Next Goal Wins
Consider the fortunes of Taika Waititi in just the last five years. Briefly heralded as one of the more exciting voices in pop filmmaking — he emerged from Thor: Ragnarok not only unscathed, but instilling false hope that an actual idiosyncratic sensibility could be smuggled into the MCU — with seemingly every studio and franchise wanting to be in business with him. But then came Jojo Rabbit, which, Academy Award notwithstanding, is still one of the most spectacularly misjudged films ever released by a major studio. After that, another Thor sequel; a textbook example of “should have quit while you were ahead.” Then there were a handful of nails-on-a-chalkboard supporting roles in films like Free Guy that did little to dispel the suspicion that the multi-hyphenate was trying to position himself as New Zealand’s cuddlier answer to Russell Brand. All of this leads to Next Goal Wins, one of the more cursed productions in recent memory. Filmed back in 2019, the ostensibly feel-good sports comedy sat on a shelf for years, first while Disney weathered the pandemic and then so the film could go through re-shoots to replace alleged cannibalism enthusiast Armie Hammer with Will Arnett (while we’re at it, the film’s star, Michael Fassbender, would also kindly ask that you not dig too deeply into why you haven’t seen much of him either over the last few years). Frankly, it’s all a lot to lay at the feet of any film, especially one that aspires to little more than doing for soccer in American Samoa what Cool Runnings did for the Jamaican bobsled team.
It’s damning the film with the faintest of praise to note that Next Goal Wins is mercifully no JoJo Rabbit, although that’s really a matter of diminished ambition and the filmmaker’s curdled comedic sensibilities being a better fit for the tale of an alcoholic rage case letting go of his anger and embracing island life vs. “Hitler Youth or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love to Dance.” But make no mistake, Waititi’s voice as a filmmaker remains as pungent as it’s ever been, and those unable to get on the film’s wavelength are in for an excruciating 100 minutes. It’s a lot of cutesy deadpan deliveries, infantilization of adults, calculated irreverence, and pop culture references from the ’80s and ’90s. But most irritating is the way the film calls attention to its own hackneyed conventions without actually subverting them or simply avoiding them altogether. It allows the film to exist as a shameless crowd-pleaser while simultaneously acting as though it were something better than that.
The film is based on the true story of the 2011 American Samoa national soccer team, a unit that was previously humiliated on the global stage when they lost at a 2002 World Cup qualifier to Australia 31-0 (not a typo). The team was treated as an international laughing stock, and most of its best players resigned in shame, with a majority of the roster spots going to islanders possessing negligible athletic talent. It had gotten to the point where the president of the Football Federation of American Samoa, Tavita (Oscar Kightley), had managed down expectations to simply wanting the team to score a single goal in international competition as an all but symbolic nod to relevancy. Meanwhile, an ocean away, United States Soccer Federation coach Thomas Rongen (Fassbender) is in the process of being fired after having flamed out in another high profile assignment; the film emphasizes his humiliation by making the character sit at a tiny wooden school desk and listen to Flight of the Concords actor Rhys Darby narrate Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, presented on an overhead projector. Told he’s completely out of other options, Rongen is shipped off to the small island nation in order to whip the American Samoa team into shape over only four weeks, barely in time for the next World Cup qualifier, with the simple mandate from Tavita of “just one goal.”
What follows is your basic “reverse Ted Lasso,” with Rongen positioned as an embittered tactician, resentful of his new post and holding on to a tragedy the film attempts to cleverly dance around for nearly its entire runtime. As these things go, he at first gradually and then suddenly learns to “have fun” as he coaches a squad of misfits nobody believes in. Fassbender performs with a perpetual scowl and a hair trigger, habitually lashing out at his players, which is naturally contrasted with the American Samoans who are, to a person, even-keeled, thoughtful, and mostly sanguine about the white man who’s constantly screaming at them. It’s the sort of film where the dramatic beats are inseparable from the genre, complete with training montages charting incremental improvements, an 11th-hour crisis of confidence, and finally a Rocky/Tin Cup/Eddie the Eagle-style moral victory. The team was previously the subject of a 2014 documentary of the same name, and so the degree to which Next Goal Wins even “needs” to exist is entirely attributable to Waititi placing his personal stamp on the film, specifically his sing-song silliness and comedic embellishments (the director even appears in the opening seconds of the film as an island priest sporting an enormous Fu Manchu, breaking the fourth wall and gently cajoling the viewer to not dwell too much on the bits of the story that have been exaggerated for effect).
Waititi’s throat-clearing intro actually serves a useful purpose in that it level sets whether the film is going to work for you. If you get a chuckle out of the filmmaker’s giant mustache and instantly identifiable lilting delivery, then you’ll probably enjoy yourself. If not, good luck, as it’s not like things get more subtle as the film goes along (it should be noted that while Next Goal Wins was shot in Hawaii, the majority of the cast is from New Zealand, and one often gets the impression that Waititi believes saying anything in a Kiwi accent = comedy gold). So when we’re told early in the film that Tavita has made a bet with the other soccer federations that if the American Samoa team fails to score a goal in the second half then the other team executives get to draw “boobs” on his face, you can be assured that when we immediately cut back to the character post-game, his face will be adorned with eleven pairs of knockers. You can be equally confident that the film will then attempt to wring almost ten minutes of material out of this jape, including having the character walk around with the juvenile markings for days — they, of course, used “permanent” ink — and be accused of cheating for having “other women’s breasts” on his face by his irate wife (the always appreciated Rachel House). There are no throwaway gags in a Taika Waititi film: if something reasonably funny happens, the film will call attention to it, then circle back again just to make sure nobody could mistake its intentions. Why settle for simply showing Fassbender watching Al Pacino’s “the inches are everywhere” speech from Any Given Sunday for inspiration — amusing, albeit lazy in playing upon the audience’s existing affection for the scene — when we can then show Rongen delivering the speech nearly verbatim to the team without attribution, followed by having one of the players call him out for stealing the monologue only to have the coach indignantly deny the plagiarism before pivoting to something more off the cuff? A scream, right?
What tends to redeem a film like this is the extent to which all of this is meant to be inoffensive and how much “its heart is in the right place,” which one can begrudgingly acknowledge while still finding the whole thing insufferable. Even then, there’s still something patronizing about the film’s white savior narrative, which Waititi cheekily acknowledges (because of course he does), as well as how the film treats the American Samoans as innocent naïfs who are bubbling streams of plainspoken wisdom and working class resolve. The most intriguing dynamic in the film is the relationship between Rongen and the trans soccer player Jaiyah Saelua (played by non-binary performer Kaimana), which allows the opportunity to explore the American Samoan concept of Faʻafafine (essentially, a third gender). While biologically still able to play on the men’s soccer team, Saelua is taunted by opposing teams and is visibly conflicted about her hormone medication having a negative impact on her play, and the film treats her sacrifice with thoughtfulness and genuine compassion. Further, Kaimana and Fassbender boast great chemistry, and Waititi is smart to build much of its second act around their interactions, evolving the relationship from Rongen spitefully deadnaming the character at practice to eventually viewing her as a surrogate daughter; that may sound treacly, but it’s one of the few elements of the film which Waititi doesn’t ruin by undercutting the seriousness with self-conscious snark or mockery. But this is at best a small sliver of humanity, and its moving effect, like everything else in Next Goal Wins, is subsumed by the filmmaker’s classroom cut-up antics. — ANDREW DIGNAN
The Holocaust has been mined for kitschy platitudes for a long time now. It seems that artists, against their best instincts, just aren’t able to resist the allure of extracting cheap sentiment from the emotionally fraught subject matter. Even Steven Spielberg succumbed to this urge in his otherwise great Schindler’s List. British drama One Life is a diminished facsimile, narrating the real-life tale of stockbroker Nicholas Winton, who, in 1938, helped 669 Jewish children get British visas and move out of Czechoslovakia — just before the Nazis arrived. Once in the U.K., the children were taken in by foster families. If One Life isn’t exactly a Holocaust film, then, it’s Holocaust-adjacent and is constructed to function like one. We see Winton (Johnny Flynn) strategizing with his partners in Prague, meeting with the Jewish families, collecting details about their children, fundraising for the visas back in London, filling out forms, petitioning the immigration office, advertising for foster families, and then matching kids with them. The prospect of the Nazi invasion looms as a constant threat over the entire enterprise.
All the familiar images that we have come to expect from films of this ilk are present: people in period clothing living in squalid conditions, inserts of forms being stamped, trains packed with desperate people, anxious pacing on railway stations, etc. Along the way, speeches are made about the importance of human life, hearts and minds of good British people are changed, and there are tearful partings and reunions. The film is so devoid of tension, suspense, or artfulness that its 1938 segments often play like the low-budget reenactments snuck into History Channel documentaries about World War-era Europe, and its pedestrian, televisual filmmaking and perfunctory staging suggest it as a better fit for a BBC weeknight special rather than a theatrical motion picture. Even the presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins can’t save the film from its patently TV roots.
Hopkins plays Winton in the 1980s, living a quiet life with his wife Grete (Lena Olin), until the discovery of his past deeds becomes the story du jour for the general public; forgotten until this point, Winton’s efforts to find an archival home for the paperwork concerning the operation brings it to light some 40 years later. Directed by James Hawes, it seems the primary reason for One Life’s existence is the recreation of a very famous real-life moment in British television history that followed this story’s resurrection: an episode of the consumer affairs program That’s Life, where the tale of Winton’s efforts to rescue the children was recounted. In a moment staged for maximum television ratings, Winton was seated in the audience and introduced to a middle-aged woman, once a child who Winton had saved decades earlier. The host then asked everyone in the audience if anyone else was either a kid that Winton had saved or a descendant of one, and the entire audience stood up.
One Life’s presentation of this moment is staged much the same way and for much the same reason by Hawes: namely, to elicit easy waterworks from an audience. The soaring score, thunderous applause, and teary reaction shots complete the act of manipulation. The extended 1980s portions, perhaps enlarged to center Hopkins’ presence in the film, creates a fundamental imbalance, as Hawes seems to posit that the recognition of a great deed is more valuable than the deed itself; this approach will certainly provide fodder to historians who have criticized the deification of Winton by the general public. Indeed, academics Laura E. Brade and Rose Holmes have expressed their concerns at length in their paper “Troublesome Sainthood: Nicholas Winton and the Contested History of Child Rescue in Prague, 1938–1940,” writing that Winton “accompanied no trains, made no travel arrangements, never encountered the Gestapo or any personal danger, did not use his own money and, most importantly, did not act alone. We should not reduce the account to just one saint.”
Hopkins, Olin, and Helena Bonham-Carter (as Winton’s mother in the 1938 scenes) deliver typically competent performances amidst the unflattering narrative approach, but Flynn is exceptionally flat and seems to have been directed to embody only two attributes: niceness and goodness. German composer Volker Bertelmann (All Quiet On The Western Front) contributes a fine score that would work best in a vacuum, as it is here so incessantly applied to paper over the film’s shortcomings and emphasize its saccharine beats that it comes across as overly insistent. It’s also important to note that this material was already recounted in the Academy Award-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Audiences unfamiliar with this saga might be able to find some value in the unnecessary, maudlin, and schmaltzy One Life, but they would still be better served by the canon of other works documenting this important operation. — ANKIT JHUNJHUNWALA
When I worked the film scanner at a home media transfer house, among the foremost moldy delights I could regularly expect to find on my desk was accidentally double-exposed regular 8mm film. Often, in the widely used amateur format, practitioners would forget if they had already flipped and shot the opposite side of a 16mm-wide roll, as intended, and would send it back through the camera for a third (or even fourth) double-exposed pass. Underlit Christmas mornings, vaudevillian aquatic stunt shows, homemade pornography; all passed through my scanner on a regular basis, but whenever two such sequences were stacked atop one another, they seemed to attain something greater than the sum of their parts — a sense of simultaneity and unity that at once fulfilled the long-frustrated promise of home video while exploding the bounds of the 4:3 frame.
Rose Lowder, now 83 years old, has been working toward the simultaneous image since she found an abandoned projector outside of a school near her Avignon house in 1975. Bolex in hand, she works not with double exposures, but with single frame alternations. Two images shot alongside one another coexist not in a happy accident, but in pulsating disharmony — smashing against each other and commingling 12 times per second. Bouquets 31-40 (2023) is the latest ten-part, ten-minute installment in the Peruvian-French filmmaker’s ongoing experiment by such means.
Lowder’s films make good on the promise of truly “experimental” cinema. They continue the optical science undertaken by children on long car trips, in the minutes before sleep overtook us, in which we could close one eye and watch the seat in front of us shift, or focus on the second of two power lines, only to glimpse a fuzzy third emerging between them. But Lowder’s approach is rigorous. Edited entirely in camera, her films require meticulous documentation, noting precisely which frames (1,4,7, for example) contain an image of a sailboat, and which (2,5,8) are to contain an image of a field of roses, for a subsequent pass through the camera. On the film strip, it appears tranquil — a procession of stills akin to a photo album. Projected, the furious back-and-forth strobing creates an uneasy voyage across the field.
The Bouquets series, begun in 1995, has now grown to 40 short travelogues. Whereas locations were once limited to Lowder’s radius on her bicycle, later iterations have found the filmmaker traversing gardens, farms, and conservations across France, Italy, and Switzerland. As with any prudent experiment, its basis is repetition. Each Bouquet is one minute long, 1440 frames, with six seconds of black leader separating each one. A single frame of a different flower flashes once in the middle of each section of leader, and Lowder’s name, the Bouquet number, and the year of filming flashes at the end in single character per frame increments. The Bouquets juxtapose the brilliantly biodiverse primary colors of these Alpine-adjacent regions. Her formula can be boiled down to frame 1 + frame 2 = ?, with infinite variations and graphic possibilities to be found on either side of the equals sign.
As she told Scott MacDonald in a 1997 interview: “There’s a lot of talk about the smallest unit in cinema being the frame, but in fact, that’s not the case at all.” My own horticultural streak is inadequate to cataloging each of Lowder’s captures, but take, for example, a sequence flashing between yellow and blue flowers. As the movement is repeated, the negative space in one image appears filled by the leaves of another. The monadic unit of the frame is discarded in favor of a million tiny conversations between the flowers happening at breakneck speed, creating a third image belonging to a time and space heretofore unknowable.
Bouquet 31, in the new collection, cuts on a dime from such visually intense sequences to simple, observational shots of a cat rolling in the grass, or a lone woman tending to her front garden, following a pattern established in previous Bouquets. Whereas I once felt that these images appeared impoverished next to the consciousness-expanding sequences that bracket them, I now find the effect of simultaneity doesn’t cease with Lowder’s crosscutting, and rather proceeds across the entire strip of film as a kind of general principle. Her’s is a vision available only through the projector, but the act of witnessing it bears fruit that transcends cinema. Lowder herself is a vegan and an organic farmer, and these films that rely entirely upon an abundance of biodiversity disrupt our privileged isolation from the world — simultaneity means responsibility. . — DYLAN ADAMSON
The rise of A24 as a production company and distributor has seen with it the public recognition, on Tik Tok and Reddit, of the A24 aesthetic; soft color palettes, outcasts coming of age or circumstance, shot under a blue sky on faux vintage film. The understanding of an “A24 aesthetic” in the public consciousness likely commenced sometime soon after Moonlight’s 2016 Best Picture win, and it was further defined with subsequent films like The Florida Project and Waves. This trio of works all happened to feature marginalized folks living in Florida, where the beautiful blue sky and expanse of ocean lent the narratives a sense of dissonant calm and the coast a shape of profundity, this in contrast to the turmoil and injustice experienced by the players existing therein, confined by their circumstances and by our screens.
But that homogeneity is not to suggest that these films are without merit, and indeed each, to varying degrees, articulate a curious tenderness. The same could be said of the studio’s latest, Greg Kwedar’s sophomore feature Sing Sing, which stars Colman Domingo as Divine G, a wrongfully convicted performer who founds and directs a theater troupe for fellow convicts in order to help them process their trauma with purpose as they live their limited lives in a maximum security correctional facility. Outside of Domingo, Sing Sing primarily features performers whose training came through their participation in the real theater troupe at Sing Sing Correctional Facility during their time spent in prison. An approach that could have gone either way, in execution this choice makes for a subtle but raw portrait that feels palpably rooted in both tangible pain and joy.
It’s also a move to be expected from A24 at this point, and is hard to consider outside the context of their other productions that have leveraged non-actors (The Florida Project, Red Rocket, Good Time, etc.) to approximate real-world authenticity, but which ultimately remain manufactured and manipulated to fit Hollywood’s preferred arc of redemption. This is particularly difficult to accept in Sing Sing, as concurrent to the troupe’s production of time-travel play is Divine G’s attempt to be granted clemency, on the basis of someone else’s confession to the murder for which Divine had been convicted. Friction increases as the play begins to find its footing, only for Divine’s ambition to ultimately crash when his clemency is denied. Meanwhile, a fellow prisoner whose parole materials Divine had prepared is granted release, and the troupe leader begins to spiral in the face of his own injustice.
In Sing Sing, the audience is made to feel appalled at the “others,” the power brokers perpetuating the penal-industrial complex keeping talented, well-educated, non-white men barred from the conclusion of their own redemptive arc. Through Divine, viewers are encouraged to experience anguish and helplessness, and for a moment, perhaps an incitement to dream, to act, in a way that might inspire real change in the face of the insidious realities presented on screen. This point reaches the climax of its filmic manipulation when VHS recordings of staged plays (featuring Domingo) are interspersed with real VHS tapes of plays put on at Sing Sing. At last, fact and fiction fully converge, the film forceful in its efforts to convince viewers of the “reality” of on-screen, irrespective of their credibility.
But the events onscreen aren’t fact. They are a fiction design to cavort as a convenient reality which would absolve viewers of any bystander effect or complicity. Somehow, Divine is released, and in the hapless joy of the film’s tidy conclusion, any inspiration lit within the collective audience’s spirit is extinguished by the cooing of a subtle hum: “everything is meant to be, and everything is going to be okay.” This critique is not meant to deny the outstanding performances found across the board here, or the beautiful lighting and camerawork that manage to transform a maximum security prison into a place where both play and worship are possible, one that can expand and not merely constrict life for those confined. But in its haste to provide its audience with a quick-shot empathy tour, Sing Sing fails viewers, giving them an equal dose of sanctimony and moral ease that they, the viewers, are good people, and that, in the end, the underdog will always win. — CONOR TRUAX
The Dead Don’t Hurt
The degree to which actors can elevate unexceptional material by their mere presence is difficult to gauge. After all, plenty of indifferently conceived star vehicles are duds. Viggo Mortensen’s second film as a director, The Dead Don’t Hurt is that rare example where a lead performance, here by top-billed Vicky Krieps, transforms the work and lends it a complexion it otherwise wouldn’t have had or which might not have been present on the page. She brings to this Western a particular femininity, a softness, that is singular to her and her style of performance, and the film is much richer for it.
In some ways, The Dead Don’t Hurt is a very straightforward story — of a beautiful love affair sabotaged by bad actors (not of the thespian variety). Mortensen is aware of the text’s conventionality and scrambles its timeline to generate interest, to mostly successful effect. The film thus begins with two scenes that take place near the end of the tale. The first concerns the last moments of our protagonist, Vivienne Le Coudy (Krieps), who dies in the arms of her partner, Holger Olsen (Mortensen). The second is a bloody shootout in the nearby town where spoiled rich kid Weston Jeffries (Solly McLeod) shoots dead several civilians in a murderous rampage, and then escapes. The connection between these two events is not clear.
We then move both backward and forward in time. The scenes that continue the storyline consist of a sham jury trial put together by the corrupt town mayor, Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston), and Weston’s wealthy father, Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt), to investigate the civilian deaths. An innocent mute man is wrongfully convicted and hanged for murder to cover up for Weston. At the same time, Holger, heartbroken by Vivienne’s death, embarks on a journey away from the town to deal with his grief — taking along their four-year-old son.
But it’s the scenes set prior that form the meat of the film, and these sections chart the life story of Vivienne. We see the first encounter between her and Holger, their mutual attraction, and the gradual blossoming of their romance; even meet-cutes and light romantic sequences can be rendered compelling by great performances, and Kriepes and Mortensen deliver, crafting a believable love story despite the limited screen space. Somewhat uncommon in the Western, they are also evenly matched, with both characters proving to be fiercely independent outsiders in the American West — she’s French Canadian and he’s Danish — and their story slowly, movingly builds to the pair of climatic scenes that open the film.
Despite this familiar setup, Mortensen’s chronological structuring pays off as it bakes a natural tension and suspense into the film. But the director goes a step further still, adding a third axis of storytelling wherein Vivienne’s childhood with her French Canadian parents is recounted, along with the dreams and desires that shaped her as a little girl. There’s lovely Joan of Arc symbolism in these French-dialogue sections, and they help Krieps’ Vivienne to bloom into a fully formed, three-dimensional character. And in a welcome surprise, we eventually find that not all the various strands introduced by Mortensen intersect or interact, which lends the film a certain naturalistic, or at the very least, an appealingly loose feel. The Dead Don’t Hurt moves at its own pace, unfurling primarily to chart the life of a woman rather than to stage gratuitous gun battles or only develop her via her relationship to a man. But when the denouement does indeed arrive at a gun battle — an inviolable trope of the Western — it’s subverted by Mortensen in interesting ways, again aiding his film from sliding into mere cliché.
If there’s a weakness to the film’s construction, it’s that the final 15 minutes feels overly protracted, in no small part due to the absence of Krieps. By this point, her story has concluded, and the film would benefitted from a more swift close. But this is a small quibble in what is otherwise a surprising and engrossing film, one anchored on the strength of its performances. All three ostensible villains are memorably rendered, and McLeod in particular makes for a noteworthy bad guy — even at his most sadistic, he has tremendous, charismatic screen presence, a foundation of Hollywood’s golden age of Westerns. Likewise leaning classical is the film’s visual design, forgoing ostentation for clean and unfussy compositions; Mortensen has worked with an enviable roster of great directors and has clearly been taking discerning notes. But it’s a director he hasn’t worked with who film The Dead Don’t Hurt might most remind viewers of: Robert Altman’s revisionist Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Audiences looking for a similarly gentle, more romantic and cerebral Western will be amply rewarded with Mortensen’s fine entry into this singular genre. — ANKIT JHUNJHUNWALA
Amidst the ongoing renaissance of Indigenous art, there is one existential crisis that is rarely addressed: First Nations’ access to clean, drinkable water. It’s not hard to conclude that the lack of coverage has something to do with the surrounding discourse being too unsensationalist to easily facilitate that all-absolving evil of liberal white guilt, but whatever the case, few modern-day cruelties facing Native populations are more insidious than Western governments’ ambivalence and active antagonism with this cause. Co-directed by Stevie Salas and James Burns, Boil Alert takes on this subject matter by way of activist Layla Staats, following her as she travels to various Indigenous communities across North America, tracing the history of disregard, the environmental impact of mitigating efforts, and the human faces and struggles policy-makers prefer to ignore.
Immediately, thankfully evident is that the trio of Salas, James, and Staats have no intention of delivering your typical talking heads-aided essay film. Boil Alert opens with a series of shots gliding over various still waters; puffy pink clouds reflect on glassy surfaces, slow-moving fauna send interrupting ripples across placid lakes, purple and sienna twilights punctuate sometimes visible horizon lines. But these commencing images aren’t mere bookending patina or empty landscape photography; instead, they introduce an essential foundation of the film, which holds that the natural world is an invitation to communion rather than a commodity to dominate. Fittingly, then, over these quickly shuffled images, Staats speaks: “My papa would say, one day water would be gold. Protect the water. Whoever has the water at the end, they’re going to be the ones surviving.” Water has been used as easy metaphor for millennia of art, but in Boil Alert, it functions better as synecdoche, a reflection of colonization’s persistence into the present and the political/corporate greed that ever endeavors for continued displacement of Native populations, from power, from sovereignty, and from history. After all, water is the most essential nutrient for the corporeal body, so why wouldn’t the empire seek to deny this to the metaphorical Indigenous body?
In addition to its discursive weight and legibility, Boil Alert benefits from its travelogue-adjacent construction. Staats visits not simply with experts practiced in their rhetoric, but with real individuals who suffer the burden of Western capitalist transgression. Their stories, spoken with the matter-of-factness of the exhausted, stir more empathy and rancor in viewers than can be manufactured with polish and gloss. So too do the images of otherwise unassuming swaths of Navajo land we come to learn are infected by uranium poisoning, or the footage of peaceful activists being arrested for protesting the devastation of Native land by the private sector. There’s a clear perspective in these stretches, of advocate-minded observation and a stirring to effect change, reflective of Staats’ guiding presence but also of an autonomous visual character.
It’s unfortunate, then, that so much of Boil Alert’s bracing power is mitigated by an essential dissonance. Staats isn’t only our Charon to the particular Hell reflected in the film, but is also a dual subject in her own right, her activist work and personal history constituting a parallel narrative thread. In contrast to the rest of the film’s more experiential documentation, its other half is quite conspicuously designed, with many of Staats’ moments in front of the camera left to feel unappealingly orchestrated. That’s not by accident, as press notes refer to sections of “dramatic recreation” concerning Staats’ experience, but there’s a lack of clarity to its vision; presentation and performance, art and activism, all jostling in an uneasy dance. It’s not all ineffective: there are interludial sequences, sometimes fantastical, sometimes historical, sometimes terpsichorean, that seem of a piece with the words of Staats’ father, connecting the spiritual to the corporeal. But then there are other scenes — including an early conversation Staats has with her brother, several voiceover monologues she delivers throughout, and an egregious, artfully composed shot of her wearily collapsing onto a bed — that are at aesthetic and tonal odds with the film’s other, more appealing half. These instances feel like manufactured material retroactively conceived to function as connective tissue for the documentary’s narrative and thematic waypoints, and the whiplash is felt. It’s hard to come down too hard on a work this rooted in passion, reflective of vital discourse, and willing to follow the tendrils of our present moral rot, but Boil Alert’s frustrating discordance results in a film that too frequently sacrifices its inherent power at the altar of ostentation. — LUKE GORHAM
Reality television has become one of the most dominant modes of storytelling in media entertainment. In fact, the reach of reality television, as well as its leakage offscreen and across other forms of media — whether it be news media or social media — has become part of our collective waking life. Now, rather than reality informing only reality television, reality television informs likewise reality, and that spiral of influence converges into a pit of ambiguous hyperreality.
It’s hard to think that it hasn’t always been this way; that at one time, before vlogging and YouTube and reality TV, there were proto-reality series that marked a new form of entertainment made exciting by the possibility of capturing life as it truly is, defining it to a broad audience with “authenticity.” This novelty is what made Susunu! Denpa Shōnen a national sensation in Japan at the end of the 20th century, and this phenomenon is what lies at the heart of Claire Titley’s new documentary The Contestant, specifically via the context of Shōnen’s most famous participant: Nasubi.
Shōnen functioned as a variety show of various filmed segments and challenges, and put aspiring comedians looking to vault their name into the public consciousness in extreme situations. Some were placed on a desert island and challenged to build a raft and navigate back to Tokyo; others were tasked with hitchhiking from South Africa to Norway. Of these, the most successful, and extreme, was that of Nasubi, a man whose pseudonym translates to “eggplant,” chosen because of his elongated face.
After a sweepstakes draw, and his elation at “his first stroke of luck,” Nasubi was blindfolded and carted to an isolated, windowless studio flat where he was forced to strip naked. Then, he was given his challenge: he would have to win everything he needed to sustain himself from magazine sweepstakes earnings, and wouldn’t be allowed to leave the confines of the room until the value of his prizes surpassed ¥1,000,000. Nasubi was reluctant to appear naked before a camera out of a promise made to his family, but Tsuchiya, the show’s producer, assured him that no footage, if any, would ever air. Nasubi was then left in the room for fifteen months as he ate dog food, made rice in plastic bottles over an open stove, and cried into open journals where he raged at the difficulty of his circumstance. These journals were ultimately taken from him by the production team, and subsequently sold en masse to bestselling status as the weekly footage of Nasubi gained more and more popularity, before eventually eclipsing even the ratings of the Olympics.
By the time Nasubi completed the challenge, he was suicidally depressed and a national star. He returned to his family and dealt with the show’s fallout, both physically and emotionally, before struggling and failing to achieve the comedic goals he’d initially set for himself. Fifteen years later, he climbed Everest, and another eight after that, he candidly sat down in front of cameras once again, this time in conversation with Claire Titley for her documentary about his experience.
In fairly rote style, Titley alternates between footage of the show and interviews with Nasubi and Tsuchiya, both grappling with their involvement with the show. At times, Nasubi’s answers are played to Tsuchiya, who seems to process his words with benign acceptance. And this is how the majority of The Contestant plays out; lambasting the divide between good and evil, between the exploitative and the exploited in a media age that demands the compulsive disclosure of all facets of our lives with everyone online. This approach, ultimately, offers nothing new; what is new, however, is a rushed glimpse provided to viewers at the end of the film that offers brief redemptive insight into Tsuchiya’s remorse over the damage he’d caused Nasubi, executed in a way that perhaps slightly smudges the binary of good and evil into something more soft-hued and indeterminate.
There’s no denying that a film like The Contestant holds a certain measure of discursive importance, bringing to public consciousness a sensational moment in media history that was somehow mostly forgotten — or maybe intentionally buried — in a way that estranges our current reality and pushes us toward a more critical evaluation of how we got here, why we’re still here, and where we might be going. Still, it’s hard not to feel that between its perfunctory structure and its overreliance on archival footage, that The Contestant doesn’t run the same risk of exploiting Nasubi for the sake of sanctimony. After all, there’s little evidence of a public that, by any critical measure, actionably thinks or cares to change the culture that Shōnen implored. — CONOR TRUAX