OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online‘s new monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen. Our June issue collects our takes on this month’s theatrical releases. So while not typically thought of as prime release territory for arthouse or independent cinema, included here are our takes on Jim Jarmusch’s Cannes-opening The Dead Don’t Die; A24’s counter-programming effort, The Last Black Man in San Francisco; fall festival mainstay Our Time from director Carlos Reygadas; and others.
Carlos Reygadas, the provocateur of Japon and Battle in Heaven, seems to have finally matured. Some might argue that he took a step forward with Silent Light; others (me) would call that one second-hand Dreyer, a series of borrowed poses and attitudes and fake epiphanies. And the less said about Post Tenebras Lux, the better. With Our Time, though, Reyagadas has constructed a fully realized work that speaks to real emotional truths, while still leaving ample room for his odd proclivities and his unique sensibility. It’s a major work, in other words. The film has a straightforward narrative — the gradual dissolution of a marriage — but not a simplistic one. Reygadas complicates this scenario in various ways: he takes an epistolary approach, devoting large swathes of screen time to voiceovers that recite written letters, emails, and text messages. Reygadas also casts himself and his own wife and children as the main characters of Our Time. It’s a fascinating schism, rupturing the film’s form into a kind of dichotomy between fiction and documentary. Reygadas is ‘playing’ Juan, husband to Esther, who’s played by Natalie Lopez, Reygadas’ wife and collaborator. The film is set on and around the grounds of Reygadas’s actual home, a cattle ranch outside of Mexico City. The whole thing is intellectually playful, in a Borgesian sense.
In the narrative proper, Esther embarks on an affair with a visiting rancher named Phil, causing friction with her husband. Juan insists that he is fine with the arrangement itself, since they are essentially in an open marriage, but he’s angry that Esther has kept the affair from him. Juan veers from intellectual smugness to jealous rage to stage managing his wife’s affairs, and all this suggests that, just maybe, the ‘real’ Reygadas is working out his own feelings on this subject. Ultimately, Juan’s arrangement with Esther crumbles as he constantly confuses his own narcissism for emotional altruism. Reygadas portrays Juan as needy and pretentious, and it is an extremely unflattering, even self-lacerating performance. Far from any kind of ego trip, Reygadas instead implicates himself in his own macho fantasies, while allowing Esther/Natalie the space to become her own actualized character/person. As director, Reygadas, working with cinematographer Diego Garcia, uses precise framing to capture tentative, furtive movements; there’s a constant push-pull between tossed off, almost improvised actions and the film’s more purposeful structure, as it narrows in scope from a large community, full of workers and children and social gatherings, to basically just two characters, and then ultimately leaving people behind all together in a somber, poetic epilogue. Are love and monogamy the same thing? Are they even compatible? Reygadas doesn’t seem to know, and has made an entire film dedicated to the difficulty of navigating this thing we call relationships. Daniel Gorman
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is over-directed: The camera impersonates the POV of a pop fly ball, the images frequently are affected by superfluous slow-mo, and the score operates as if vying for this year’s Philip Glass Award for Cacophonous Sound That Drowns Out Dialogue. But this is also a film built around, and anchored by, two impeccably defined characters, the hard-luck dreamer Jimmie Fails (played by an actor of the same name—though one who is not playing himself) and his longtime friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright. First-time feature director Joe Talbot also displays a sharp understanding of the way that his city’s [he’s a fifth-generation San Franciscan] sociocultural history is tied up in the development of its architecture, or more broadly, in the way changing spatial dynamics have redefined ethnic and cultural boundaries. Talbot is white, and his grasp on the milieu of his mostly black characters can feel wobbly; Jimmie and Mont both ostensibly have jobs, though they seem to almost never go to them, while the street hustlers that hangout on the corner by Mont’s family home are really just there to set-up a late-film emotional set-piece. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is at its strongest when dealing with its central dilemma, which functions more as sociological gauntlet than literal narrative: Fails, who is obsessed with the childhood home that his “grandfather built in 1946” and that his dad lost to creditors when he was still a little boy, has designs on recouping the lavish property, and ignores all legal and logical points of deterrence in the process. “You never really own shit,” Fails states frankly in one scene, and that’s really the point: this isn’t a film about a man and his struggle to repossess a house, but rather it’s about the transience of a peoples’ claim to their territory, and how ones self-definition should never be limited to what they have. Sam C. Mac
The Dead Don’t Die
Jim Jarmusch’s new horror-comedy, The Dead Don’t Die, is a missive from the other side. For one thing, it’s a zombie film in the tradition of the late George A. Romero, complete with the genre iconography that entails. For another, it’s set in the fictitious middle American town of Centerville, population 738 — so the movie also doubles as the director’s portrait of a (literally) dying way of life. Accordingly, Centerville is populated by various familiar types and faces, including police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), a gentlemanly hardware store owner named Hank (Danny Glover), and a racist farmer named Frank (Steve Buscemi), who sports a “Keep America White Again” hat. But just as soon as Jarmusch introduces us to these small-town folk, things start to go awry, the undead take over, and everything goes to hell. All these occurrences are observed by a junior police officer, Ronnie (Adam Driver), with an unusual level of equanimity — which turns out to be one of the film’s flaccid, running meta-jokes. Having read “the script,” Ronnie/Driver knows that things won’t end well, so for him, there’s not much point in getting all hysterical about the impending apocalypse. This outlook, it turns out, is about all there is to The Dead Don’t Die, a one-note film that mostly just blurs the lines between mordant nihilism and self-referential laziness. In Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch was clear-eyed about the outsider status of his lead characters, who continually griped about the “zombies” (i.e. humans) ruining the planet, while remaining sincere about their luxuriant pursuits of beauty. In The Dead Don’t Die, there is no such balance. The film’s turgid finale all but affirms the outlook of its two outlier characters (played by Tom Waits and Tilda Swinton, respectively) as it dives headlong into resigned pessimism, leaving viewers to search vainly for pleasure in the pointlessness. Lawrence Garcia
In the Aisles
Predicated on a plot that details a man with a troubled past finding his place in the world through his job at a warehouse market, one might assume that In the Aisles is yet another slice of insufferable indie quirk, or a sitcom joke-machine a la NBC’s Superstore. But director Thomas Stuber establishes his film as something wholly different, right from its opening moments: the movements of forklifts jut in and out of the various aisles in the morning’s fresh sunlight, creating a surprisingly balletic display of kineticism. And while that might sound eye-rolling on paper, Stuber presents it with such understatement as to skirt any potential sheen of preciousness. That he is able to consistently accomplish this feat throughout feels even more impressive, as Aisles fumbles through the clichéd story beats of unrequited love and unlikely friendships. Franz Rogowski, so great in the recent Transit, brings subtle shadings to a lead character that is written mostly — and intentionally — as blank, while his tentative relationship with Sandra Huller (Toni Erdmann) is both tender and heartfelt thanks to the pair’s wounded chemistry. While Stuber is certainly not the first filmmaker to find the beauty in the seemingly routine and mundane, more than anything, he finds the humanity in an environment — the customer service field — that, ironically, often is defined by the dehumanization of its employees. And in this particular day and age, the effect of that alone is bracing. Steven Warner
The Chambermaid, the first feature from actress-turned-theater-director-turned filmmaker Lila Aviles, centers on Eve (Gabriela Cartol), a luxury hotel cleaning lady working in Mexico City. Part of that précis may sound familiar. But similarities mostly end there: While Roma’s central figure was an idealized, saintly figure with a hazy backstory — viewed through a lens of monochrome nostalgia — The Chambermaid, set in the Mexico City of present day, views its main character with a much more observant, documentary-like style. And while Alfonso Cuaron drew upon childhood memories for his film, Aviles prepared for hers by spending several years following actual hotel cleaning ladies, an experience she parlayed into a stage play, La Camarera. Aviles also drew inspiration from artist Sophie Calle’s Hotel, an account of that author’s experiences working as a hotel maid. All this adds up to an evident emphasis on detail in The Chambermaid, which serves the film’s deceptively minimalist, elegantly shot style. Mundane tasks are prominently emphasized: changing sheets, scrubbing toilets and tubs, vacuuming floors. And because the maids are supposed to be unobtrusive, near invisible, Eve habitually apologizes each time she enters a guest’s occupied room. Eve is confined to these rooms, only glimpsing the outside world through the large windows showing mountain vistas in the distance. Another contrast with Cuaron’s film: Aviles gives her material a more potent political edge, as Eve’s attempts to improve her circumstances are thwarted by higher powers (her GED class is shut down by the union and she’s denied a promotion to work the VIP penthouse suite). This lack of reward for following the rules — and her sacrificing of long hours that could’ve been spent with her young son — occasions the one expression of anger that the calm, implacable Eve allows herself. But when one is as marginalized and invisible as Eve is, raging against the machine does nothing to keep it from running. Christopher Bourne
Using animation to sensitize young audiences to the horrors in our world is not an altogether novel approach, particularly in the realm of international cinema — Hayao Miyazaki has long explored environmental destruction in his anime films, and Alê Abreu’s Boy and the World tackles the nightmarish disorientation of globalized industrialism on those unprepared for it. But concepts like these prove largely abstract to young minds, while the bleak historical specificity and innovative technique of films like Waltz With Bashir and Persepolis largely situate those films as adult-oriented. Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, then — an anime about two children in Japan during the final months of World War II — feels like the true spiritual predecessor to Denis Do’s debut film, Funan, which bluntly depicts the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge while maintaining the surface familiarity of a hand-drawn children’s movie. Anchored by spare, soft-detailed animation in a mirroring of his no-frills approach to storytelling, Do subverts the innate tragedy by also supplementing with striking colors – dusky purple and twilight-hued pinks, often reflected on lake surfaces, frequent the background, while a grey and fire-gold palette inform the tense evening settings. Where Funan flags a bit is in its patterned approach to telling this story. Rather than delving into the Khmer Rouge’s ideological opposition to the free market and attempted neo-agrarian economic revolution, Do is content to present a mostly anonymous depiction of oppressive regimes and their ruinous reverberations. This results in, or was perhaps the product of, the film’s relatively narrow emotional focus: an unwaveringly determined father and embittered mother seek reunion with their young son, who has been separated from them after the forced relocation from Phnom Penh. Periphery characters (and their fates) are predominantly used as emotional buttresses, and the hop-ahead chronology means that tragedy is treated as a device. Yet, for all this narrative convenience, Do manages to lead his intimate portrait toward an affecting crescendo, the recognizable trappings ultimately giving way to something welcomingly, starkly, unresolved. Luke Gorham
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes
An ongoing conflict that remains popular within the modern music industry is one between the signed artist and the controlling label that wishes to stifle these entertainers’s creative impulses at every turn, instead forcing them to pursue the most commercially viable avenues of musicianship possible. It’s an attractive narrative because there’s a strong amount of truth to it: Prince famously called himself a “slave” as a result of his legal battle against Warner Bros. to have full control to his music, and use of the internet in the past few years to platform emerging talent has pushed ethical arguments about signing to a label to their practical breaking point. So there’s something of a pleasure to be had with the general harmony presented between employee and employer in Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, where jazz legends like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter reflect on the creative freedom they were granted by being signed to the vanguard label in the early 1950s. Unfortunately, director Sophie Huber is also generally adverse to questioning the ethical practices at Blue Note (there’s an all too brief mention reflecting on the once-common practice of racist executives taking advantage of disenfranchised black youths’ talents, only for that thread to be dropped) and instead relies on the label’s iconic discography as irrefutable evidence of its greatness — which in and of itself does offer substantial support for that case, but also still feels like a missed opportunity to try and dig deeper into the behind-the-scenes mechanics of what has allowed Blue Note to continue operating for nearly eight decades. It’s regrettable, too, that there’s hardly any mention of Blue Notes’ releases post-1960 (Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor are completely omitted from this documentary, which probably has a lot to do with the interviewed parties’ views on free-jazz), which feels like missing the forest for the trees in terms of presenting an accurately consistent history, especially considering the film’s emphasis on current signees over these noted greats. Don Was, the current President of Blue Note Records, puts it accurately at one point by mentioning that the label makes half of its revenue from reissues and half from modern releases: so emphasis is placed on what gets the most capital, which feels like a slap in the face to a legacy built on valuing artistic integrity over financial gain. Paul Attard
Ten minutes in and you would be forgiven for thinking that documentarian Marcus Lindeen has struck gold with The Raft, a seemingly ready-made story of pioneering at its most ambitious and ill-fated. Charting the 1973 “peace project” experiment of anthropologist Santiago Genovés, for which he recruited a group of complete strangers to drift across the Atlantic Ocean onboard a steel raft, the film attempts to reconcile the fallout of a seaboard endeavor that was demeaned by the media and largely viewed as a failure. As it is, Lindeen’s approach to documenting the events generates decidedly mixed results; it’s far less successful when concerned with the effects of the study than the folly of embarking upon this effort in the first place. The Raft thrives when it treats its subject as an Orwellian curio of sorts, its discussion of Genovés’s descent into megalomania and eventual manipulation of his subjects exemplifying how difficult it is to make research truly organic. In this way, the man’s venture foreshadows the voyeuristic appeal (and eventual decline) of reality television shows such as Big Brother and, in turn, the problematic issue of defining what ‘reality’ actually means. As a cathartic exercise, however, the film is oddly unilluminating, Lindeen’s interviews with the seven surviving members of the expedition failing to probe much into what they have learned from their experience. There’s even an attempt to gather the group on a life-size replica of the raft, in the vein of a therapy-style roundtable, yet – much like Genovés’s experiment – this engenders many more questions than it answers. Sadly, the longer the documentary goes on, the more The Raft feels like an underwhelming attempt to serve an audacious, once-forgotten saga, diverting in its account of an autocratic captain and the near-mutiny he elicits — but mostly content to make ripples rather than waves. Calum Reed
The enduring impulse to defamiliarize — that is, to (re-)present something as novel or new — is at the heart of Peter Parlow’s The Plagiarists. Directed from a script by Robin Schavoir and James N. Kienitz Wilkins, this 76-minute feature opens in programmatic, low-budget indie form: a pair of hipster intellectual-artist-types, Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and her boyfriend Tyler (Eamon Monaghan), have some car trouble on their way back from a friend’s bougie, oft-Airbnb-ed vacation home. In short order, Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne), an older black man from around the neighborhood, offers them some help, and the couple soon find themselves in his home for the evening. As liquor and conversations start to flow, we learn that Anna is a budding novelist writing her first book, while Tyler is an aspiring filmmaker who works mainly as a DP on commercials. Those who might want to take this as a sly send-up of American indie filmmaking pretensions — both in front of and behind the camera — will find much to support that assessment. (Tyler namedrops Dogme 95 at one point, though he can’t remember whether it comes from Denmark or Norway.) And yet, with its particular attention to film/video formats (it was shot on an ‘80s TV-news camera), The Plagiarists reveals itself to be something more maddeningly, if also productively, contradictory. In particular, the film hinges on an extended, eloquent childhood reminiscence from Clip that, Anna discovers months later, was plagiarized in its entirety from Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård. “This is not about art!” Anna exclaims, visibly unsettled by this discovery. And yet it is. (It’s no accident that the snippet we hear of Anna’s novel — not a memoir, she emphasizes — relays the experiences of someone she’d met on a trip to New Guinea.) Bringing in a skein of talking points, including artistic (mis)representation and cultural appropriation, The Plagiarists explores the enduring, Duchampian question of what constitutes art, especially in a content-saturated environment where the notion of the “readymade” feels more fraught than ever. Appropriately, then, this film only becomes knottier — and thereby more interesting — the more one tries to untangle it. Lawrence Garcia
This One’s For the Ladies
This One’s For the Ladies promises to deliver the goods that a major studio flick like Magic Mike could never accomplish — namely naked, erect penises, in all their veiny glory. And that it does in spades, taking full advantage of its NC-17 rating. But for all that, director Gene Graham doesn’t seem to have enough faith in his subject matter, a group of black male strippers who have made a name for themselves on the East Coast. What starts off as a loving tribute to these brash men — and the women who love them — soon becomes a half-assed portrait of racial and economic inequality. On its face, this glimpse through a unique cultural window certainly feels admirable, but 83 minutes is not nearly enough time to affectingly delve into any particular individual or story, and the connection between male stripping and our current political climate is tenuously constructed. This is all the more frustrating because each of Graham’s subjects is fascinating in their own right, from OG strippers Tyga and Raw Dawg, to church choir director and Satan-lover C-Pudding, to the lone female stripper, Blaze (yes, they all have cool names). And on top of that, we are left to figure out what to make of the film’s portrait of another stripper, Fever, whose scenes feel like cut material from a Christopher Guest mockumentary and especially mean-spirited in comparison to everything else. Ultimately, the entire stripping aspect feels like mere window dressing, a frustrating miscalculation in that it is so obviously the most interesting angle. If there’s one thing you would think Green would know after spending so much time with his subjects, it’s that no one likes a tease. Steven Warner
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Early in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders‘s documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, Morrison tells a story from her childhood about when she first came to understand the power of the written word. She and her sister learned to read and write partly by copying the words that they saw in chalk, on the pavement. One day they copied a word seen on a wall: “F…U…C…” Before they got to the last letter, their horrified mother rushed to make them clean it off, lest anyone else see. This story establishes the singular voice and presence of Morrison, forming the structural spine of the film: warm and humorous, a combination of erudition and down-home wit and charm Morrison is a compelling storyteller, both in person and in print. This Nobel prizewinner’s place in the world literature canon is now virtually unquestioned, but this film reminds us that it wasn’t always so, highlighting some early, condescending reviews that lamented the “narrowness” of centering the lives of black people in her work and challenging the primacy of the white gaze. The focus is mostly on Morrison’s seminal early novels – The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon – as well as Beloved, her most celebrated work. Interspersed between scenes of Morrison’s direct address to camera – reflecting Greenfield-Sanders’s background in portrait photography – are scenes of commentary from colleagues and admirers (such as Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Walter Mosley, and editor Robert Gottlieb) — as well as archival material, which puts all the spoken words in context. Besides being a groundbreaking novelist, Morrison nurtured and shepherded other black authorial voices as an editor at Random House, beginning in the 1970s — all achievements that are appropriately celebrated here. The greatest value of this informative and impressively crafted documentary, then, is as a catalyst for viewers’ discovery (or rediscovery) of Morrison’s brilliant work, as well as the enduring importance of great, challenging literature, despite the dominance of our largely screen-based media landscape. Christopher Bourne
Innocence and experience materialize in the poetry of William Blake as opposing forces; the former embodied within natural objects, passions and love, whereas the latter, like any good romantic, is found in the blackened corruption spreading across the land, engendering the extreme squalor of England’s industrialization. This kind of violence finds its home in Jim Jarmusch‘s Dead Man, a film not of bodies ambling through the dilapidated urban sprawl, like much of the director’s earlier work, but of violence committed against nature and one another, and of the white Americans of the 19th century carving up a stolen land bereft of color. It should come as no surprise that Jarmusch’s research into Native American culture and texts formed the core of the script; indeed, the care he gives to specifics — such as the languages spoken by the native character of Nobody (Gary Farmer) and the various references made by him to traditions and sayings — gives us the feeling that Jarmusch has crafted a Western which eludes its usual audience, instead converting the optimistic westward travel seen as standard fare to the genre into a melancholic march towards death — one mediated by the poetry of Blake. Dead Man begins with William Blake (Johnny Depp) traveling west to the industrial town of Machine, after having spent the last of his money to do so. There he finds that the job of accountant that he thought awaited him has already been taken, and soon after, he becomes embroiled in a dispute between a jealous boyfriend and his ex-lover, leaving him mortally wounded and on the run. Blake is rescued by the oracular figure of Nobody, an outsider to his tribe, because of his mixed-tribe ancestry and his experiences among the white men, with whom Blake travels to the North-West to prepare for his journey into the spirit world.
Visions of desultory violence pervade many scenes, directed by the multitude of white men that fire relentlessly out of train windows to aid in the mass slaughter of buffalo, or to denigrate each other in the sordid swamp of Machine. This sullied land reeks of the ‘experience’ illustrated by Blake’s poetry, a kind of bemusing and senseless violence of which life necessarily makes one cognizant. Thus, the Blake of the film is one of experience, described by Nobody as having transitioned from poet to “killer of white men,” he now can recognize the cruelty of man before progressing into death. At opposing ends of this dichotomy between innocence and experience is Nobody and one of the bounty hunters, Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen). Cole is significant as an exemplar of the malicious, almost cartoonish, violence of the many white characters; he goes so far as to cannibalize his fellow bounty hunters. Jarmusch avoids contrasting Cole in the reductive fashion that might be suggested when Native Americans are associated with nature in this context; indeed, rather than being synonymous with nature (or the ‘noble innocent’ for that matter), it’s simply that what they are, and what their violence is, doesn’t compare to the abject cruelty seen in moments such as the trader’s offering of a smallpox-ridden blanket — as had happened so many times before. Whether or not the overt solemnity of Dead Man is successfully deflated by Jarmusch’s dry sense of humor is sure to differ from viewer to viewer, yet there can be little disagreement that the pastoral texture of the film’s photography, and the scratchy reverb of Neil Young’s guitar-centric score, conjure a sense of filmic poetry, one guided by its own rhythmic meandering and subdued sense of inevitability. Sam Redfern