strong>—</strong> what<br />

matters is that they’ve dropped the lingo<br />

for the time being and showed up on their<br />

California set ready to have a hot girl<br />

summer. “Spicy” is underlaid by a<br />

grinding synth that most K-pop groups<br />

wouldn’t dare touch, but though the<br />

pre-chorus clangs and shouts, the four<br />

girls perform with a lighthearted wink<br />

(“Tell me what you see / When you look at<br />

me / Cause I am a 10 out of 10 honestly”),<br />

and the second half of the chorus<br />

explodes into joyous pop melody. For an<br />

instrumental this filthy, their music has<br />

never possessed this much levity, and<br />

playful pop with an Aespa edge is an<br />

easier sell than any of their previous<br />

efforts.<br />

Most of the other songs on My World are<br />

more conventional pop, not just<br />

compared to “Spicy,” but also to previous,<br />

unpredictable deep cuts from the group.<br />

Some of that may have to do with SM’s<br />

founder Lee Soo Man <strong>—</strong> who was the<br />

driving force behind Aespa’s complicated<br />

concept <strong>—</strong> cutting ties with the company<br />

in a blaze of childish feuding earlier this<br />

year, the fallout of which led to this<br />

comeback being downgraded from a<br />

planned full album to an EP (and an<br />

environmentalist title track that was<br />

likely horribly embarrassing being<br />

scrapped). “Salty and Sweet,” which is<br />

delightfully wacky, is the only B-side that<br />

matches the hyperpop edge of their first<br />

mini album, from 20<strong>21</strong>. Otherwise, the<br />

songs here skew vocal- and<br />

melody-heavy, which is overdue for the<br />

group. The trap-pop percussion of “I’m<br />

Unhappy” and power ballad instrumental<br />

of “Til We Meet Again” are generic, but the<br />

performances are well-done; “Thirsty” is a<br />

smooth, harmony-laden R&B song that<br />

became an immediate fan favorite for<br />

actually letting the members groove; and<br />

opening track and pre-release single<br />

“Welcome to My World” is flat-out grand,<br />

with booming percussion and dramatic<br />

strings that are tempered by a eerie<br />

beauty. (Of all the songs on the album,<br />

this one most reflects the group’s new<br />

style.) For listeners most interested in<br />

hearing the group push the envelope, My<br />

World won’t top Aespa’s first EP, Savage,<br />

but it does manage to be their most<br />

accessible album, without sacrificing<br />

quality, while the singles still produce the<br />

strong statements expected from a group<br />

this popular. Aespa has never needed<br />

their gimmicks in order to thrive, and My<br />

World at last delivers conclusive proof of<br />

this. <strong>—</strong> KAYLA BEARDSLEE<br />

LABEL: SM Entertainment; RELEASE<br />

DATE: May 8<br />

33


THE ALBUM<br />

Jonas Brothers<br />

With The Album, the Jonas Brothers have<br />

given listeners their second full-length<br />

release since they reunited in 2019, no<br />

matter that it was a move seemingly no<br />

one asked for, even particularly engaged<br />

fans <strong>—</strong> the nostalgia machine works<br />

particularly well for the group.<br />

Nonetheless, it’s a move that was made,<br />

and what has resulted is a boring, and<br />

often bizarre, grasp at relevancy from a<br />

group that has aged out of the genre it<br />

insists on trying to retain space within.<br />

When the Jo Bros initially split, there was<br />

immense speculation as to the cause.<br />

Theories about growing rifts, decisions to<br />

cash out, and desires to make more<br />

“grown-up” music were all floated about. In<br />

the subsequent years, the primary<br />

narrative that developed was that each of<br />

the brothers wanted to make their<br />

ownadult music, each stepping out of the<br />

others’ shadows. As evidenced by their<br />

respective solo careers and side projects,<br />

this never really happened. Joe’s side<br />

project DNCE<br />

failed to leave the<br />

radio Disney<br />

sphere of pop<br />

music, while Nick<br />

made the terribly<br />

unsavvy and<br />

career-antagonizi<br />

ng move of writing<br />

pop/R&B music<br />

about being a<br />

happily married<br />

man. While both<br />

brothers found<br />

some slight radio<br />

success with these endeavors, the reality<br />

was that they could only manage a lavish<br />

lifestyle touring the college nostalgia<br />

circuit for so long. With the trio finally<br />

reuniting in 2019, it seemed like the<br />

promise of more mature music was just<br />

around the corner. This too, has yet to<br />

occur, and The Album is the most<br />

egregious defiance of that goal since<br />

their breakup began.<br />

It’s tough to ocate a single decision on<br />

The Album that makes sense. From the<br />

moment the first notes hit, it’s apparent<br />

what the record is going to be.<br />

Overproduced vocals and a<br />

fake-sounding piano plunking usher in<br />

opener “Miracle,” and the rest goes on a<br />

downward spiral. Each brother has a<br />

textured, at least somewhat interesting<br />

voice, and they are all here entirely<br />

stripped of every effect in the production<br />

process. The filters are so heavy that<br />

many of the lyrics are unintelligible,<br />

evoking AI-generated sounds rather than<br />

the rich, shoegaze-y hue to which the<br />

record seems to be aspiring. Every song<br />

following “Miracle” wiggles its way into<br />

ALBUM REVIEWS<br />

this exact same sonic space, with<br />

attempts at evoking country, indie pop,<br />

and Americana (going so far as to title the<br />

track… “Americana”) flattening into the<br />

same generic sound. And few of them<br />

crack two-and–a-half minutes, opting for<br />

short bursts of genre cosplay; clearly<br />

intended as an attempt to make the<br />

listener want more, The Album’s design<br />

feels instead as if one were blindly<br />

clicking 30-second samples on an mp3<br />

download site.<br />

There’s no denying that this latest effort<br />

falls under the umbrella of nostalgia, but<br />

it never feels intentional enough to be of<br />

interest. The Album has no clear starting<br />

or ending point <strong>—</strong> either conceptually or<br />

sonically <strong>—</strong> and if your preferred music<br />

player is set to restart an album or<br />

playlist when it reaches its end, it will be<br />

a test for listeners to see if they notice<br />

when the approximately 30-minute album<br />

culminates. On one hand, this may be<br />

appropriate for a band desperately trying<br />

to root themselves in the viral TikTok<br />

sphere; on the other, it feels more<br />

soulless than ever. It reflects a<br />

particularly cynical approach to<br />

music-making, an observation<br />

underscored by the fact that the Jonas<br />

Brothers’ upcoming tour will reportedly<br />

find them playing every one of their<br />

Disney- and reunion-era albums from<br />

start to finish each night. That degree of<br />

nostalgia-baiting might seem like an<br />

unabashed cash-grab, but the most<br />

disappointing Jonas Brothers’ truth in<br />

2023 is that it certainly still has more<br />

heart than The Album. <strong>—</strong> ANDREW BOSMA<br />

LABEL: Republic Records; RELEASE<br />

DATE: May 12<br />

34


Photo Credits:<br />

Cover - Giles Keyte/Disney; Page 1, 2 - Cannes Film Festival; Page 3 - Michaël Crotto/TS<br />

Productions; Page 5 - Carole Bethuel/2023 Curiosa Films/Gaumont/France 2 Cinema.jpg; Page 7 -<br />

Quinzaine des Cinéastes; Page 9 - Quinzaine des Cinéastes; Page 10 - Cannes Film Festival; Page<br />

11 - Virgin Records; Page 13 - Letterboxd; Page 15 - Central Motion Pictures; Page 16 - Disney;<br />

Page 18 - A24; Page 19 - HBO; Page <strong>21</strong> - MUBI; Page 23 - Hopper Stone, SMPSP/Open Road<br />

Films/Briarcliff Entertainment; Page 24 - Dan Anderson/Lionsgate; Page 26 - Alejandro Meija;<br />

Page 28 - NEON; Page 29 - Shudder; Page 31 - Icarus Films; Page 32 - RCA Records; Page 34 -<br />

Republic Records; Back Cover - Strand Releasing

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