Annihilation

Annihilation

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Considerably less accessible than his directorial debut “Ex Machina,” veteran writer Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” very loosely adapts Jeff VanderMeer’s novel into a demanding thought experiment bound to frustrate viewers counting on some of the trailer’s promise and premise. As multiple critics have pointed out, the new film owes a thematic debt to Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” a movie that Alissa Wilkinson suggests is, like “Annihilation,” about the “complicated nature of desire.” More precisely, Wilkinson claims, “What we truly desire… is what will ultimately take us apart from the inside.” That concept certainly drives a viable reading of “Annihilation,” though its success or failure resides within the eye of the beholder.

A bookend device communicates to the viewer the information that Natalie Portman’s soldier-turned-academic(!) Lena has survived an incredible and inexplicable ordeal within the Shimmer, a time-bending, DNA-blending, electronic device-resisting, magnetic field-defying region within an energy “curtain.” Flashbacks fill in the rest: Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returned home after a protracted absence within the Shimmer, and his trauma compelled Lena to volunteer with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress to seek answers on a new mission into the weird territory.

Ventress and Lena are joined by physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and anthropologist Shepherd (Tuva Novotny). Lena’s connection to Kane is withheld from the new team members in a questionable ploy that makes little narrative sense beyond functioning as a moment of manufactured conflict provided by its eventual and inevitable disclosure. Both the emphasis on Lena’s primacy as key protagonist and the presentation of the Shimmer’s wide variety of effects — from rainbow-colored flora and fauna to stomach-churning gore — reduce the overall effectiveness of the supporting characters.   

Despite the familiarity of the pick ‘em off sequencing associated with “And Then There Were None,” “Alien,” “The Thing,” and dozens of lesser examples, Garland can be commended for resisting the more conventional pace of recent, less-effective genre sibling “The Cloverfield Paradox,” even if the action-horror highpoint of “Annihilation” is a j’accuse confrontation that introduces a terrifying hybrid certain to provide nightmare fuel to people who get seriously creeped out by the kind of unholy mergers glimpsed in “Pinocchio” and the 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”        

The filmmaker’s commitment to a more cerebral and abstract investigation of the death instinct/todestrieb comes at the expense of rich characterization — especially outside Lena, and “Annihilation” arguably would have been improved through a more deliberate exploration of the reasons why each woman is drawn toward her personal impulse to self-destruction. The final sequences, despite Garland’s bold, CGI-aided trippiness, are simply no match for anything in “Under the Skin” or “Arrival,” a pair of films that have already popped up several times in writings and conversations on “Annihilation.”   

Sexual desire, and the aching longing for physical intimacy in the absence of one’s partner, form an intriguing motif contained within the flashbacks, but curiously given the time spent on the set-up, Garland omits a deeper or more rigorous examination. That choice diminishes certain aspects of Lena and Kane’s connection to the Shimmer and to one another, especially in light of the film’s ambiguous conclusion.  

On Body and Soul

On Body and Soul

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Hungarian filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi, whose 1989 debut “My Twentieth Century” won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, achieved another career highlight recently with an Oscar nomination for her most recent feature. “On Body and Soul” has been selected to compete for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. The movie is currently available to view on Netflix.

Despite the bloody immediacy of the film’s slaughterhouse setting, “On Body and Soul” is an often ethereal and meditative romance. Endre (Geza Morcsanyi) is the lonely CFO at a meat processing plant on the edge of Budapest. Maria (Alexandra Borbely) joins the staff as a by-the-book quality inspector. Despite not knowing one another, Endre and Maria somehow share an identical series of dreams — a seemingly impossible coincidence revealed in the course of interviews conducted during an investigation into the theft of a potent dose of bovine mating stimulant.

Enyedi slyly observes both very familiar human behavior and the more cerebral and poetic dreaminess that addresses the challenges of making meaningful and intimate human connections in a modern world. The director’s interest extends briefly to a few supporting characters, including Reka Tenki’s psychological tester/human resources consultant and Ervin Nagy’s cagey, nervous new hire. Zoltan Schneider, as Endre’s leering, impolitic lunch partner, might have been given a little more to earn the payoff Enyedi prepares for him.

“On Body and Soul” is patient and deliberate. Those qualities effectively serve Endre and Maria from start to finish, but do put some strain on the movie’s secondary storylines. Viewers seeking muscular plotting should look elsewhere — Enyedi is far less engaged with the idea of a deep investigation of the meanings/possibilities of the parallel dreaming (a real shame) and the outcome of the missing vial than she is in the unique contours of the leads, even if Maria’s quirkier markers, like her comprehensive and superhuman memory, will test the patience of some.    

Enyedi concentrates primary attention on the lives of her two protagonists, shifting among scenes at the abattoir (including several awkward and deadpan exchanges in the company cafeteria) and scenes of each character outside of the workplace, often, though not always, alone. Once the mysterious double-dream motif — a forest scene in which a doe and a buck forage for juicy leaves under the snow — links Endre and Maria early in the movie, the narrative appears to place the characters on pathways that will inevitably intersect with one another. Enyedi, however, exhibits less concern for the barriers that separate the two and much more interest in the idiosyncratic details that shape and govern their personalities.

The almost painfully reserved and taciturn Endre seems practically outgoing next to Maria, who blurts out declarations of raw honesty that alienate her from the rest of her coworkers. Despite the scarcely concealed ridicule of Maria by several employees, Enyedi methodically aligns audience sympathy with her, and Borbely commits to the character’s prickliness. The dream motif unsurprisingly brings Maria into close proximity to Endre, but the director withholds a payoff related to that theme in favor of an intense climactic exchange that deftly balances on a tightrope stretched between potential tragedy and black comedy.

Icarus

Icarus 2

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Given the film’s somewhat odd marriage of style — the personality-driven presence of chatty neophyte documentarian Bryan Fogel — and substance — the ugly realities of the longtime Russian doping program for Olympic competitors — the inclusion of “Icarus” as one of the five Oscar-nominated nonfiction features came as something of a surprise. But as the winter games get underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea on February 9, coverage of the Russians continues to dominate headlines in a bit of timing fortuitous to the profile of Fogel’s movie.

Prior to being added to Netflix’s catalog in August, “Icarus” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where it received a special jury commendation dubbed the Orwell Award. The movie begins with Fogel’s argument that the use of performance-enhancing substances offers the only pathway for him to rank with the long-distance cyclists at the very top of the sport. As diarist/guinea pig/deliberate cheater, Fogel seeks to partner with someone who can assist him with a drug regimen potentially undetectable by official testers. He intends to film the whole process.

The provocative plan for Fogel to record his own complicity in both the use of banned cocktails and the measures to obscure those drugs under testing prefigures the bombshells driving the story that soon emerges in “Icarus.” Fogel seeks out an expert in doping unafraid to collaborate with him on his wild plan and crosses paths with Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s anti-doping lab. The colorful, garrulous Rodchenkov then displaces Fogel as the film’s center of attention, and the drama turns from Fogel’s “Super Size Me”-style stunt to a heavier examination of state-sponsored fraud.

Currently in witness protection in the United States based on credible threats to his life, whistleblower Rodchenkov presents himself as an almost too-good-to-be-true character. “Icarus” tends to play up Rodchenkov’s willingness to spill the beans on every facet of Russia’s doping enterprise, connecting the dots all the way to Putin (even though the cover-up goes back long before the current leader of the Russian Federation assumed his job). As Fogel and Rodchenkov develop a close relationship, the filmmaker intersperses his new friend’s disclosures with updates on key players in the unfolding World Anti-Doping Agency response.

The timeliness of the Olympic connection and the broader, ongoing concerns related to Russia’s hand in world affairs — especially related to the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issuing a joint statement asserting interference by Russia in the 2016 United States presidential election — add some aspect of intrigue to “Icarus.” One can expect to see more of these kinds of stories in the pipeline.   

The extensive use of video chats on laptop screens burdens the movie with a cheap and fuzzy DIY quality unsuited to the importance of the subject matter, and several reviewers have mentioned the awkwardness of the bifurcated structure that juggles Fogel’s narrative alongside Rodchenkov’s. A section detailing the elaborate urine-swapping procedure and the process of defeating Swiss manufacturer Berlinger’s supposedly tamper-proof, locking-cap glass containers is arguably the film’s most compelling bit of storytelling, but “Icarus” concludes as a disjointed, mixed bag of half-formed hypotheses about the future of sport and sportsmanship that leaves the viewer wanting something more substantive.

The Shape of Water

Shape of Water

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Of the great designs in the history of movie monsters, there are few as satisfying as Universal’s stunning Gill-man. First envisioned by William Alland by way of Gabriel Figueroa’s Amazonian campfire story, the look of the Creature from the Black Lagoon belongs principally to Milicent Patrick. Christened “The Beauty Who Created the Beast” for a promotional tour, Patrick’s contributions to cinema iconography were unfairly squashed by jealous makeup artist Bud Westmore, who would for years claim sole credit for the scaly swimmer’s conception.

Patrick’s tale — among other things she also designed the influential Metaluna mutant for “This Island Earth” — would make a tremendous Hollywood movie by itself, and in one sense, Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous “The Shape of Water” evokes any number of parallel Cold War-era realities for women in industries dominated and controlled by men. As one inspiration for the script he would write with Vanessa Taylor, del Toro has cited his childhood desire that the Gill-man and Julie Adams’s Kay Lawrence physically and romantically end up together. And while he’s not the only one who imagined cross-species love and romance while marveling at the poetry of Adams and Ricou Browning during their underwater ballet, “The Shape of Water” is quintessential del Toro.

Set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, del Toro’s meticulously imagined universe evokes via Paul Austerberry’s production design and Nigel Churcher’s art direction a stunning variation on Atomic Age nostalgia. Much of the action is set at a secret government lab that employs Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) on the custodial staff. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives with an otherworldly “asset” (Doug Jones) an aquatic humanoid that can breathe in and out of water. Scientist/mole Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) secretly witnesses the special bond that develops between Elisa and the Amphibian Man.

It’s impossible not to read “The Shape of Water” as a paean to queerness, to otherness, to love triumphing over hate. The captivating wonder of its frankness and vulnerability in matters of sexual expression, which are rendered fiercely and concretely by the incredible Hawkins, is rare in a genre film — or film in general for that matter. Nobody put it better than Anthony Lane, who wrote, “The lust that is, of necessity, thwarted and dammed in Disney productions of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is released, and allowed to flow at will, through the fable of Eliza [sic] and the Creature. So grimly accustomed are we to sexual violence onscreen that to see sex flourish as a rebuke to violence and a remedy for loneliness, which is what ‘The Shape of Water’ provides, is a heady and uplifting surprise.”     

“The Shape of Water” is also, to the shock of no one given del Toro’s affinity for the movies, an intertextual kaleidoscope of references and homages to silver screen dreams. Elisa’s apartment over the cavernous auditorium screening “The Story of Ruth” in CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color may remind you, like it did me, of the sanctuary provided by your most beloved movie palace. Dual Astaire references dazzle. Glenn Miller and Alice Faye are elegant choices for Elisa to communicate some counterpoint to the brutal electric shocks administered by the inhumane Strickland. The film’s flights of fancy, as weird and sublime as anything del Toro has done, outstrip the ambitions of a messy subplot involving the Russians. The giant-size heart belonging to del Toro, however, is indisputable. He believes, makes believe, and subsequently makes us believe.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A delectable and devilish exercise in exquisite restraint, “Phantom Thread” offers compelling evidence that Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis can do quiet and still as effectively as the thunder and lightning they made together in “There Will Be Blood.” A supremely funny homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” the new movie Day-Lewis claims will be his last sets the table for yet another master class in screen performance. The leading man’s perfectly monikered 1950s haute couture designer Reynolds Woodcock (as telling a label as Quell, Plainview, or Diggler) sits at one point of a triangle that includes Lesley Manville as Woodcock’s icy and imperious sister Cyril and Vicky Krieps as Reynolds’ waitress/model/lover Alma.

Alma is the sleeper surprise of “Phantom Thread,” steadily asserting herself and imposing her will on the tight siblings who seem unable and/or unwilling to acknowledge as a human being the latest addition to their house. So much of the story is devoted to the passive-aggressive ways in which Reynolds and Cyril stifle Alma that the latter’s process of awakening shocks and delights with each new revelation. Turns out she’s as good with wild-picked fungi as Katherine Lester in William Oldroyd’s brilliant “Lady Macbeth.” The way to Reynolds’ heart — if in fact he possesses one — is most certainly through his stomach.   

Anderson’s liberal use of the F-word is but one indicator of the carefully tailored comedic sensibilities of the filmmaker. Reynolds is practiced and quick with the mocking insult and the withering put-down. But the more he ridicules Alma, the more he reveals his own vulnerabilities. Vexed at Alma’s intrusion while he works, Reynolds sends her out, snapping, “The tea is leaving, but the interruption is staying right here with me.” As Anthony Lane and others have noted, food, especially breakfast, is rarely out of sight or out of mind. An unwelcome surprise dinner prepared by Alma brings out the most patronizing snot in Reynolds: “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it.”

Anderson has made another great film, and many of its thrills turn out to be wonderfully perverse, even kinky. Especially that ending. And from start to finish, the very presence of Day-Lewis works as a beautiful feint; Woodcock expects to be the center of attention at all times, just as his reputation and station would insist. It follows that going in, audiences would assume that “Phantom Thread” belong to its biggest star. Anderson and company have other things in mind, however, and the ways in which Reynolds and Alma push and pull together and apart (oh, that New Year’s Eve sequence!) will spark with familiarity to many couples.   

“Phantom Thread” is dedicated to Jonathan Demme, and one imagines the filmmaker would have loved it. The movie presents a concrete world that complements the deceptively straightforward story events as they unfold. And yet, Anderson adds so much to the margins, the multiple themes and rich subtext will bring back admirers for second and third servings. “Phantom Thread” wonders about the boundaries of vocation and avocation, the self-doubt that panics the artist who — no matter the level of talent — must sing for supper, and the thin line that separates love and contempt.  

The Polka King

Polka King 1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Making its way to Netflix a year after debuting at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, “The Polka King” is the fictionalized version of Ponzi schemer Jan Lewan’s jaw-dropping journey from bandstand to prison cell. Played with his usual antic panache by Jack Black as an optimistic entrepreneur with mostly benevolent intentions, Lewan is an American dreamer by way of Poland in way over his head. Filmmaker Maya Forbes, whose semi-autobiographical first feature “Infinitely Polar Bear” earned some well-deserved looks in 2014, continues her collaboration with spouse Wallace Wolodarsky, who served as co-writer of “The Polka King.”

Basing their dramatization on John Mikulak and Joshua von Brown’s stranger-than-fiction 2009 documentary “The Man Who Would Be Polka King” (also currently available on Netflix instant watch), Forbes and Wolodarsky bend toward the absurdly comic details of Lewan’s self-made empire, projecting with care the minutiae of the man’s relentlessly cultivated “brand.” From the jaunty tunes — lit up by the magic fingers of Jason Schwartzman’s clarinetist Mickey Pizzazz — to the Polish knick-knacks sold at Levan’s gift shop, one expects a certain level of humor at the expense of the small town and the small time.

Happily, however, Forbes manages to guide her performers to big, bold interpretations that skip mean-spirited ridicule for a more sympathetic look. Black is always center stage, but terrific assists from Schwartzman, Jenny Slate as Lewan’s beauty pageant spouse, and Jacki Weaver as Lewan’s skeptical mother-in-law substantially increase the appeal of the film. Along with a parade of elderly polka enthusiasts suckered by Lewan’s charisma into parting with huge retirement funds, nest eggs, and other savings, the assortment of wacky oddballs extends to a nice turn by J.B. Smoove as an overworked investigator sniffing around Lewan’s fragile “promissory note” house of cards.

Forbes maintains a tone of positivity that at times leads one to wonder how “The Polka King” might have played if some of Lewan’s tragedies, including the bloody razor attack he suffered while in prison, had been handled more candidly. For example, the tour bus crash that seriously injured Lewan’s son remains in the movie as a plot marker, but the von Brown and Mikulak doc includes a tearful interview with the band member who was behind the wheel, revealing that two members of the group died in the wreck — and as improbable as it sounds, that Lewan claimed his financial records were destroyed in the same road accident.

The premise of a Grammy-nominated bandleader convicted of fraud works favorably for the filmmakers and for Black, who has excelled at playing imposters, phonies, yarn-spinners and/or truth-stretchers both imaginary (Dewey Finn in “School of Rock,” Malcolm in “Margot at the Wedding”) and based on real people (Bernie Tiede in “Bernie,” R. L. Stine in “Goosebumps”). At first, Lewan’s fractured English — “You are such best audience!” — seems like a put-on, but footage of the real Lewan confirms the interpretation. Extrovert Lewan’s irrepressible “where’s the party?” attitude is right in Black’s wheelhouse, lending credibility to the otherwise farfetched — Lewan introducing his tourists to Lech Walesa doesn’t make the cut, but an audience with the pope most certainly does.    

 

Voyeur

Voyeur

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Now playing on Netflix instant watch, “Voyeur” is the curious story of strange bedfellows Gay Talese — the once influential and celebrated journalist — and Gerald Foos — a creepy peeper who spied on the guests at his hotel, chronicling their behavior, erotic and otherwise, in a quasi-scientific record book. Filmmakers Myles Kane and Josh Koury don’t entirely corral the lurid proceedings into a fully satisfying examination of any given one of their smorgasbord of themes, but the movie’s self-awareness stitches up several of the fraying edges.

Some of the film’s framework is provided by the print history of the weird Foos/Talese acquaintance. Entertaining talk show clips of Talese discussing “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” his 1981 book on sexual practice and behavior in post-World War 2 America, connect the dots to Foos, who contacted the journalist in anticipation of the book’s publication to “confess” to his prurient and illegal proclivities looking at people without their knowledge or consent. Talese smelled a project, and following years of preparation, published “The Voyeur’s Motel” in the April 11, 2016 issue of “The New Yorker.”

Later, a full-length book expansion with the same title spectacularly backfired, as negative reviews and questions of basic fact-checking triggered Talese to disavow his own work (a position he later recanted) and conclude that things he wrote as fact could not necessarily be trusted. Kane and Koury, who enjoy complete access to Talese and Foos throughout their movie, even when the subjects appear to be on the outs with each other, depict the unlikely pairing of the impeccably dressed cosmopolitan and the wheezing baseball card collector as a marriage of opposites bound by a mutual affinity for the spotlight and a parallel penchant for out-of-bounds sexual thrills.

The directors film reconstructions of unwitting travelers observed through the custom-cut ceiling vents in the Manor House Hotel where Foos lurked in Aurora, Colorado. In one surreal vignette, Talese’s necktie dangles down through the gap, and all participants affirm that the writer did indeed join Foos in the act. The ethical questions on this point are not explored as thoroughly as hoped, and the later sections of the film turn to the fallout that strains the partnership, even though Kane and Koury maintain at least the illusion that for a time, Foos and Talese symbiotically fed on what the other could provide.

Had the directors doubled-down on mining the narcissism and outsized ego driving the subjects toward some kind of guaranteed mutual destruction, “Voyeur” might have moved beyond the intriguing but superficial jousting over just how much of Foos’ tale is true. At 85, Talese has now seen his once mighty reputation dismantled by the carelessness of his reporting on the Foos story, his sexist comments on women writers, and his utter lack of comprehension and sensitivity in statements regarding Kevin Spacey’s predatory behavior and history of sexual assault. “Voyeur” will not do anything to rehabilitate his image as a literary celebrity capable of bringing the reader into the orbits of Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, and others.    

Risk

Risk

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The indomitable Laura Poitras adds to her fascinating filmography with “Risk,” a years-in-the-making (and unmaking) portrait of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, beginning prior to his retreat into the embassy of Ecuador in London under threat of eventual extradition to the United States. Less immediate and urgent than her Oscar-winner “Citizenfour,” “Risk” continues the filmmaker’s investigation of the post-9/11 conditions of the widespread and largely unchecked illegal surveillance state and the often shocking countermeasures of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, both of whom factor significantly in this film.

The principal portrait, however, is made of Assange, and the 2017 version presented by Showtime differs from the original cut that Poitras debuted at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Anyone with an interest in the ongoing saga of WikiLeaks presumably knows the broad strokes of much of the timeline presented in “Risk,” but Jim Rutenberg’s April 9, 2017 “New York Times” article offers an indispensable explanation of the substantive way in which the movie changed following its premiere. Rutenberg writes of how allegations of sexual misconduct leveled at “privacy activist” Jacob Appelbaum, a man with whom Poitras was briefly involved, triggered modifications to the film.

In “Risk,” Poitras narrates entries from what she refers to as her “production journal,” revealing ways in which she must constantly sort out issues stemming from the interpersonal relationships that have developed from the highly unusual circumstances of her years-long production process. A number of critics have voiced concerns about the kind of access Poitras has enjoyed with this circle of subjects, questioning the limits of journalistic objectivity, such as it is — especially in light of Poitras disclosing in the film her romantic relationship with Appelbaum.  

In the “Washington Post,” Alyssa Rosenberg asks several important questions, including “Should I interpret this disclosure as a blanket statement of belief in women who come forward with sexual assault allegations? Do I trust Poitras less for getting involved with one of her subjects, or more for her transparency? Do I see Poitras primarily as a journalist or an artist or something in between, and depending on which one I choose, how should this revelation make me feel about her work?” That last question won’t bother the viewer who recognizes all approaches to filmmaking — fiction, nonfiction, cinema verite, advocacy, editorial, journalism, etc. — as constructed texts.

Positions of visual philosophy and moviemaking ethics aside, Poitras manages a feat of penetration most documentary filmmakers would envy. Assange’s transition from sprawling countryside estate to the narrow, cell-like compartments of the embassy is fascinating, especially when the typically icy and unflappable celebrity works out with a personal trainer in a space the size of a large closet or agrees to be interviewed by Lady Gaga. “Risk” ends by bringing the viewer up to date, fleetingly, on the terrifying saga of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Poitras concludes this particular story prior to revelations that Assange and WikiLeaks provided direct advice, help, and support to the Trump campaign, and then lied about doing so. Perhaps that tale will be told in a future film.    

 

One of Us

One of Us

Movie review by Greg Carlson

On the occasion of the Netflix release of “One of Us,” veteran filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady shared with writer Kate Erbland some of the self-imposed “rules” to their formidable approach. The documentarians indicated that potential subjects must offer rare and special access. They also make sure that the content includes “observational, verite material” along the order of high-stakes events unfolding in the here and now. The directors expect that the “characters be different by act three.” Participants in the film do not see footage during production and are not allowed “any editorial input.”      

“One of Us” follows three individuals who have left or are in the process of leaving the strict community of New York City’s Hasidic Jews to which they once so inextricably belonged. Etty, no longer willing or able to suffer physical and emotional violence at the hands of her husband, fears the loss of her seven children and struggles with the potentially catastrophic financial burden of a protracted court battle in which the deck appears to be stacked against her. Teenage Ari yearns for knowledge of the greater, wider world. He gushes about the singular thrill of exploring Wikipedia. Finally, Luzer has tested the waters in Los Angeles, where he hopes to find work as an actor (his passion born from clandestine viewings of forbidden movies).

The emotional weight of the film — and its most chilling drama — resides in the sections focused on Etty. Etty (her last name deliberately withheld) attends a support group called Footsteps, but it becomes clear as time passes that defiance of the Hasidic leadership is a seemingly Sisyphean endeavor. As David Edelstein points out in his essay on the film, the Hasidim “…do not believe that secular laws should affect them.” The portrait of Etty emerges as the film’s centerpiece, and she alone could easily have sustained interest for an entire feature.  

For so many audience members, “One of Us” gets close to something that would otherwise be foreign, hidden, and obscure. And yet, the filmmakers locate universally human desires and experiences to which anyone can relate. Overt vilification of the leadership within the patriarchal structure of Brooklyn’s orthodox community is withheld, although the vast majority of secular (and scores of religious) viewers won’t require much persuasion to imagine that the treatment of Etty, Ari, and Luzer is brutal and unfair.

One of the most intriguing scenes in the film records an interaction between Ari and an older community member at a playground known to be a popular hangout for youngsters who like the location’s free wifi access. The elder, unknowingly providing Grady and Ewing with the title of their film, asks Ari, “Are you one of us?” The question is sincere, since Ari has cut his payot but still wears a yarmulke. The exchange is a vivid demonstration of just how difficult it can be for a member to leave as well as a specific reminder of the painful feelings of abandonment and rejection that accompany the liminal state when one is neither completely in nor completely out.

Mudbound

Mudbound

Movie review by Greg Carlson

On her biggest canvas to date, filmmaker Dee Rees paints a vivid picture of two American families in “Mudbound,” a deeply satisfying drama based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. Adapting the screenplay with collaborator Virgil Williams, Rees skillfully weaves a tale that dissects and addresses race, war, poverty, alcoholism, adultery, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other substantive themes. She does this with tremendous confidence and focus, retaining the novel’s multiple narrators and infusing each significant character with the fullness of human contradiction and complexity.

The two principal groups of relatives, one black and one white, are linked together by their commitment to a tough patch of cotton farmland in the Mississippi Delta in the years surrounding World War II. Both clans, the McAllans and the Jacksons, face hardships and humiliations, but the specter of Jim Crow additionally burdens the latter. Sharecroppers always a step or two behind the poor McAllans (for whom they labor), the Jackson family is led by Florence (Mary J. Blige) and Hap (Rob Morgan). The land they work has been purchased by Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who moves with his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their two daughters, and his noxiously racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) into a spartan hovel with no running water.

In his review of the film, Justin Chang notes, “The radicalism of ‘Mudbound’ thus lies in its inherently democratic sensibility, its humble, unapologetic insistence on granting its black and white characters the same moral and dramatic weight.” This balance is achieved not only through the physical proximity that binds the Jacksons and McAllans despite the social conventions of systematized segregation that prevent anything approaching open affection or neighborliness, but also through the rich details of the unspoken rules of behavior in the Deep South. Chang also remarks that Florence “commands more authority and respect in her household than Laura does in hers” — another example of the highly detailed way in which Rees explores the intricacies of gender.

The two matriarchs are additionally connected to one another in ways specific to womanhood. Florence is simply not in a position to say no when essentially conscripted to come work for Laura following a whooping cough scare. Outwardly less demanding than either of their husbands, the women find ways to assist one another that carefully exist within strict, unspoken guidelines. But as Emily Yoshida astutely notes, “Without the aid of institutionalized slavery, and seemingly without knowing it, Henry and Laura have completely co-opted their neighbors’ lives,” which in one sense is even more insidious than the visible, open racism spewed by Pappy.

Rees directs all the members of her talented ensemble to uniformly impressive work. Garrett Hedlund as Henry’s brother Jamie and Jason Mitchell as Florence and Hap’s son Ronsel — the two men who see combat — eventually move to the center of the action. Both return to the United States following military service, and their unique and peculiar experience, accompanied by firsthand knowledge of instant, brutal death, allows the pair to form an unlikely friendship. Loyalty to kin brings them home, but in a very real sense made achingly tangible by Rees, it’s too late: the bigotry, ignorance, and narrowness of the community suffocates these two souls, and the longer they remain on the farm, the more the stormclouds of tragedy gather.