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The French Go Gonzo Italiano in the Surrealistic “Let the Corpses Tan”

Co-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani may be French, but they bleed Italian cinema. These two are responsible for the kaleidoscopic horrors in 2013’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears and 2009’s Amer. Both films drew heavily from the works of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, combining intrigue, surrealism, and mesmerizing imagery with plots that are merely narrow highways right into evocative Freudian nightmares.

Now the duo have returned with Let the Corpses Tan, constructing a stunning — even awe-inspiring — tale of double-crossing and unrepentant human casualty by employing the filmmaking methods of spaghetti-western director Sergio Leone, along with, of course, the lurid, exploitative blood-and-dagger imagery of classic Italian giallos. The story follows a gang of misfit criminals escaping to a hideout carved into the rocky Italian cliffside, where an eccentric, society-hating artist, Luce (Elina Löwensohn), and her guests sunbathe and make bullet-ridden art. Don’t pay too much attention to the plot. Just know that there’s a cache of gold bricks in a car, a cop who has stumbled on the hideout, an arsenal of weapons, and only one way in or out of the compound.

Cattet and Forzani play with a fractured timeline. Most of the story takes place within a tense 24-hour shootout among the ruins in the hills. Characters are split up into different bunkers and lookouts, and the story will often rewind itself to examine the same scene from a different character’s point of view. This method also allows viewers to gain a surety of space — the ruins are almost labyrinthine. Great credit must be given to locations managers Jean-Christophe Meneec and Stefane Tatibouet (or whoever found this magical cliffside spot), as it’s fitting that this story of endless death and greed play out in what seems to be the remnants of an ancient Catholic church destroyed by neglect and time. That’s also very Italian.

Traditional giallos and spaghetti westerns boast something like double the number of camera shots of most movies, as the genres demand quick cuts and extreme close-ups for a barrage of reaction moments. Here, the camera will in one moment push in like a gunshot for an ultra-close-up of Luce’s shifty eyes before swing-panning out to a glaringly bright ecru wide shot of the coast’s rocky expanse. Then it pushes in again on an object of interest, like a goat carcass swinging from a hook in the kitchen — Cattet and Forzani would prefer you not get too comfortable. One reason why those old giallos and spaghetti westerns were allowed to develop this aesthetic is because Italian cinema had created a sophisticated system of dubbing films. They could shoot more quickly, because no one was worrying about vocal performances, wind, or unwanted ambient noise — they could record it all back in the studio. Corpses mixes the ambient with some pretty unnerving pinpointed foley sound. Every rocking-chair squeak or eyelid closing comes to life in frightening detail.

But what matters most is that imagery, which is seriously made without taking itself too seriously. Think the psychedelic ascendency of early Alejandro Jodorowsky, films that, through an overt focus on primal elements, become both cosmic and comic. In Corpses, we see this in “dream” sequences: A beautiful naked woman stands in silhouette, the gleaming sun behind her back, while Christophe’s western-inflected pop anthem “Sunny Road to Salina” plays. The woman acts essentially as a goddess, her scenes intermittently breaking up the action of the main story. She interacts with four faceless men also in silhouette. At times, she is urinating on them; at others, they are lassoing her with ropes, squeezing what appears to be champagne out from her nipples. I swear to goddess this all makes sense in the story, that it’s art with a capital “A,” but it’s also quite funny. These directors excel at poking fun at the intermingling of sex and violence in cinema, taking it to its most logical illogical conclusion, as in a scene where a woman imagines bullets shooting off pieces of her dress until she stands naked and aroused. We’re certainly not supposed to take that seriously.

Even the carnage, here, is inspired. When one of the criminals attempts to make off with the gold bricks weighing down the trunk of the getaway car, we’re seemingly transported to a surreal landscape of pitch-black nothingness. We know the man’s body is being riddled with bullets because of the sound of incessant gunshots, but Cattet and Forzani present the scene as him being painted in iridescent gold as globules of the precious metal pour down around him. More times than I could count I had no idea what the hell was happening, and also just didn’t care that I didn’t know. Let the Corpses Tan is that strange and beautiful.

Let the Corpses Tan 
Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Kino Lorber
Opens August 31, Quad Cinema and Alama Drafthouse, Brooklyn

 

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Computer-Screen Thriller “Searching” Is a Strong Argument for Logging Off

Director Timur Bekmambetov has said that he developed the screen-capture technology responsible for the transtextual horror film Unfriended: Dark Web and the thriller Profile when he realized Americans spend up to half their waking hours online or connected to devices. Now he has produced a feature directed by Aneesh Chaganty called Searching, starring John Cho as a checked-out father combing through his missing daughter’s online footprint, hunting for any clues that might help reveal what has happened to her. The story shares hallmarks with some of the best twisty, turny whodunits, and that at least kept my interest, but as the action played out via FaceTime and YouTube videos, I couldn’t help but wonder: What’s actually gained by this novel technique of watching a story on a screen on a screen? And every time I wondered this, I imagined how whatever scene I was watching might have been staged and shot and acted out in a more traditional film — and I was inevitably disappointed by what has been lost, especially in terms of cinematic decision-making and flesh-and-blood performances.

We meet husband David Kim (Cho) and wife Pam (Sara Sohn) through a long, ten- or fifteen-minute montage of videos, emails, and texts presented in a manner reminiscent of those Apple ads that try desperately to convince you it’s a joyful thing to commit your entire life to their tech. Chaganty is essentially trying to sell his audience something similar — please buy his tech-based story! He’s savoring rather than critiquing. Even the music seems ripped off from twee commercials. We see David and Pam go on vacations and cheer on the accomplishments of their daughter Margot (played by a succession of actors as Margot grows older, including Alex Jayne Go, Megan Liu, Kya Dawn Lau, and finally Michelle La). An email with the subject line “Test Results” pops up, and then Pam’s struggle with cancer is portrayed through a Google search for “How to fight cancer as a family?” I admit that I’ll cry at most tearjerker commercials, and this montage is a potent example of the form, so it’s not surprising that my eyes wetted when we learn that Pam has taken a turn for the worse — a revelation followed by an image of Margot’s first day at school with just her father.

The next time we see David, he’s FaceTiming with his teen daughter, telling her to come home right after her study session — and to take out the trash. He’s stilted, tense. In the middle of the night, David misses three calls from Margot, and then everything goes awry. Now no one knows where Margot has gone, and after digging into her computer, David finds out he may not know his daughter at all. It’s an apt story for today. Think of how many news articles have popped up about parents who didn’t realize their kids had been indoctrinated into Nazism via YouTube.

So, the film has promise, but the tech keeps getting in the way of the performances. Debra Messing, who plays Detective Vick, is a formidable actress, and yet I didn’t believe a word she said, especially when she was just a detached voice on the phone — too clean and too crisp. Why wouldn’t you want to see John Cho and Debra Messing actually vibing off each other in a scene? Chemistry between actors has only fueled Hollywood filmmaking for a century! But the bigger question is why a filmmaker would be so committed to putting what we watch on the small screen on the big screen. What’s the point, when even YouTube is creating content (like Cobra Kai) that is designed to make you forget you’re watching YouTube?

See, there’s a thing called “co-presence” — that feeling of being there with the people you see on the screen — that most filmmakers strive to achieve for their audience, even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. Tech has been trying to make big strides toward co-presence with 3-D and motion capture, though scientists have found that attempting to ape reality’s dimensions onscreen doesn’t actually trick the human brain. It might look cool, for sure. But we don’t buy it as real. The only thing that does create a feeling of co-presence? Big-screen technology like IMAX or your local Cinerama Dome, with traditional filmic cinematography. It’s one of the reasons film lovers are so averse to watching movies with the smooth motion setting on their TV.

In the least effective parts of Searching, David must leave his FaceTime camera on his laptop open, even after calls have ended, so that we can see Cho’s performance. I was yanked out of Searching’s reality every time this happened. Bekmambetov’s purpose for telling stories onscreen is to mirror our reality, but the choices the characters make to keep the drama unfolding before our eyes are at cross-purposes with the producer’s intent. Though the script by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian is taut and surprising, I’ve felt more absorbed in an episode of Murder, She Wrote than I did in this film, because, there, it’s story and performance that we’re invited to savor, not just tech and technique.

Searching
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty
Sony Pictures
Opens August 24

 

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“The Bookshop” Is So British It Politely Swallows Back Its Own Conflicts

My deepest pleasure when watching The Great British Baking Show is trying to spot the nearly imperceptible sneer, or the eye roll tamed at the last second, or any case of contestants fighting to hide their actual emotions. To an American like me, the essence of Britishness isn’t what’s said but rather what’s not. Because of those unspoken, zipped-lip rules, some of the stories that float over from the U.K. seem almost incomprehensible to Americans. Watching, we have to wonder: Why don’t these people just fight it out and get on with it?

Writer-director Isabel Coixet’s period drama The Bookshop, for instance, is so bloody British that the story’s central concern is that an aristocratic heiress is quietly making it difficult for a young widow to run a bookshop in a small fishing town. This is a story of stifling manners and oppressive codes of conduct, where the wealthy “villains” wear a strained smile and an icky sheen of privilege. Social mores dictate that all others must simply fall in line. Though nearly nothing happens in this movie besides a woman opening a shop and beginning a standoffish friendship with a reclusive man, I still found myself drawn in, just as I was drawn to Iain’s discreet disaster of a baked Alaska (please check it out if you haven’t seen this TGBBS episode); sometimes the quiet is enticing.

Emily Mortimer plays Florence Green, whose dream is to honor her dead husband with a bookshop that would memorialize the importance of reading in their relationship. But most people in her rural town aren’t readers. The local heiress, Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), would rather the location Florence has selected become a small arts center. Honestly, Violet could choose a number of vacant storefronts, but because she’s rich, it seems, she essentially wants what she can’t have and orchestrates little inconveniences designed to push Florence elsewhere — as politely as possible. So politely, in fact, that I often forgot that was the actual plot line, until it snuck up on occasion.

This is the kind of film where a character (Florence) worries endlessly over the color of her dress and what that color conveys to the people who see it. Seriously, Florence is fitted for a red garment in the first act, and she’s still debating it with herself well into the third. It is as though anxiety is the oxygen these people breathe, and without it and their little tiffs and fantasy dramas, they would suffocate in boredom. There are some red herrings of conflict, like when Florence contemplates whether Lolita would be appropriate to display in the shop, which suggests the possibility of seeing a town uprising against a sensationalist piece of literature, i.e. some action. But everything resolves itself quite easily.

In American films, if a protagonist is racked with grief and financial pressures, they’re often depicted thrashing in a violent rage, desperate to feel something. Think Manchester by the Sea, and its protagonist’s penchant for picking bar fights. Neither the British nor American cinematic way is necessarily superior to the other, but it’s sometimes nice to be reminded of violence of the papercut variety, that some troubles can be worked through without an ass-kicking.

The Bookshop
Written and directed by Isabel Coixet  
Greenwich Entertainment
Opens August 24, Angelika Film Center and Landmark 57 West

 

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In “The Wife,” Glenn Close Has Had It Up to Here Standing in the Shadow of Jonathan Pryce

Director Björn Runge’s slow-burn marital-implosion drama The Wife stoked an anger deep inside me. In my three years as a Master of Fine Arts student of fiction writing, again and again I’d heard through the whisper network how so-and-so’s wife was actually the real talent, plucked as she was as a young writing student herself by her instructor-cum-husband. I’d watch as the tight-lipped wife lingered on the periphery of craft conversations, never asked her opinion, while young people clamored for her partner’s attention.

The Wife, scripted by Jane Anderson and adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name, explores this literary cliché from the perspective of the talent behind the talent. This is a portrait of a decades-long partnership coming to a head but also of the American literary community reckoning with what so many know to be true: Women are still not seen as “serious” writers or contenders for major prizes. And men can’t keep their hands off their young students.

Glenn Close plays Joan Castleman, wife to literary superstar and cheesy James Joyce–quoter Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), whom we meet when the Nobel committee calls to inform him he has won the prize. Joe profusely thanks “my wife” (always with that qualifier) for being his rock, protecting him from pushy journalists, and occasionally signaling to him when he’s got a stray bit of something left on his lip. This surface story is so familiar that I thought I would surely be bored, but it is the depth Close lends to Joan that kept me riveted — and angry.

A persistent journalist named Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) suspects there’s more to Joe Castleman’s literary legacy. He plies the cautious Joan with alcohol then needles her with questions about her rumored role in her husband’s work, all while Joan’s eyes sparkle with fear and need. Her answers are clipped, brusque, yet charming. She betrays just enough of her composure to hint that there is something deeper on her mind, and in these moments the camera is wisely immobilized, staring at Close’s face head-on.

In one scene, as Joe accepts his award, we’re treated to long shots of Close watching from the audience, her expression shifting from joy to panic and then to regret. It brings to mind the iconic, slow, four-minute push-in shot on Nicole Kidman in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. Both feature a character silently tripping through a personal revelation; very few filmmakers are brave enough to trust their actors to indicate such a major plot point using only microscopic facial muscle movements. Credit for that narrative bravery should be shared with Anderson as well. Novel adaptations so often express a character’s interiority through artificial means, such as expository dialogue, but Anderson tamps down those impulses.

Perhaps it is the self-awareness of these characters that elevates the film; they’re living a cliché, even as they’re arguing over the clichés in the stories they write. I still found myself surprised and moved by Joan’s story, though annoyed by the use of flashbacks, which are, yes, cinematic clichés themselves. But it is almost as though the film is acknowledging its premise’s tired shortcomings and asking us to focus on the art and feeling in this woman’s mundane life — which is something Joan also instructs Joe to do at one point when he criticizes a passage of her work that details a woman’s quotidian chores. “That’s the point,” she says. A woman’s life is all the work and none of the glittered glory.

The Wife
Directed by Björn Runge
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens August 17, The Paris Theater and Angelika Film Center

 

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The Latest Nick Hornby Movie Winds Up Ditching the Usual Nick Hornby Dude Protagonist

There’s a pretty great fake-out in Jesse Peretz’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked. It comes in the first few minutes of the film, as the usual regressively boyish Hornby protagonist Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) appears in a video on a website he set up for a reclusive Nineties musician named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Duncan is a Tucker mega-fan, and his video tells the story of Tucker’s abridged history with the air of an obsessive expert, lingering on one album, Juliet. The album was inspired by one of Tucker’s love affairs, and it was so painful that it caused Tucker to disappear and leave his hungry fans in a lurch — or so Duncan believes after studious research.

One would think this film would belong to Duncan, that we would then watch him fumble through a romance, searching out the perfect while never appreciating the good. But no. The film actually belongs to Duncan’s partner, Annie (Rose Byrne), and I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that.

It’s as though I’ve had my High Fidelity fantasy delivered, lo, so many years later: Show me this emotional idiot’s relationship from the woman’s perspective. Through circumstance and coincidence, Tucker and Annie begin a secret internet friendship, just as Duncan begins cheating with a new movement teacher at his university. Peretz could have given each potential pairing equal time in the story, but he sticks with the most evocative of the two; Juliet, Naked has its charms, and they are named Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke.

Byrne’s comic timing has been honed over a series of films, including The Meddler, Spy, and both Neighbors movies, and she’s quickly becoming the “everywoman” of cinema. Her characters are charming but full of faults and easy to frustrate without seeming like they have a stick up their asses. Here, she’s equally matched by Hawke’s rendition of an aging rocker who checked out of life. Sweet and eager, but dumb, Tucker can be summed up by the peculiar gait Hawke created for the character: a clumsy shuffle, like he’s moving in every direction simultaneously, unsure which is the right way. Together, they make an unlikely but butterflies-in-the-stomach match for romance.

When the two first meet in person, Tucker is splayed in a London hospital bed, having suffered a heart attack on his way to meet his new grandkid. Annie is bashful, and Byrne’s performance is such that I could see the gears turning in her character’s head: Do I want to get into a relationship with a grandfather who just cheated death? That meeting leads to a more slapstick situation, wherein nearly every ex or child Tucker has ever had filters through the hospital room one by one, all disappointed that Tucker does not appear sick enough to warrant their immediate presence. Through this, Annie gets the Cliffs Notes of Tucker’s faults, but also his struggles to make up for the indiscretions of his youth, whereas her relationship with Duncan was a slow realization of all the insecurities and problematic personality traits he was hiding over fifteen years.

While I adore the more overtly flirty aspects of Annie and Tucker’s burgeoning relationship, what’s most romantic about their connection is their free and open exchanges. These are two people with no expectations for the future, throwing caution to the wind while also managing their personal affairs like adults. It’s like Before Sunrise but run through a Nora Ephron filter. My favorite moment arrives when Tucker confides in Annie that he thinks his kids won’t forgive him because they hate him. “They don’t hate you,” she says. “They’re angry.” Tucker blinks his eyes and half-smiles as though he’d never thought of it before, and there’s something pretty engrossing about two people nudging one another to enlightenment.

The script — penned by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins — doesn’t tidy up the relationship, as it so easily could have. Annie wants children, and Tucker has five of them (from different mothers), with only the youngest, six-year-old Jackson (Azhy Robertson), being an active part of his life. In another story, Annie could have swooped in and exercised her maternal instincts on Tucker’s kids, but this story’s takeaway is more about having the patience to wait for what’s right than jumping headfirst into the closest wrong. Annie and Tucker’s romance is about as honest as they come, and remarkably mature.

Duncan still traipses in the background of this story, offering some comic relief and poignant ideas about the toxicity of fandom and blah-blah-blah, all the stuff we’ve gotten from Hornby adaptations before. Duncan is trying to live out his life through his idol’s, but his presence is mostly a reminder to the other characters that it could be worse — they could be Duncan.

Juliet, Naked
Directed by Jesse Peretz
Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions
Opens August 17, AMC Loews Lincoln Square and Angelika Film Center

 

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Kelsey Grammer and Kristen Bell Are Tear-Inducingly Great in Netflix’s “Like Father”

About two years ago, I found myself scrolling through Netflix offerings, looking for a comedy — any comedy. If you’re familiar with the streaming service, you know how difficult it can be to sort through its barrage of vaguely recognizable movies buried under the wrong category titles. I landed on one called For a Good Time, Call…, directed by Jamie Travis and written by Katie Anne Naylon and Lauren Miller Rogen. Its premise: two frenemies moving in together to start a phone sex hotline. “OK, fine,” I thought. At least it might be National Lampoon’s level of dumb. About twenty minutes in, I realized I was watching a nuanced, thoughtful portrayal of female friendship that transcended its schlocky premise with crisp dialogue and sense of realism often missing in indie comedies: I believed these characters deeply cared for one another.

Fast forward to now, as I’m watching the new Netflix release, Like Father, starring Kelsey Grammer as Harry and Kristen Bell as Rachel, an estranged father and daughter who end up on a Royal Caribbean honeymoon cruise together after Rachel is left at the altar. What an implausible premise! Surely, this will be a dumb romp to showcase its two stars’ talents for comic hyperbole! Nope. And thank God. Because Like Father, it turns out, is an emotional, heartfelt depiction of what it’s really like to reconnect with a loved one after they’ve hurt you irreparably, but with some solid laugh lines and none of the melodramatic sap. Against all odds, this little indie (possibly bankrolled by the cruise line?) delivers a powerful punch. I was not at all surprised to find it’s the feature directorial debut of Lauren Miller Rogen, whose writing in For a Good Time, Call… had left such an enduring impression.

Grammer hasn’t embodied his character Frasier Crane in fourteen years, and yet it’s still something of a shock to see him play against that type. Here, he takes the form of a good-natured, wincing, soft-spoken bachelor. In cinematographer Seamus Tierney’s lighting, the crow’s feet around Grammer’s eyes are pronounced, charming. (Tierney’s work here is startlingly fine, with careful compositions that play with the natural light of the open ocean.) Miller Rogen shows Harry flaws and all, both visually and in her writing. Harry left Rachel and her mom when Rachel was only five. As the title suggests, Rachel has become the same kind of distant workaholic her father was, but Miller Rogen doesn’t throw that in our faces. Each character possesses a depth of dimensions to prevent a simplistic plot of mirroring.

What’s most striking is that Miller Rogen again and again trades the too easy punchline for the poignant glance. And as the story goes on, multiple moments of reckoning between Harry and Rachel elicited tears from me every time; the movies usually like to put long-lost family members together with a big hug and an unearned “I love you” in the end, but Miller Rogen seems to understand that’s too treacly to be real. Here, Bell, who straddled the comic and dramatic so memorably in Veronica Mars, feeds off Grammer’s subdued performance. At one point, Rachel loses her temper and bursts into tears while her voice breaks, and I realized how seldom Bell is allowed to stretch into dramatic roles. These are two phenomenal performers giving their all to a sharp family drama disguised as an outrageous cookie-cutter comedy. I had no idea how much Like Father was something I needed.

Like Father
Directed by Lauren Miller Rogen
Available on Netflix

 

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The Teen Girls of “Skate Kitchen” Grind Movingly Through Life

Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen opens with teen skater Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) doing flip tricks by herself at the park. Two little boys eye her, kids at least seven years her junior, and yet they’ve already been primed to be intimidating and belittling to girls entering their spaces. Camille injures herself and promises her overzealous mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) she’ll give up skating, but it’s not that simple. A lonely Long Island teen, Camille scrolls through the Instagram profiles of a group of female NYC skateboarders called Skate Kitchen, faving all their videos, escaping in her imagination to a place where she’s not the only young woman kick-flipping on the concrete. Eventually, she just maps out the long train ride to where the girls skate and tags along, observing them with interest, as though she’s studying the nature of girlhood friendships.

Moselle’s debut documentary The Wolfpack, about some charismatic siblings who spent their free time painstakingly reenacting their favorite films, teetered on the edge between verité and performative realism. The film was a meta-commentary on movie lovers’ susceptibility to the fantasy of cinema spilling over into the real world. Though Moselle’s narrative feature debut, Skate Kitchen, tells a fictional story, the director again draws heavily from her subjects’ own personal histories, this time constructing a story about teen girls finding themselves and each other at the local skate park. In short, Moselle’s documentary reads like truth told as fiction, while Skate Kitchen reads like fiction told as truth. The films make a compelling pair, exploring male and female friendships and analyzing youth through the lenses of mass and social media.

Among the group of skaters Camille befriends is queer comic relief Kurt (Nina Moran), whose first lines are tall-tale boasts about getting fingered in a bush. Kurt is immediately likable, a cad who will push anything right to its tipping point but not so much that anyone would get hurt — emotionally or physically. But these girls are resilient anyway. As the gang sits around, smoking weed and shooting the shit, Kurt waxes poetic on the theory that humanity is currently living in a simulation. She goes hard to persuade her friends she speaks the truth, and she shrugs it off when they poke fun at her stoner monologue. There are no hurt feelings or sulking, just good-natured ribbing, something all too rare with girls in the movies. We see that same emotional flexibility when the girls are biting it at the skate park, too; they fall, they get back up, and life goes on.

Only, Camille, newly indoctrinated into the Skate Kitchen crew, hasn’t mastered the emotional bounce-back. Even such open, adventurous teens hold to unspoken rules and social codes, and Camille is behind in the game. Her desire for friendship is only trumped by her desire to be admired and seen by boys, who haven’t quite known what to do with a girl so competitive and driven. As with so many coming-of-age films, Skate Kitchen foregrounds a crush, in this case Devon (Jaden Smith), a soft-spoken aspiring photographer who has earned a bad reputation with the Skate Kitchen girls. Everyone tells Camille not to trust him, but she’s helpless in his presence. He wants to take photos of her; he sees her.

My first instinct while watching Camille fawn over this likely “bad boy” was to roll my eyes. But the truth is: Nearly every girl experiences this brief lapse of judgment during the hormone hurricane. Is it a little cliché? Yup. Is life a little cliché? Oh, definitely. As infuriating as it is that Camille carves her way right into this hazard, Vinberg’s pensive performance rings true. Camille isn’t plotting to sell out her girls and date the boy; she’s bewildered and nosesliding right into inevitable heartbreak, whether that be from the loss of the boy’s affections or the girls’ friendship.

Camille is generally timid but only perfectly comfortable revealing her angry id to one person, her mother, a perpetually exasperated woman whose cloying nature pushes Camille away. Their relationship is complicated not just by a generational difference but by cultural differences as well. Camille speaks only English, while her mother is consistently speaking Spanish to her. That’s emblematic of this boundary-less utopian-seeking teen whose identity (and sexuality) is fluid, while the older generation is rigid, dogmatic, entrenched in the past. All Camille wants to do is glide into the future, but she’s slowly finding out that there’s a big benefit to remembering where you’re from.

Moselle’s film will likely get compared to Larry Clark’s Kids because of its intense realism, but Skate Kitchen is at the vanguard of a new generation of observe-and-report coming-of-age movies that portray the real lives of young adults without devolving into an all-out exploitation. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade and Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post belong there as well. In these films, the adult filmmakers seem to be actually listening to their actors, struggling to understand their perspective without projecting lazy judgments on them. In Skate Kitchen, the kids come as they are, and they’re wildly fascinating.

Skate Kitchen
Directed by Crystal Moselle
Magnolia Pictures
Opens August 10, IFC Center, AMC Empire 25 

 

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“King Cohen” Makes the Case for the Artistry of an Exploitation Film Hero

The too-easy shorthand description of legendary exploitation filmmaker Larry Cohen is that he’s New York’s answer to Roger Corman. The two share an affinity for the weirder margins of storytelling, have made cult hits with enduring fame for a dime, and possess a mighty work ethic that keeps them creating from morning till night, even today. But where they differ is in motivation. Where Corman wants to make money telling whichever story he foresees will be hot (and he’s been frequently right), Cohen approaches even his most outlandish pictures, like The Stuff (1985), from a personal angle. He infuses them with a message, some kind of moral that you might miss if you’re only paying attention to the killer yogurt. In that way, Cohen is less like Corman than he is a sort of cousin of horror filmmakers like John Carpenter or Wes Craven. As those directors have won greater critical consideration, Cohen finally gets his in Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen.

Mitchell’s documentary style isn’t flashy or refined, but it is economical. The director does his homework and almost cross-examines the film’s subjects. If Cohen tells a story about his collaborator Fred Williamson rolling out of a moving car on the set of Black Caesar (1973), Mitchell then puts the same questions to Williamson to get his side of of it — and, of course, both accounts are different. But that’s half the fun of a doc like this, with scruffy film-world characters (Williamson carefully poses himself lounging with a cigar) shooting the shit about the old days of guerrilla moviemaking and everything you could get away with back then; Martin Scorsese states that nobody could make films like Cohen did post–9-11 as Cohen tells the story of how he shot a brutal, bloody shootout scene at an airport baggage carousel, obviously with no permit. So, yeah.

While Cohen might accept his title as an exploitation director, he does take issue with other filmmakers pretending they’re not exploiting something or someone — “Isn’t every movie an exploitation movie?” he asks. His annoyance specifically stems from people labeling his black-cast films as blaxploitation, especially Black Caesar, which he considered simply an adaptation of James Cagney’s Little Caesar. He asks why his film should be called exploitation, just because he’s giving black actors some work, when Cagney’s film enjoys critical adoration as a classic. It’s a good question, one he’s clearly thought about a lot. Yaphet Kotto, who starred in Cohen’s first picture, the darkly comic dramatic thriller Bone (1972), says that he saw the director as a kind of Martin Luther King Jr. for black actors, kicking down the doors in the 1970s, ushering in the new era of Pam Griers and Richard Roundtrees. That’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s evident that Cohen really did care about giving work to his African-American collaborators, as well as lampooning in that work the real-life exploiters, notably the wealthy and powerful.

Late in the film, John Landis sheepishly admits that he really does think Cohen’s panned God Told Me To (1976) is actually a great movie. It’s a bonkers story about people murdering others on the order of a superior being with a vagina on its chest and, like all of Cohen’s works, it’s a film played earnestly, even if it is outrageous. Landis loves it, and King Cohen endeavors to remove the stigma of indulging in a Cohen classic, and largely succeeds.

King Cohen
Directed by Steve Mitchell

Dark Star Pictures
Opens August 3, Cinema Village

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

A Nazi Deserter Turns Vicious Killer as “The Captain” Exposes the Madness of War

Twenty-six years before the infamous Stanford prison experiment revealed how quickly figures of authority can collapse individuals’ moral framework, there was Willi Herold, a German World War II deserter who found a decorated captain’s uniform and transformed himself from hunted soldier to marauding punisher. Director Robert Schwentke explores Herold’s exploits in the final days of the war in his off-kilter drama The Captain. Filmed in black and white in the wintry countryside of Görlitz, Germany, Schwentke’s vision of a man who would be posthumously named the Executioner of Emsland is chilling and yet, at times, almost farcical.

In the opening scene, Herold (Max Hubacher) seems an innocent baby face running for his life from the Nazis. Schwentke immediately endeared me to Herold, an underdog you can root for; when Herold loots a farm for eggs but then flees as his friend is caught and stabbed with a pitchfork, his behavior seems reasonable in the circumstances, a means of survival. But the moment Herold finds a Nazi captain’s uniform in the back of an abandoned car, his demeanor morphs. His chubby cheeks seem slimmer somehow, his cheekbones more pronounced, his back straightened, as though he’s dropped whatever weight of hunger and fear had once hunched him over. Hubacher’s performance is a masterful physical feat.

The film is a psychological exploration of fascism’s roots in the cowardly human heart. Herold begins collecting a misfit team of fellow deserters and military goons looking for one last kill and a strong-armed leader, and Herold grows more and more comfortable in that role. He sees how others admire him when he executes a looter; he craves more of that approval. Herold as the captain is never sympathetic, but his behavior — goaded by a gang of psychopaths under duress as their world crumbles around them — is nearly predictable: If his newfound crew longs for bloodshed, he will give it to them.

Things reach a head at a German prison camp, where Nazi deserters are strictly monitored. Herold sees a chance to solidify his rule and usurp the prison captain by murdering the deserters, even as it’s obvious that Allied forces will soon arrive to kill or capture them all. It’s unnerving and surreal how efficiently Herold and his men arrive at the decision that they will order the deserters to dig a trench, then stand in it and sing a merry German song while they wait to be shot to death by their own people. The soldiers speak to one another like this is the only rational solution to a problem that didn’t exist before they got there, a deadly mixture of bureaucracy and cold-blooded murder.

Upon hearing the order to kill prisoners, soldier Hansen (Waldemar Kobus) hoots and hollers, “Finally, some action!” The giant machine gun used in the execution jams halfway through the trench murders, and the soldiers turn to one another, momentarily horrified that they’ll have to kill each deserter one by one themselves — and Herold knows that he could have been in that trench himself. The scene perfectly encapsulates the almost childish impulses of war and how the fantasy dissolves. The entire film, in fact, lays bare the debauchery and depravity of bored men on the brink of extinction.

The Captain
Directed by Robert Schwentke
Music Box Films
Opens July 27, Quad Cinema

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Netflix’s “The Bleeding Edge” Exposes the Horrors the FDA Approves From Medical Device Makers

Continuing their legacy of equally infuriating and enlightening documentaries, the producer-director team of Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick poke into the archaic and futile FDA approval systems for medical devices with their film The Bleeding Edge. Prepare to be scared shitless of vaginal mesh or high-tech surgery robots. Through a series of personal stories from both qualified medical professionals and laypeople, the film explores just what exactly the word complications means on a device’s warnings. In the cases Dick investigates, those complications become a ripple effect of lives ruined by untested but FDA-approved devices.

The film, which premieres on Netflix on July 27, traverses the spectrum of medical devices but opens and closes on one particular item, Essure, a metal coil that’s inserted into the fallopian tubes for sterilization purposes. We meet a mail carrier from upstate New York whose doctor sold her on Essure years ago. As the documentary jumps around to different people, devices and experts, we return again and again to the horrifying story of this mail carrier, who came to find that her body was rejecting the coil, which led her to nearly bleed to death. Another woman, a Latina account executive with four children, relays a frighteningly similar story, only with the added layer of racism; her doctor told her he assumed Latinas just bled more than white women did. Neither woman’s story takes a turn for the better, but it’s the Latina woman whose entire life — and the lives of her daughters — get smashed all because of one doctor not taking her concerns seriously.

Dick seems to anticipate that viewers — just like doctors — may be conditioned to think women overexaggerate their pain, so at the fifteen-minute mark of the film he jumps into the story of a respected older white male doctor who got a cobalt hip joint and began suffering from neurological issues. These were so severe that he had a complete mental breakdown in a hotel room, smashing things and scrawling cryptic messages on the walls. He begins questioning established medicine’s embrace of cobalt implants; upon the removal of his, every neurological issue he had developed disappeared. If a completely healthy man with medical training can go so quickly from zero to delusional, what of the millions of other Americans with cobalt in their bodies? What of the injured vets already fighting PTSD who live with an implant that could be poisoning them? What are the metal plates and screws in my own ankle made of, and why didn’t I know to ask?

The director backs up all these anecdotes with some hard facts about the FDA approval process for medical devices, which — even according to a former head of the department — is a broken system. The medical device industry is the least understood and regulated in the FDA umbrella. Dick exposes so much that I yelled, “Oh, my God!” multiple times while watching. There is nothing more upsetting than listening to a charming Southern woman say the words, “My colon’s falling out!” Worse yet are the profit-hungry companies that have been able to slide by unnoticed for so long. Here’s hoping The Bleeding Edge gets the right attention on a decidedly unsexy topic.

The Bleeding Edge
Directed by Kirby Dick
Netflix
Opens July 27, IFC Center
Premieres on Netflix on July 27

 

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