Everything, Everything

Everything Everything 1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Everything, Everything”

Planted squarely in the heart of YA-adapted teen fantasy, Stella Meghie’s film of Nicola Yoon’s 2015 novel “Everything, Everything” doesn’t always capitalize on its absolutely bananas premise, but logs excellent mileage from charming lead Amandla Stenberg. Following in the contaminant-free footsteps of “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” and “Crystal Heart” (but not so much “Bubble Boy”), the story follows Maddy Whittier, confined for 18 years to the sealed safety of her protective physician mother’s (Anika Noni Rose) designer home. Diagnosed with SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency), the rare genetic disorder made famous in part by Ted DeVita and David Vetter, Maddy falls for boy-next-door Olly Bright (Nick Robinson), and decides to risk her life for her new love.

The cases of DeVita and Vetter, which inspired Randal Kleiser’s made-for-TV movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” fueled popular interest via the medical ethics and built-in pathos of children who could not experience one of the most basic human expressions: skin-to-skin contact with their own family members. Maddy’s circumstances are less severe, as she spends time in face-to-face proximity with both her mother and her longtime nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera). Meghie, working from a screenplay by J. Mills Goodloe, filters the viewing experience through Maddy’s eyes, coming up with some visually appealing ways to supplement the text balloons that commonly convey contemporary communication in cinema.

“Everything, Everything” is not the sort of exercise that holds up under close scrutiny, and those viewers preoccupied with logic over lovemaking will come away disappointed. For example, Maddy’s compliant and well-adjusted attitude incongruously clashes with her curiosity about the world and her place in it. She verbally cites internet access as a balm, but given the wealth and resources at her mom’s disposal, one might imagine that a desire to explore the world outside would have at least inspired some mother-daughter conversation about ways to make that happen (the presence of a fantasized astronaut alludes to the space suits worn by DeVita and Vetter when they ventured outside their “bubbles”).

And even if the acquisition of a credit card is easy, Maddy’s reckless flight to Hawaii would require state-issued identification, something Maddy lacks (as pointed out by Susan Wloszczyna) if, as emphasized, she has never left the house. The potentially predictable twist that Maddy does not, in fact, truly have SCID but has been cruelly imprisoned by her unstable mom is the bombshell that rips the largest hole in the tale’s credulity — not because it lies outside the realm of possibility but because the film seemingly can’t be bothered to develop Rose’s Dr. Pauline Whittier as a complex and complete character.

In spite of the lapses, “Everything, Everything” effectively navigates the romance at its rapidly beating heart. Stenberg and Robinson flirt and kiss and communicate and show concern for one another with the earnest intensity of a thousand true-blue TV couples, making the most of lines like “When I talk to him, I feel like I’m outside” and “My life is better with you in it.” From “Love Story” to “A Walk to Remember” to the more recent “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Space Between Us,” the familiar contours and durability of the illness and/or health-risk meet-cute genre finds no shortage of contestants, but the presence of the progressive Stenberg, a self-described “intersectional feminist,” brings to “Everything, Everything” a welcome blast of fresh air.   

Colossal

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Colossal,” Nacho Vigalondo’s highest profile film to date, mashes genres with a premise so otherworldly that it nearly gets away with its distressing supply of missed opportunities. The gonzo suggestion that the actions of a giant monster looming over Seoul, South Korea are directly, psychologically linked to an American alcoholic will attract curiosity seekers. Others will be intrigued by the presence of Anne Hathaway in the lead role of Gloria, whose booze-soaked irresponsibility finally drives boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) to boot her from the New York City apartment they share.  

Gloria retreats to the small hometown of her childhood, seeking refuge from her messy personal crisis in a vacant family house. She soon encounters childhood pal Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a bar owner who offers Gloria a job at his tavern. Despite, or perhaps because of, the proximity to liquor, Gloria accepts. Oscar’s romantic interest in Gloria is not reciprocated, and she takes an interest in Oscar’s friend Joel (Austin Stowell), another regular who hangs out with mutual buddy Garth (Tim Blake Nelson). While Vigalondo fills in the blanks of the interpersonal relationships, a much weirder drama unfolds in the foreground.  

Reappearing a quarter century after its initial sighting, a strange creature towers over the urban cityscape thousands of miles from Gloria, materializing out of thin air during a precise time window. It dawns on her that the kaiju, somehow, mirrors her movements within the boundaries of a local playground. She confides the unbelievable truth in Oscar and her new friends, and Oscar figures out that he, too, can get in on the action as the controller, ala “Pacific Rim”-style “drifting,” of a giant robot. Richard Brody generously maintains that “Colossal” is “a gender-centered trauma involving the physical force exerted by males (of any age) against females,” but Vigalondo’s preoccupation with the rules of his game limit that exploration.    

Working from his own screenplay, Vigalondo sustains an air of believability through the combined efforts of the play-it-straight ensemble and the solid special effects. “Colossal” falters, however, in several lapses related to the demands invited by Vigalondo’s foray into magic realism. Gloria only superficially accepts that she personally caused the deaths of hundreds of innocents, and Vigalondo fails to convey a level of guilt, shame, horror, and revulsion that would deepen and intensify the character (not to mention anything close to a passing thought that someone, for good or ill, might reach out to the police, or a scientist).

One of the primary features of the Japanese “strange beast” genre is that the kaiju can be protagonist or antagonist, and Vigalondo flirts with the relative good/evil perception of the monster and the robot. But given the film’s tone, how should we wrestle with the massive-scale death and destruction wrought by Gloria and Oscar? Cinematically speaking, we are conditioned not to think about such things. Dan Rubey, writing about “Star Wars,” noted, “…Obi-Wan Kenobi’s brief attack of heartburn does not convince us that something tragic has happened. We do not experience the deaths of the people on [Alderaan], and thus those people do not exist in the film.”

Rubey goes on to argue that the explosions of Alderaan and the Death Star are presented in such a way that the viewer is invited to enjoy them aesthetically. The recent critique of Brian Williams for his unironic application of a Leonard Cohen lyric to describe the April airstrike in Syria by the U.S. military as “beautiful” is another example of Rubey’s concept of the “abstract and generalized” romanticizing of mayhem. One could claim that certain genre films deliberately obscure the costs of battle — the post-9/11 depictions of rolling dust clouds and collapsing buildings in superhero movies, for example, provide a bounty of case studies.

The Dinner

Dinner2017 FB

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Immediately following the dizzy, frightening, ambiguous, disorienting final scene of Oren Moverman’s “The Dinner,” which ends with a character saying “I love you” and a cut to black, the credits roll while Savages’ “Fuckers” nails the prevailing mood on the soundtrack. Jehnny Beth sings, “Don’t let the fuckers get you down, don’t let them wonder why you frown,” as the audience stumbles into the light, hopefully to do a good deed or maybe take a shower. The song perfectly complements the movie’s satirical portrait of topics ranging from white privilege to sibling rivalry to mental illness to the sometimes grotesque blind spots of parents for the sins of their children.  

“The Dinner” was at one point planned as Cate Blanchett’s directorial debut. Based on the novel by Herman Koch (which has already been filmed twice), Moverman adapted the screenplay and ended up at the helm. He enlists a talented ensemble to explore the morals and ethics swirling around the aftermath of a horrific crime: do the wealthy and powerful parents of teenage boys responsible for a ghastly homicide conceal it or face the consequences and pursue a path of transparency and answerability?

The grown-ups, such as they are, include brothers Paul (Steve Coogan) and Stan (Richard Gere), Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), and Stan’s wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). Paul, a onetime high school teacher of history whose debilitating emotional struggles appear to be compounded by Stan’s successful political career, will take center stage as the group meets at a chic and expensive restaurant to strategize. Stan, a congressman running for governor, surprisingly emerges as the voice of reason and honesty, an irony not lost on many viewers (and Moverman himself) quick to draw parallels between the timing of the film and the blatant dishonesty and chicanery of the Trump administration.   

Moverman gets away from the restaurant in a series of flashbacks. In one, Paul and Stan argue and clash in and around the Gettysburg National Military Park, and the director draws on Stephen Lang-narrated audio excerpts and eerily shot imagery that subjectively intensify Paul’s rapid deterioration. Paul’s poisonous classroom monologues, also on the topic of the Civil War, are less effective. Some have read the Gettysburg interlude as a rather broad metaphor framing fraternal discord, but “The Dinner” also hints at the legacy of slavery in America. Unfortunately, the racist insults inflicted on Stan’s adopted son Beau (Miles J. Harvey) by members of his own family are not deeply investigated.

The mysterious conclusion of the film indicates a deliberate open-endedness meant to provoke thought, but the most damaging flaw of “The Dinner” resides in the enigmatic portrayal of the male cousins before, during, and after the murder. The boys remain unknowable, unreachable, and, in the case of Paul and Claire’s son Michael (Charlie Plummer), frighteningly immoral. Claire’s unwavering support of her boy is more chilling as a result, and Linney — as usual — is tremendous. Each member of the principal cast feasts on juicy moments, and supporting work by the reliably excellent Adepero Oduye as Stan’s aide and Michael Chernus as the restaurant’s lead staffer, elevates the bleakly comedic aspects of the story. The latter’s hilarious running commentary on the farm-to-table/French cuisine mash-up menu items fully exploits the decadence of the rich. When presenting a cheese course, Chernus brags about the previously FDA-quarantined Mimolette, crowing, “But we have it for you tonight.”

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

In the sequel, the franchise, and the series, the dialectical tension pitting familiarity against novelty challenges the storyteller to thread the eye of the needle. “Is it is good as the first one?” is, unsurprisingly, the question that drives conversation. In “The Myth of Superman,” Umberto Eco recognizes a parallel conundrum for the mythological figure: the “emblematic and fixed nature which renders him easily recognizable” versus the change and development associated with novelistic characters. Director James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” like its predecessor, is plenty entertaining and will get better with repeat views. It isn’t perfect, but neither was the first.

The cinematic incarnation of “Guardians,” like so much post-1977 space fantasy on the big screen, owes much to “Star Wars,” and at least one of the trailers for “Vol. 2” revealed that Kurt Russell would arrive as Peter “Star-Lord” Quinn’s long-missing father. It was a short leap, then, to imagine that Papa Ego would pull a Darth Vader-style dick move akin to “Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son.” That bad dad/lost parent plot, enhanced via Star-Lord’s status as a man-god, pads the generous running time. The secondary stories, including the impending disappointment of the Sam Malone/Diane Chambers romance between Gamora and Peter and the bluntness of a more mirthful Drax as he figures out empath Mantis, unfold while Star-Lord chooses between his two families.   

Rocket and Groot separate from the other Guardians to keep an eye on Nebula, another whisper of “The Empire Strikes Back” tactic of splitting up the team. Baby Groot basks in the “Awww!” goodwill of our inner dendrologist, but “Vol. 2” belongs heart and soul to the indispensable Michael Rooker. Rooker’s Yondu Udonta, who made off with all his scenes in the first “Guardians,” steals another complete set here. A more bitter than sweet pity, then, that the rich expansion of Yondu and his emergent largesse comes at the expense of his life in a neatly parallel-structured heroic sacrifice.            

In my review of the inaugural “Guardians,” I complained about the relegation of Gamora to Smurfette status and the film’s overwhelmingly masculinist constitution and point of view. One of the sequel’s improvements is the psychological and emotional exploration of the sibling relationship between Gamora and Nebula. The scenes Zoe Saldana shares with Karen Gillan are much better and more satisfying than the character’s ongoing deflections of Quill’s lower-stakes flirting. With a third round guaranteed, Gunn will hopefully provide Gamora with a level of agency worthy of Saldana’s talent.

Because we anticipate them, Gunn’s other “Guardians” hallmarks, from the ongoing additions to the “Awesome Mix” (love the Zune gag) to the 80s pop culture references to the wiggy cameos, aren’t quite as fresh this time around, but they form — along with Howard the Duck and Stan Lee’s audience with the Watchers — the combination of broad appeal and geek insider status that serves multiple constituencies. The onscreen deconstruction of the lyrics of a pop song, even “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” is like dancing about architecture, but Russell’s Ego the Living Planet clearly doesn’t know any better.  

Casting JonBenet

Castingjonbenet1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Available to view on Netflix beginning April 28, Kitty Green’s challenging, fascinating, and unnerving documentary feature “Casting JonBenet” is one of the best films of the year. Ostensibly about the ongoing fascination and morbid curiosity surrounding the 1996 murder case referenced in the film’s title, Green’s conceit is to populate her study with actors — almost entirely locals and wannabes from the areas surrounding the Ramsey family’s Boulder, Colorado home — auditioning for roles in what appears to be another fictionalized, made-for-TV true-crime drama. Green, however, is more ambitious and more expansive than the instantly lurid associations conjured by the tabloid-fuel topic would suggest.

It turns out that the taped audition interviews are the main event for the show business hopefuls, who candidly talk about their own difficult personal experiences with a degree of openness that soon alters our assumptions about the twisted public “ownership” of various scandals, felonies, and transgressions. In other words, it can be thoughtlessly, effortlessly easy for any of us to speculate about the details of a case when that information is treated like entertainment. Green’s subjects represent the entire range of opinion regarding possible culprits in the unsolved killing, but the filmmaker miraculously succeeds in humanizing JonBenet’s death via the disclosures made by this cohort of strangers.  

“Casting JonBenet” says much about the frustrations of truth-seeking, and the tremendous editing by Davis Coombe shrewdly juxtaposes statements of auditionees convinced of a given suspect’s guilt against the sincere beliefs of competitors equally convinced of that same suspect’s innocence. Some of those seeking to play one of the family members (Patsy Ramsey, John Ramsey, Burke Ramsey, and JonBenet Ramsey) or one of the other faces (the police chief, Santa Claus, or false confessor John Mark Karr) affiliated with the sprawling investigation convey self-delusion bordering the ridiculous, and Green does not shy from comic asides.

Green used the same unusual approach to nonfiction exploration in her 2015 short “The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul,” and considering the success of “Casting JonBenet,” one imagines that the filmmaker could log plenty of mileage with the device as applied to other cultural/pop-cultural figures. The application of inventive storytelling techniques in the realm of the documentary aligns “Casting JonBenet” with an entire range of titles that experiment to varying degrees with the boundaries of the form (possibly inviting re-visits of mind-blowing stuff like “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm,” “My Winnipeg,” “The Arbor,” “The Act of Killing,” “Tower,” and so on).

The absence of closure to the JonBenet tragedy, driven by a number of the crime’s circumstances and features, continues to inspire a cycle of books, interviews, defamation lawsuits, and television and film productions. And even though many salacious aspects are revisited by Green through the people seeking parts in her film, from the unusually lengthy ransom note and oddly specific monetary demands to the sexualization of preteen beauty pageant contestants, the filmmaker is not interested in constructing another conventional account of the Ramsey saga. It is impossible to argue that Green has closed the book on JonBenet. More likely, she has reclaimed some small bit of compassion from the remnants of what disappeared following two decades of wild speculation and unqualified judgments.

Tower

Tower1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Now on Netflix instant watch and not to be missed is director Keith Maitland’s “Tower,” one of the most memorable and gripping films of 2016. Carefully, even meticulously, constructing a moment-by-moment chronological account of the 1966 University of Texas at Austin murders committed by Charles Whitman from the observation deck of the Main Building, Maitland’s film relies on the use of interpretive performance and rotoscope animation — two fairly unorthodox stylistic choices in nonfiction. The approach, however, is a spellbinding display of fully human reactions to what was at the time a virtually unthinkable, unfathomable action.

Maitland focuses on those directly involved in Whitman’s crime, developing for the viewer a sense of deep identification with lawmen, casualties, and first responders. The director also deliberately avoids any psychological profiling of Whitman as deranged and monstrous antagonist, positioning the sniper behind the distant reports from his rifle that registered to witnesses as puffs of smoke along the tower’s ledge. That decision both honors the innocent people caught in the assassin’s crosshairs and heightens the sense of urgency and immediacy of the date by sharing with the audience a sense of the confusion, panic, and uncertainty that gripped the campus.   

Although she was not Whitman’s initial victim, 18-year-old Claire Wilson was the first person shot from the tower. Wilson, who lost both her unborn son and her boyfriend Thomas Eckman to the killer’s bullets, could not move from the hot sidewalk where she fell, and Maitland uses her story as a key to understanding the astonishingly selfless displays of courage shown by strangers during the terrifying ordeal. Rita Starpattern, who happened upon the scene and stayed on the ground next to Wilson, held her hand and shared encouragement until John “Artly” Fox and James Love put themselves in harm’s way to move Wilson to safety.

Maitland eventually reveals, in direct, close-up portraits, the subjects previously portrayed by actors in the animated reconstructions. These moments — effectively withheld for maximum impact — are startlingly concrete. Bridging past and present, the revelations and reunions cathartically pulsate as we watch the older versions of the fated cohort traverse time itself. Wilson and Fox, Aleck Hernandez Jr., officers Ramiro “Ray” Martinez and Houston McCoy, along with several others, are given the opportunity to share with us, and in some cases, each other, thoughts that might otherwise have gone unexpressed.   

“Tower” is based partly on executive producer Pamela Colloff’s 2006 “Texas Monthly” oral history “96 Minutes,” and if there is anything missing from the film experience, it is the necessary omission of comprehensive coverage of all the day’s details (more than a dozen were killed and more than 30 were injured). But Maitland, like Ari Folman in “Waltz with Bashir” and others, has explored the ways in which we might arrive at truth. “Tower” expands the vocabulary we can use when thinking about the presentation of fact-based content in the movies.

In a valuable essay, Nea Ehrlich wrote about animation and the nonfiction film, saying of “Waltz with Bashir,” “Despite its stylized imagery, the film clearly signifies recognizable references that could not be documented otherwise. By referring to personal views of reality and memories, the non-mimetic imagery does not diminish the truth value of the film’s documentation because it refers to aspects of reality that cannot be directly indexed as they do not physically exist.” Ehrlich could just as easily have been writing about “Tower.”

T2 Trainspotting

T2Trainspotting1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The seemingly ill-advised sequel to Danny Boyle’s 1996 pop culture tidal wave “Trainspotting” arrives with a definitely ill-advised title in “T2 Trainspotting.” Shouldn’t it be “T2: Trainspotting” or just “Trainspotting 2” or even “Porno,” after Irvine Welsh’s literary follow-up? If the T stands for “Trainspotting,” the movie is “Trainspotting 2 Trainspotting,” which I suppose could function as a kind of grammatical bridging of the old to the new, but the whole thing ends up pointing squarely at the already taken “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” In any case, the movie is a surprise: a melancholy, middle-aged nostalgia trip that reunites four of our favorite Edinburgh addicts/fuck-ups as they come to terms with the disappearance of their youth.

That intersection of past and present has already divided viewers into the group let down by the new round’s lack of interest in pursuing/revisiting the cosmic rush of addiction and those resigned to the reality that two decades of punishment can really take something out of you. Renton’s “choose life” speech that so brilliantly detonated Welsh’s critique of consumption via its simple explanation of heroin has been updated to include social networks, reality TV, slut shaming, and revenge porn. The heart of the monologue remains: it is difficult to escape the system, and like so many (from William James to Rush) have told us, when you decide not to choose you have still made a choice.

The success of “T2” depends almost entirely on viewer familiarity with the original, and Boyle, working now with the kinetic fireball of a cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle instead of Brian Tufano, crams in as many visual and auditory allusions to “Trainspotting” as possible, scaffolding another layer of freshly designed movie references on top of the callbacks to the first film. The links are not there merely to, as Mike Laws laments, “ape, echo, or literally splice in twenty-year-old footage from its formidable forerunner.” Instead, they function as painful reminders that the clock can’t run in reverse. Mark lifting the needle of his turntable after a split second of “Lust for Life” registers a shudder we’ve all experienced, a signifier of the irrecoverable inherent in our yearning for what was but can no longer be.

Not all of the sequel’s ties to its prototype deliver. Even though the story is principally masculinist, “Trainspotting” included scenes that examined gender through maternity, sexual desire, and monogamy, commenting also on generational differences and similarities between heterosexual men and women in partnerships and relationships — even if filtered through a patriarchal point of view. Kelly Macdonald’s Diane Coulston, the only woman featured in the “Trainspotting” one-sheet and promotional campaign (#2 of five on the famous quad poster!), is now relegated to a disappointing cameo. Female invisibility or diminishment extends to Renton’s mother and to Shirley Henderson’s Gail Houston.

Many admirers of “Trainspotting” swooned over Boyle’s marriage of style to subject, and in that sense, as well as through the director’s homages to Scorsese and Kubrick, among others, the movie operated on a plane of metafiction. “T2” also traffics in metanarrative, evolving through Spud’s handwritten chronicles into the very stories it once told and is now still telling. Incidentally, Ewen Bremner continues to get payback for losing the role he played on stage to Ewan McGregor. Daniel “Spud” Murphy is the glue that bonds together the lives of Rents, Sick Boy, and Franco, and Bremner capably transcends the outwardly comic inclinations of the character’s clownish position to locate some dignity and grace.    

Five Came Back

Fivecameback1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Veteran “making of” producer/director Laurent Bouzereau adds another Hollywood-centric chronicle to his filmography with the three-episode series “Five Came Back.” Adapted for the screen by author Mark Harris from his book of the same title, the story of the motion picture industry’s curious relationship with the United States government during World War II makes for a riveting history lesson. The incorporation of extensive clips from movies directed by the title quintet is the film’s principal advantage over the original text, but Bouzereau and Harris omit much of the subtlety, nuance, and depth that informed the reader about the egos, personalities, and priorities of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler.

Each of the classic directors is paired with a current moviemaker, and the tactic provides a keen sense of symmetry. Guillermo del Toro speaks about Capra. Paul Greengrass tackles Ford. Francis Ford Coppola examines Huston. Lawrence Kasdan explains Stevens. Steven Spielberg, also serving as an executive producer on the project, covers Wyler. Additionally, Meryl Streep narrates. Cinephiles will visit “Five Came Back” with favorites from that wartime group already in place, but Bouzereau labors to balance the set. Not everyone ends up with equal time, but the director carves out at least one shining moment per creator.

Some of those moments reside within the cohort’s fiction features completed prior to entering military service, but Bouzereau really capitalizes on how their postwar output was so powerfully informed by what each of the filmmakers personally experienced when serving. The somber introspection of sacrifice in “They Were Expendable” (Ford, 1945), the monumental humanity of “The Best Years of Our Lives” (Wyler, 1946), and the startling use of shadow and light in “The Diary of Anne Frank” (Stevens, 1959) are just a handful of examples.

In all three installments, “Five Came Back” highlights key productions crafted by the Hollywood storytellers. The coverage of the notable works is intriguing enough to whet the appetite of viewers who may not have seen them, and a select few of the films could certainly sustain entire episodes. Among the most tantalizing are Huston’s “The Battle of San Pietro,” which combined a display of previously unimagined realism with staged reenactments of combat, and Wyler’s “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” one of the war effort’s finest mergers of documentary artistry and “embedded” reporting (long before the term was popularized).  

In the final chapter, the carnage witnessed during the June 6, 1944 D-Day landing of Allied forces on the Normandy coast — chronicled by both Ford and Stevens — led the former to a blinding alcoholic binge and the latter to a determined march forward into Europe. Stevens, of course, would in essence stumble into Dachau. His commitment to capturing the unimaginable horrors marks some of the most memorable content of both the book and the documentary. As Harris wrote, “Stevens kept filming, his camera pushing into corners and shadows, his movements steady as he recorded the carnage that surrounded him. His eye was unwavering and unsentimental.”  

One wishes there was more room to unpack the complexities of films like “The Negro Soldier” (Stuart Heisler, 1944) and the long suppressed “Let There Be Light” (Huston, 1946; not widely seen until the early 1980s). Not surprisingly, Bouzereau, Spielberg, and the others maintain a reverential tone of deep respect for the Greatest Generation that undercuts opportunities to critique the limitations of propaganda in the broadest sense of the concept. The time crunch of the series accounts for some of that superficiality, and to Bouzereau’s credit, “Five Came Back” acknowledges the grim racism that reductively dehumanized certain enemies more than others, contributing to a xenophobic climate that shamefully facilitated the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans.

78/52

Sundance17Hitchcock1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

An entertaining close reading and consideration of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Alexandre O. Philippe’s “78/52” can expect a lengthy post-theatrical existence in college film courses and in the movie collections of cinephiles. Despite some publicity claims that the documentary focuses exclusively on the Bates Motel bathroom fate of Marion Crane, Philippe shares additional context, expanding the scope of the narrative to encompass details that inform our understanding and fascination with what could certainly be considered a sui generis milestone in both the career of the Master of Suspense and the history of American film.

Approaching his topic with a palpable enthusiasm, Philippe begins the journey with Janet Leigh body double Marli Renfro, whose contributions to “Psycho” were obscured for a significant time. The candid and forthcoming Renfro surprised Sundance audience members with premiere screening appearances; the ensuing post-film discussion of her career and the publication of Robert Graysmith’s “The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower,” which cleared up confusion over the murder of Leigh stand-in Myra Davis, argue that Renfro could easily be the subject of her own documentary.

Philippe may be a better researcher and assembler than he is a visual stylist. Heavy on talking heads, and even heavier on a repetitious score that wears out its welcome by running underneath the majority of the interviews, “78/52” piles up the observations of more than 40 commentators, ranging from fanboys like Elijah Wood to filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro. Writer Stephen Rebello, whose indispensable 1990 book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” remains one of the finest accounts of the film, provides Philippe with some scholarly bona fides.

Along with Renfro, a few other women appear, including Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis (who mostly discusses her shower homage on “Scream Queens”) and “The Invitation” director Karyn Kusama, who offers one of the most thought-provoking assessments of the movie’s gender complexities, saying that Marion’s shocking death was “the first expression of the female body under assault.” Certainly, Philippe could have done even more to unpack the intricacies of normative and nonnormative sexualities, voyeurism, deviance, and matriarchy/patriarchy — especially through lenses of feminist critique.  

Film nerds will thrill to several of the movie’s juicy sidebars. An exploration of the specific interpretation of “Susannah and the Elders” that conceals the spyhole through which Norman peeps at Marion undressing is pure catnip, as is the comic audition of melon varieties that ultimately led the fussy Hitchcock to determine the casaba best conjured the sound of knife penetrating human flesh. The power of Herrmann’s score and the inspiration of Clouzot’s fantastic “Diabolique” are dutifully, rightfully acknowledged. The cloud of authorship claims mounted by Saul Bass supporters is rehashed. Also noted is the eternal mystery questioning Marion’s choice to get in the shower and then turn on the water as opposed to regulating temperature first. Hardcore minutiae like these are the raison d’etre for “78/52,” and when the movie gets to the technical details of those title set-ups and cuts, Philippe and his subjects hit stride, sharing hard evidence that makes an airtight case.

Raymond Durgnat died in 2002 or he might have made an appearance in “78/52.” In “A Long Hard Look at Psycho,” Durgnat says, “‘Psycho’ occupies a sort of ‘inter-cultural’ space, linking the formal aesthetic refinement of traditional ‘high culture’ with middlebrow socio-moral thoughtfulness… some modernist characteristics, an emotionality (melodrama) verging on ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ and libidinal material which some modernists like to think is ‘pulp’.”

That recipe sounds awfully good to me.

Always Shine

FFF17Alwaysshine1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Sophia Takal’s sophomore feature “Always Shine” deserves a spot among the best films of 2016. Razor sharp, spellbinding, and intense, the film is too slippery to be pigeonholed in a single genre, and to call it a “psychological thriller” fails to adequately capture the scope of its ambitions. Showcasing superb performances by leads Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald, “Always Shine” teases cinephiles as a boiling, bubbling metafiction: a movie about the movies and the way we watch them. More importantly, it is a document ready to expose the ugliness of misogynist industry practices and the toll exacted by competition among women in a strange and brutal occupation.

Takal works from a script by Lawrence Michael Levine (who also appears as an actor in the film), and the one-two punch of powerfully paired opening scenes alerts the viewer to the filmmaker’s diabolical skill at upending our sense of equilibrium. In the first, FitzGerald’s Beth auditions for what quickly appears to be another thankless role in a torturous slasher flick, concealing any reservations she might have when told the part requires extensive nudity. Then, a tight close-up on the exasperated Anna, as she defends herself against the work of an unscrupulous auto mechanic sticking her with expensive charges, rhymes with Beth’s on-camera job interview. Suddenly, everything is an act.

One of the pleasures of “Always Shine” resides in the carefully calculated manipulation of our sympathies as we try to work out which of the women to cheer and which to judge. Takal leads us in one direction only to apply a swift series of feints abetted by FitzGerald and Davis. There are dozens of stories, and several recent movies — including Alex Ross Perry’s sparkling “Queen of Earth” — that use a rural getaway shared by close friends as a way to excavate jealousies and construct emotionally charged reversals. In “Always Shine,” the Big Sur setting provides Takal and cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard a plum palette to intensify the anxiety as Beth and Anna crank up their animosities.

One of the movie’s choicest scenes shows the friends running lines together, with an increasingly fierce Anna hell-bent on proving her worth as an actor and dispelling any notions that she is somehow not capable of achieving Beth’s ascendant success. The exchange indicates a turning point, and Takal pushes the vibe ever closer to something evocative of horror by way of Hitchcock. The forthcoming ambiguities challenge the viewer to question events as they transpire, a delicious contour that obscures several seemingly critical narrative building blocks that take place in offscreen space.  

Few critics have written about “Always Shine” without mentioning Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” and many others have noted parallels to David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” The comparisons are apt, and Takal stages several scenes in which the physical similarities between Beth and Anna echo the serpentine twining that thematically interlaces them in what can only be a mutually parasitic symbiosis. Takal and Levine handily realize the one-on-one resentments arising from insecurity, possessiveness, and the humiliation of perceived injustice. That they manage to do so in the realm of both the outside world where Anna and Beth must interact with men and in the privacy of a space where only the two women exist is noteworthy.  

“Always Shine” is the winner of the 2017 Fargo Film Festival’s award for Best Narrative Feature and will screen on Saturday, March 25 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the Fargo Theatre box office.