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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Past Isn’t Past

“If we just relive it again, it’s gonna keep happening,” someone says during Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 as a way of asking if restaging a 100-year-old crime against humanity is such a great idea. The event in question occurred on July 12, 1917, not long after the U.S. had entered World War I. A strike among mine workers in the wealthy town of Bisbee, Arizona — once known as the “Queen of the Copper Camps” — was put down savagely by authorities. Around 2,000 townspeople were deputized to round up roughly 1,200 strikers (and fellow residents), transport them into the New Mexico desert, and leave them to die. The vast majority of the strikers were immigrants; Bisbee is situated just a few miles north of the Mexican border. Last year, to commemorate the anniversary of what is now known as the “Bisbee Deportation,” the town re-enacted the events, with citizens divided into strikers and deputies, victims and perpetrators.

It’s a staggeringly ambitious way to confront the sins of history, turning Bisbee ’17 into, among other things, a ghost story. And Greene’s stylistic choices reflect the imposition of narrative and symbolism onto a real-life tale, as if the ghosts were trying to seize the movie. The film’s lush widescreen vistas and impeccably lit interiors clash with, and inform, its interviews and more intimate moments. The director purposefully pulls us this way and that, weaving cinematic spells and then yanking us out of them; as viewers, we are both inside and outside the story.

Some may complain that the dredging up of shameful historical memories serves not as an exorcism but as a conjuring. Why not leave the past buried, forgotten, where it can do no further harm? But it could also be argued that such memories and sins never actually went away in the first place, and need to be confronted. “Cities that are haunted…seem to straddle past and present, as though two versions of the city are overlaid on top of each other,” a quote from Colin Dickey’s Ghostland tells us in the film’s opening. (The statement has the ring of truth whether you’re talking about a mining town in Arizona or New York City.) Desperately poor ever since the mines closed decades ago, the town of Bisbee today is filled with tales of hauntings; indeed, ghost stories and tours are reportedly a key source of tourism.

The re-enactment and its subsequent cinematic portrayal were both the brainchild of Greene himself, and they mark the latest chapter in the career of a documentarian whose work keeps finding new ways to probe the gray area between authenticity and performance. In 2014’s Actress, Greene documented the daily life of Brandy Burre, a cast member of The Wire who had stepped away from acting to start a family in Beacon, New York. During the film, Burre attempts to restart her career, but as Greene’s camera follows her into intimate corners of her life, we realize that the roles of mother and partner are also parts Burre is playing.

That’s not to say she’s living a lie: Through Greene’s framing, Actress suggests that all life is essentially a series of roles that we perform to varying degrees. It may be the greatest documentary of the past decade because even as it presents an almost novelistically complex portrait of one woman’s turbulent life, it manages to interrogate not just the idea of documentary filmmaking, but the very nature of reality itself.

Greene took this type of formal experimentation even further with his next film, Kate Plays Christine (2016), which follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to portray Sarasota broadcast journalist Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself on camera in 1974. The conceptual twist is that there is no actual narrative film being made about Chubbuck. (Well, that’s not quite accurate; there was a film being made around the same time, starring Rebecca Hall and directed by Antonio Campos, but it had nothing to do with Greene and Sheil’s project.) You could say that Sheil is preparing for a role that doesn’t exist. You could also say that her preparation for the role is the role itself: The main character of the movie is essentially the liminal figure of Kate becoming Christine.

“Kate Plays Christine”

Or perhaps failing to. By trying to inhabit the mind of a woman who had killed herself to protest the increasingly sensationalist nature of the media industry around her, Sheil becomes an unpredictable, at times even destructive force. Kate Plays Christine’s controversial ending, in which an attempt to re-create Chubbuck’s final moments repeatedly goes haywire in a variety of ways — some seemingly planned by the filmmakers, others perhaps more spontaneous — makes a lot more sense if one looks at it as the movie consciously self-destructing, in a formally daring spiritual echo of its subject’s suicide.

Greene’s profile has risen substantially with these three most recent films, but one can find this kind of exploration in his earlier features as well. In 2011’s Fake It So Real, he follows a colorful and odd group of small-time wrestlers who stage matches for a few bucks a pop in tiny venues like school auditoriums and church basements. In his debut feature, 2010’s Kati With an I, he follows his vibrant, independent-minded 18-year-old half-sister around during a pivotal three days in her life, right before she graduates from high school and prepares to leave small-town Alabama to move back in with her parents in North Carolina. At various points, Kati finds herself playing the role of wise adult, girlfriend, daughter, ringleader, dreamer, and cynic. As we count down to graduation, the question of whether her not-entirely-reliable boyfriend will follow Kati up to North Carolina continues to hang in the air. This girl has got plans, and yet nothing in her life seems in any way settled or certain. The movie is radiant, ever-changing, impossible to pin down, just like its subject.

“Kati with an I”

Which brings us to another distinguishing factor of Bisbee ’17. In the past, Greene’s work has tended to focus on individuals undergoing transformations. This time, however, his approach seems more diffuse: A wide variety of faces and types come before his cameras — a small army of people researching, reflecting on and inhabiting figures from the past. While there are a few individuals who stand out among the crowd, what we sense more than anything is a gathering communal consciousness. Just as Brandy played Brandy in Actress and Kate played Christine, Bisbee 2017 plays Bisbee 1917 — with all the uncertainty and tenuousness that implies.

But there’s more to it than that. Greene’s film obviously has some urgency in our current moment, as a humanitarian crisis gathers along our border. Thousands of children have been detained and separated from their parents. A nation is being cynically and opportunistically divided around the politics of immigration. And let’s not forget about the politics of work, the politics of who owns, who toils, and who dies: The labor movement is under fire once again from the reactionary forces of runaway profit in collusion with a vengeful government. And so we must confront the fact that the true protagonist of Bisbee ’17 is America as it plays itself, zigzagging in the treacherous and disputed frontier between past and present, fracture and community, victim and perpetrator, truth and lies.

Bisbee ’17
Written, directed, and edited by Robert Greene
4th Row Films
Opens September 5, Film Forum

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Frozen in Time: “The Little Stranger” Is a Disturbingly Chilly Gothic Drama

An ominous chill hangs so persistently over Lenny Abrahamson’s period drama The Little Stranger that you’re liable to feel it in your bones. It hints unsettlingly at high emotions, corrupting passions, and bloody memories; the fact that we fail to see these things onscreen doesn’t entirely mean that they’re absent. This makes the movie mostly gripping, and only occasionally frustrating.

Based on Sarah Waters’s 2009 gothic novel, the story takes place in the English countryside not long after World War II. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a doctor called to the care of a young servant in the spacious Hundreds Hall, a sprawling manor home that has seen better days. The Ayres family, the once-wealthy owners of the Hundreds, are a haunted lot: Roderick (Will Poulter) was horribly disfigured during the war; his mother (Charlotte Rampling) still mourns the loss of her daughter Susan many years ago at the age of eight; the surviving daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), is a melancholy, standoffish introvert who seems to have given her life over to caring for her brother and mother. For his part, Faraday recalls the Ayres’s glory days with a mixture of wonder and unease: His mother used to be one of many servants at the Hundreds, and he remembers a happy, bustling Empire Day celebration in 1919 when he entered the house and became fascinated with it: “Nothing could have prepared me for the spell it cast that day,” he tells us.

Soon enough, the modest country doctor is caring for all the members of this once-great family. He’s curiously drawn to these people — particularly Caroline, who finds herself relying more and more on him and his steady, steely demeanor. But is his behavior the product of chin-up sturdiness or a kind of emotional constipation? And is his and Caroline’s growing attraction to each other something romantic, or more sinister? Gleeson’s clipped, haughty reserve admirably keeps us guessing.

Like many gothic tales, The Little Stranger hangs tantalizingly between genres: It has elements of haunted-house thriller, of doomed romance, of psychological thriller, of historical allegory. This also presumably makes it a hard sell, as it never quite fully becomes any of these things. Perhaps that’s why the film seems to be getting such a cursory, understated release — despite the fact that Abrahamson’s previous film was the widely acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Room. This sort of genre hybrid, one could argue, can be more effective on the page. I haven’t read Waters’s sprawling original, but I have read her other works, and the richness of detail in her writing generally precludes any question of classification; you’re just pulled along by the story and the immersive milieu.

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But sometimes, marketing challenges can be artistic strengths. The Little Stranger captures a sense of gathering, inchoate dread that is all the more unsettling because it doesn’t fit into any easy genre categories. Abrahamson’s ability to maintain a mood of persistent unease keeps us hanging, and thinking. And the film’s constant atmosphere of stillness eventually becomes downright surreal: Everything in this movie seems to trend toward paralysis. So much so that if you told me that much of the finale was composed of actual freeze-frames rather than shots of great stillness, I’d probably believe you.

There’s a fascinating idea in there. The Empire Day celebrations that we see repeatedly in flashback suggest a symbolic kick to the fate of Hundreds Hall. And the working-class Faraday’s fascination with it — along with the overall sense that in order for this massive home to survive, everything must be kept just so — evoke the notion of post-war British decline and various attempts to hang on to the idea of empire, to live in an empty, imagined past. I do wish Abrahamson had done more with all that, but he appears to be quite committed — perhaps even too committed — to the tale’s in-between-ness and its chilliness. The Little Stranger’s face never breaks, and maybe that’s the point.

The Little Stranger
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Focus Features
Opens August 31

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

Can Kid Scientists Save the World? “Inventing Tomorrow” Follows Some Who Just Might

Laura Nix’s documentary Inventing Tomorrow begins like a police procedural: A young investigator snaps on rubber gloves and grimly assesses what could be a crime scene. In a way, it is — two high school girls in Bangka, Indonesia, are adamant that tin mining, spurred by the manufacture of devices like smartphones and computers in high demand the world over, is polluting the sea around their island home.

They take water samples, grill the miners about their practices, and invent a filter that could mitigate their toxic side effects, which earns them a spot at the massive Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles.

Nix spotlights four such eco-conscious projects — the others hail from Hawaii, India, and Mexico — and the teenagers behind them. Though her film shares a lot with the hit student-achievement doc Spellbound, her focus on the fair somewhat blunts her impact. We’re privy to the students’ backgrounds and get a tiny glimpse into their futures, but the film skims a lot in favor of showcasing the ISEF gathering.

Still, as in the spelling-bee doc, these are moving stories of nerdy children, kids who are pragmatic about the forward march of industry yet believe societies can, and must, find cleaner ways to advance. It’s noteworthy that so many are from outside the U.S., which has downgraded science and ecological care to a pitiful degree. Each of them could become leaders in science, government, or industry, and, in fact, it would be a crime if they all don’t.

Inventing Tomorrow
Directed by Laura Nix
Opens August 31, IFC Center

 

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“Reprisal” Somehow Manages to Waste Both Bruce Willis and Frank Grillo

Seeing Bruce Willis in the movies these days is damn embarrassing. The action icon appears to just wander from one into the next — sometimes as a favor to someone working on the movie — taking the phrase phoning it in to astonishing heights.

In Reprisal, he’s an ex-cop (of course!) and the next-door neighbor of a bank manager (Frank Grillo) whose bank was recently robbed. Since that heist left one co-worker dead, our tormented protagonist is obsessed with stopping the criminal from robbing/killing again. So he gets together with his next-door pal to figure out this cat’s next move.

You can tell that the filmmakers only had Willis for a limited number of days during filming. Despite sharing top billing with Grillo, the man only shows up in a few scenes — mostly all set in the same interior location — giving the minimum number of fucks. And when Willis does have to go outside, he awkwardly gets spliced in along with shots of the bald-headed double who subbed for him when he wasn’t there. (See what I mean when I say this is embarrassing?)

It’s bad enough this film is another flimsy, unsurprising, straight-to-streaming actioner/highlight reel for Grillo, who seems to want people to know he’s ready to headline a blockbuster tentpole flick. But it’s downright sad watching Willis go all half-assed in another movie. I guess we’re gonna have to wait for Glass to come out next year to see if Willis can do a movie in whole-assed form again.

Reprisal
Lionsgate Premiere
Opens August 31, Cinema Village
Available on demand

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” Now Restored, Bustles Beautifully Between Memories

The working-class, mid-twentieth-century Liverpudlian characters who populate Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) sometimes glance in the direction of the camera, their self-conscious near-posing and the director’s portrait-like framing evoking the flipping-through of an old photo album. This combination of intimacy and remove — the startling emotional jolt of seeing a family in mourning stare toward you in silence, an image of the felled patriarch hanging on the wall behind them — characterizes Davies’s enthralling thirty-year-old debut feature, an autobiographically informed but hardly event-reliant memory piece. (It returns this week in a 4K restoration.) Davies’s reminiscences, centered on one Catholic clan, unfold according to a peculiar emotional logic: The characters are more comfortable singing than speaking. (“Bye Bye Blackbird” diffuses a barroom argument.) Scenes aren’t shaped with typical dramatic roundness, but rather pick up and cut off at surprise intervals. Even an encounter with stark interpersonal stakes — a confrontation between army-age son Tony (Dean Williams) and abusive father Tommy (Pete Postlethwaite) — is structured as a sort of de-escalation. Davies opens on an expression of mighty rage, Tony punching his fists through a window (“Fight me, you bastard!”), then transitions abruptly to a near-the-fireplace shot of Tony holding two beers in his bloodied hands, Tommy flatly but quietly refusing his boy’s offer of a drink. Such disjunctive stops and starts recur across Davies’s movie, whose look-back form — all elegiacally drifting camera movements and belted-out bar songs — endures as a grand cinematic anomaly.

Like Davies’s spiritually aligned and similarly song-rich The Long Day Closes (1992), Distant Voices, Still Lives opens with a downpour; here, the raindrops fall on a front step stocked with fresh milk bottles. Unlike that later movie, which maintains a mostly childhood-specific p.o.v., Distant Voices, Still Lives loops with abandon through the years and personalities, observing deaths, births, hospital visits, weddings, holidays. Eileen (Angela Walsh), one of the two daughters of Tommy and “Mother” (Freda Dowie), gushes over a bottle of Chanel perfume gifted to her by Dave (Michael Starke), whom she later marries. (In The Long Day Closes, the women seated around a table wish they had Chanel.) Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), Eileen’s sister, asks her father for money to go to the dance, which he agrees to only if she’ll clean the cellar; she scrubs the floors, and then he beats her with a broomstick. At a crowded pub, Tony places a seemingly never-ending drink order; seconds later, he shepherds a tray’s worth of cold beers into a bustling room of crooning loved ones. As kids, the siblings spy on their father brushing a horse and singing to himself — a moment of tenderness for this hard man.

On occasion, Davies interrupts the thoughtful solemnity with touches of humor: Eileen offhandedly calling her loud-chewing husband “Mouth Almighty” is a barb worthy of Cynthia Nixon’s Emily Dickinson in Davies’s A Quiet Passion. Stylistically, some of his maneuvers create an almost confounding mix of the tragic and the unhinged, as when he depicts one accidental disaster two men falling through a pane of glass via an extravagant slow-motion shot that lasts around thirty seconds. A sudden, out-of-context image like that one is typical of the sprawl of Distant Voices, Still Lives, but the intention behind other structural decisions is more clear. Early on, Eileen and her good friend Micky (Debi Jones) loiter outside Eileen’s house after an evening of dancing, hoping to get in one final cigarette before Tommy’s strict curfew. Obviously very cool and destined for better, more glamorous things, the women covertly mock Eileen’s father’s social restrictions (“It’s worse than Alcatraz, isn’t it?”). Years later, the two share another private chat at the end of a long night out. Micky raises the specter of future get-together plans, but the conversation only amounts to Eileen’s halfhearted “We’ll see, kid.” The gradations of life — spouses, responsibilities, fatigue — have caught up with them, wearing down their youthful exuberance. As in the rest of the movie, Davies seizes this crushing morsel of wisdom practically on the fly, before rushing on to the next memory, the next song, the next glass of beer.

Distant Voices, Still Lives
Directed by Terence Davies
Arrow Films
Opens August 31, Metrograph

 

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“Operation Finale” Proves Slightly Less Banal Than Evil Itself

When the Third Reich went kaput, and Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler chucked their vile lives into the void rather than face this world’s justice, the detestable Adolf Eichmann, the “architect” of the führer’s Final Solution, slunk his sorry ass off to Argentina. There, under an assumed name, he lived with his family in a brick house on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, toiling at a Mercedes-Benz factory. But the thing about Nazis is they’re always still going to Nazi, no matter how quiet they should keep. As we see in Chris Weitz’s uneven caper-thriller Operation Finale, Eichmann (played by an appropriately sulfurous Ben Kingsley) couldn’t resist swanning into underground Nazi supper clubs and rallies, where he coyly allowed himself to be feted. If someone cracked the old joke about how, under the fascists, at least the trains ran on time, this glory hound would probably snap back, “Because of me!”

Weitz’s film, concerning a Mossad team’s 1960 hunt for Eichmann, is a sort of Argo Goes to Munich, blending heist-movie jollies with some moral inquiry into justice, revenge, torture, and execution. The mix is sometimes unpalatable: The gang breezily plots its big score and dances to boogie-woogie piano, but David Ben-Gurion himself (played by Simon Russell Beale) establishes the stakes thusly: “For the first time in our history, we will judge our executioner.” It’s almost held together by the face of Oscar Isaac, who plays Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent in charge of the mission to snatch the old murderer and sneak him to Israel for trial without the Argentine government catching on. Pulsing just inches above the movie-star smile is that knot of nerves between Isaac’s eyes, that pinch of worry that sets Isaac apart, even in a leading-man role. Early on, Isaac sharks about in smashing midcentury sports jackets, radiating Clooney-esque confidence and charm as Malkin tries to convince his superiors and colleagues that he can pull all this off. But he doesn’t look convinced himself. Nothing comes easy for the best Isaac characters, and they’re not blessed with the force of self to hide this. And then when things do seem to come easy for them, as in the case of his cocksure Star Wars flyboy, things really go to hell.

In Operation Finale’s best scenes, Weitz dramatizes the tension that’s always there in Isaac’s face, emphasizing the difference between the breezy caper films we might wish we could live in and the brutal messiness of actual life. We see Isaac’s Malkin painstakingly rehearse the moves he’ll use to seize and subdue his villain; we see him caught up, chokingly, at crucial moments, in the memory of his sister, who was murdered by the Nazis. But Isaac’s pained expressions, the way doubt and conscience kink up Malkin’s impulses toward heroism, ultimately prove more engaging and revealing than Matthew Orton’s script or much of Weitz’s staging.

The scenes of planning and teamwork, suspense and complication, work well enough, though the fact that the Israeli, German, and Argentine characters all speak their lines in English robs them of richness and specificity. They’re what mainstream Hollywood remains adept at, all momentum and banter, minor surprises and minor dread. Weitz and Co. prove adept at communicating several beats of story within a single arresting shot, and they do nice work with reflections, cramped quarters, and the nasty prevalence of anti-Semitism in Argentina.

The filmmakers prove less certain when working outside the templates of genre. In flashbacks, Weitz suggests the scale of Eichmann’s crimes through visions of trenches overflowing with Jewish corpses; the image is somehow obscene and banal at once, lacking the gravity even of the scenes in the X-Men movies of young Magneto at Auschwitz. After Eichmann gets grabbed — basic twentieth-century history ain’t a spoiler, people — the Mossad crew must, for reasons never quite made clear, coerce their captive into signing a statement declaring that he has agreed to be taken to Israel. They have just days to do this, before the departure of the only plane they can escape in, and before Argentine authorities discover their safe house. Their stern interrogator has no luck getting Eichmann — blindfolded, polite, pathetic — to sign. One team member keeps pushing for torture. Another balks that they should have just killed him already. But Malkin sees another way: Strike up something like a friendship with their captive, sharing cigarettes, listening to his wheezing stories of childhood as the Nazi is perched on the toilet, even telling the man who designed the death camps about the family that Malkin lost to them. Eichmann offers up the just following orders excuse and insists that there’s no reason he should cooperate: “Your lawyers and your lying press will try the man they think they know, not the one who sits before you now.”

Since Malkin is the hero, we know that this approach is the correct one, though Operation Finale never makes a case as to why, exactly. At times, it seems to be edging toward the tense colloquies of Steven Spielberg’s anguished, fascinating Munich, a film that found one of cinema’s greatest orchestrators of heroic violence ambivalent about the morality of his gift. But Weitz and Orton don’t dig in, don’t question Malkin’s choices, don’t honor the temptations of revenge, don’t manage to make us fear their hero getting too close to the desperate and manipulative Eichmann. Rather than interrogate the tools of Hollywood storytelling, as Spielberg did, they use them as crutches. Toward the end, as the plot lurches — like Argo or a 1990s rom-com — toward a mad dash to the airport, Eichmann suddenly is invested in Malkin’s inner life the same way that a supervillain tends to be caught up in his opposing hero’s, monologuing about his mad brilliance. Rather than the cagey, caged mastermind who later would play dumb at trial, this Eichmann is just another movie bad guy — and Operation Finale is just another movie.

Operation Finale
Directed by Chris Weitz
Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Opens August 31

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

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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“Active Measures” Accidentally Makes Trump-Russia Collusion Sound Like Mad Propaganda

More a mega-thread than a movie, Jack Bryan’s tying-it-all-together Donald Trump–Russia doc connects its dots for 110 delirious minutes. Active Measures links Vladimir Putin’s rise to New York real estate to oligarchs buying Trump-branded condos to the poisoning of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko to the sale of 19 percent of the Russian oil company Rosneft to 77,000 more Pennsylvanians, Wisconsinites, and Michiganders pulling the lever for Trump than they did for Hillary Clinton. Few shots in Bryan’s film last longer than a second or two, always cutting from news photos to cable clips to footage of Putin smirking like he’s a little stinker to yet another screaming news headline, often with the words Trump and Russia helpfully highlighted. Tensely pulsing electronic music underscores great swathes of it, sometimes seemingly looped, sounding like the loading screen of some apocalyptic video game.

Active Measures is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the mind. By coming on so strong, so fevered, Bryan achieves the dubious feat of making his host of documented facts, reasonable inferences, and alarming subjects for further research all seem seem less persuasive than if they had been presented more soberly. Let me put it this way: I suspect that much of what’s asserted here by Bryan and his top-shelf roster of reporters, diplomats, and politicians is accurate. But as the film chugs along — dashing through the Russians’ manipulations and then invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, showing us a former Miss Hungary asserting that Trump once invited her to his hotel room — I found my certitude actually taxed. Yes, Trump is likely, in some way, in thrall to or under the thumb of Putin, but Bryan’s case is less journalistic than propagandistic, his film assembled like an endless negative campaign ad, just a series of dark assertions made and moved on from. With such conspiracies afoot, who has time to nail a fact down?

What’s especially frustrating is that Bryan has put together a team of experts who could walk us through the specifics, building a powerful case. Those inclined not to believe in a serious Trump-Putin connection might call the film’s cast the Deep State All-Stars. Thirty seconds in, Clinton herself gamely summarizes events of Putin’s childhood. And soon we’re hearing from John McCain, John Podesta, former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, former CIA head James Woolsey, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and the like, along with reporters like Michael Isikoff and Nina Burleigh. On occasion, they get to speak more than a half sentence at a time, as when former CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash explains the three key tactics of what the intelligence community calls Russia’s “active measures,” its underhanded efforts to exert influence around the world as its military and economic power wanes. These include, Bash tells us, propaganda, cyberattacks, “and to recruit, enlist, and in some cases even run agents of influence.” Good to know!

Too bad, then, that the film’s nadir comes almost immediately after, during a quick recapitulation of 2010 news stories alleging that thousands of Russians in America are engaged in some sort of spying for the Kremlin. “America Is Infested!” a headline bellows. And Bryan, who presumably must type all his emails with the caps lock on, cuts to a close-up of those words and then highlights them before our eyes. An ominous whooshing sound even plays. America is infested.

The source of that claim: the New York Post. This year offers vile surprises every day, but it’s still a jolt to see a lefty issue doc starring Hillary Clinton borrow an alarmist headline tainted with the language of McCarthy talking commies or Trump himself targeting immigrants — a headline from a Rupert Murdoch paper, no less. Bash explains a moment later that some of these foreign agents might not even realize they’re foreign agents, but the film’s paranoid momentum doesn’t let nuance sink in. His words are little match for the music, the imagery, the sharklike surging toward the next troubling connection. Sometimes Bryan simply invents a connection, as if there weren’t enough already. One low point juxtaposes Trump’s crack about preferring war heroes who didn’t get captured with a clip of Putin saying in an interview that anyone who suffered what McCain did in Vietnam would likely have “gone nuts.” Two dudes both being assholes isn’t evidence of an international conspiracy. Why show us that nonsense rather than buckle down and truly nail down the flow of cash to the world’s many Trump Towers, or the efforts of Putin to overturn the Magnitsky Act, or the evidence linking the murders of critical journalists to Putin, or the players involved in the softening of the 2016 GOP platform on the subject of Russia’s seizure of Ukraine?

Bryan’s film inspires a state of conspiracy-minded agitation, to its own detriment. One talking head brings up the conspiracy theories surrounding the unsolved murder of Seth Rich, the employee of the Democratic National Committee whom the loathsome Sean Hannity has suggested was the real source of the hacked DNC emails that were released through WikiLeaks. The film invites us to scoff at the idea that this murder was no random occurrence, but for the previous eighty minutes it’s been insisting that no occurrence is random. It invites precisely the mind-set in which bullshit beliefs take root.

The problem becomes clearest when Bryan turns to the rash of vicious made-up troll stories that proliferated on social media during the 2016 campaign. These headlines are so outlandish that no thinking person should be quick to believe them. But so are the quite-likely true connections that Bryan makes throughout the film. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. By presenting his case without it, Bryan makes that case look like it’s just more fake news.

Active Measures
Directed by Jack Bryan
Super LTD
Opens August 31, IFC Center
Available on demand

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

“Pick of the Litter” Is a Good Dog Doc, Yes It Is, Yes It Is

It would be a surprise if Pick of the Litter doesn’t win over most viewers. Dana Nachman and Don Hardy’s film, charting the fates of a litter of puppies being trained to become guide dogs, opens with teary testimonials from blind men and women whose lives have been saved by furry companions so smart that they overruled their humans’ commands and avoided oncoming cars or surprise staircases. A heartbeat later, we’re watching Labrador pups tumble forth from their mother, their faces pink and wrinkly, their eyes not quite ready to open up and take in a world that doesn’t deserve such good boys. Yes, they are good boys and good girls, all of them. Such good, good puppies!

It’s a tough movie to review, in its way. The pups, named Primrose and Poppet and Phil and Potomac and Patriot, get dispatched from the organization Guide Dogs for the Blind to the homes of families dedicated to raising them for the first half of their training. As the filmmakers check in intermittently on the progress of all five sweet, sweet, good, good boys and good girls, yes they are, the critic’s mind might start worrying over questions like, “Wait, why did this one rambunctious puppy get moved to a new family?” or “Why don’t the filmmakers slow down and show us what exactly the day-to-day life of these volunteer trainers is like and how much work goes into it?” But, no dopes, the filmmakers instead emphasize the puppies themselves — such good boys and girls they are! — and the high emotions shared by their temporary human companions at meetings and partings. What are the concerns of coherent storytelling or in-depth documentation when all of these good boys and girls — yes they are! — are leaping and licking and tail-wagging and just being the best?

Some pups get cut — or “career changed” — from the program, usually for behaving like pups. They might get distracted on walks, follow their whims rather than march in lockstep with their human, chase bits of paper or interesting smells or some of the other very, very good boys and girls they meet on their rounds. As the roster of puppies slims, the film becomes more successful at actually showing viewers the rigors of becoming a guide dog, especially once the pups enter the second phase of their training.

Now back at Guide Dogs for the Blind, in San Rafael, California, the last dogs standing must master not just curbs and traffic but also what the trainers call “intelligent disobedience” — when to reject commands from their humans that might, say, send them both into the path of a car or down an elevator shaft. The best good boys and girls are the ones who know that sometimes they must not do what we tell them. The final tests we see the dogs work through are tense and fascinating. And just when your brains starts asking, “Hey, do these trainees even understand that they’re being trained or the very concept of failure?” you’re watching blind adults meet their new guide dogs, who leap up and lick their faces. By then, you’re probably a helpless blubbering pile of tears and good boys and good girls and yes you are, yes you ares.

Pick of the Litter
Directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy
Sundance Selects
Opens August 31, IFC Center

 

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Must-Watch (and Maybe-Watch) Movies This Week

Each week, the Village Voice reviews the dozen or so films that open in theaters both locally and nationwide. Because we understand that you probably won’t read every single one of these reviews (although we think you should give it a try), here’s the definitive guide to what you should watch.

You Should Definitely Watch

CRIME + PUNISHMENT

“Through sensitive portraiture and vigorous investigative reporting, it tracks the struggle of minority police officers within the NYPD to reshape the culture of law enforcement itself. ‘The reality of it is law enforcement uses black bodies to generate revenue,’ bluntly states one officer.” — Alan Scherstuhl (full review)

ANDREI RUBLEV

“Over the course of his journeys, the film’s protagonist, the legendary Russian monk and icon painter Andrei Rublev, confronts jealousy, pettiness, carnality, and unspeakable violence. He even kills a man himself, in an attempt to save a woman from rape and murder during a brutal Tartar raid. Once criticized for the lack of emotion in his icons — his work, we’re told early on, is technically brilliant and subtle, but has ‘no awe…no faith that comes from the depths of his soul’ — he finds himself unable to paint, even unwilling to speak. Rublev is a mesmerizing portrait of an artist and cleric undone by a world that is cruel, chaotic, unexplainable.” — Bilge Ebiri (full review)

SUPPORT THE GIRLS

“Writer-director Andrew Bujalski frames most of Support the Girls as an almost real-time delineation of chaos, but his storytelling elegance — delicate, nearly invisible foreshadowing; cogent evocations of backstory — adds reflective layers to the surface anarchy.” — Danny King (full review)

Worth Watching

PAPILLON

“This new version, directed by Danish filmmaker Michael Noer, brings to the story a refreshing intensity and sweep, and even a sense of adventure. It’s also unflinching when it comes to violence, misery, and gore: We feel the savagery of the heat and the hatred, the sheer primordial guck in which these prisoners toil. That in turn makes the call of freedom that much more enthralling, and the rough, barbed alliance between Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) and Louis Dega (Rami Malek) that much more convincing.” — Bilge Ebiri (full review)

JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION

“The footage, like most of the searching cine-essay John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, was shot in competition at the French Open in the early 1980s by Gil de Kermadec, a filmmaker specializing in the study of tennis technique. The whir of the specialized camera equipped for slow-motion shots seemed a roar on a hushed tennis court, another distraction for the sensitive champion to rail against. De Kermadec, we learn, had come to believe that the performance of athletes in competition differed from their performance in drills or tutorials, so he captured them in actual matches. He produced a contemporary study of McEnroe’s technique, complete with early Eighties computer animation charting every pivot of his serve.” — Alan Scherstuhl (full review)

The Rest

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS: “So, a couple of decades from now, it might be interesting to watch this often glum detective procedural in which the populations who have endured American racism have been Find-Replaced with horny puppets.” — Alan Scherstuhl (full review)

THE BOOKSHOP: “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.” — April Wolfe (full review)

SEARCHING: “The film has promise, but the tech keeps getting in the way of the performances.” — April Wolfe (full review)

MAISON DU BONHEUR: “The film is a portrait of a woman, Juliane Sellam, 77 at the time of filming, and her home, dedicated to processes — behold her recipe for bread for Shabbat — and striking still-life shots. Here are fruit and herbs in bowls before an open window, a breeze easing through them; here are the fashionable Sellam’s pumps and heels, a collection Galapagan in abundance and variety.” — Alan Scherstuhl (full review)

ARIZONA: “Director Jonathan Watson’s super-violent Arizona is a well-done but chilly and essentially unlovable black comedy with one tiny spark of warmth — Rosemarie DeWitt’s performance as Cassie, a real estate broker who finds herself underwater financially after the 2006 housing market collapses.” — Chris Packham (full review)

AN L.A. MINUTE: “Daniel Adams’s An L.A. Minute makes you suffer through its satire of celebrity culture and never redeems itself, despite the potentially interesting duo of Gabriel Byrne and Kiersey Clemons as leads. The stars seem out of place with each other and in this movie, with creators who have no idea what they want to say.” — Kristen Yoonsoo Kim (full review)

WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE: “What Keeps You Alive’s ability to keep going and going and going is impressive, but seasoned low-budget-genre director Colin Minihan (Extraterrestrial) grounds the twisty shenanigans in something deeper — or at least gives it the old college try.” — Matt Prigge (full review)

THE OSLO DIARIES: “The Oslo Diaries is a striking document, mixing never-before-seen footage shot by the negotiators themselves and current reflections from participants, including the final interview of former Israeli president Shimon Peres.” — Jordan Hoffman (full review)

BLUE IGUANA: “While writer-director Hadi Hajaig says he was inspired by acclaimed, quirky-but-scary movies like Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and George Armitage’s Miami Blues, this new Iguana appears more like the work of someone who has watched Guy Ritchie’s early, Tarantino-knockoff films too damn much.” — Craig D. Lindsey (full review)

HOT TO TROT: “Hot to Trot is the wrong title for this engaging movie, not least because it was used thirty years ago for a Bobcat Goldthwait vehicle about a talking horse.” — Elizabeth Zimmer (full review)