Sunday, April 18, 2021

Her Story: QUO VADIS, AIDA?

Bosnian writer-director Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? is a work of astonishing intensity and riveting despair. It takes a heartrendingly personal and intimate approach to a sweeping crisis by bringing its focus tightly to the plight of one woman and her family amidst one tragic moment. The film is a grim historical recreation, taking place during the 90’s conflict in which Serbian forces committed a genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Set in 1995 outside the village of Srebrenica, the picture watches as fleeing civilians, tens of thousands of them, overwhelm an understaffed and unprepared United Nations’ base. In the film’s opening moments, we saw Aida (Jasna Đuričić), a schoolteacher working as a translator for the UN observers, pass along assurances that the Serbian general (Boris Isaković) will not invade the town after a recent NATO ultimatum. But those out to commit genocide are not inclined to play by the rules or keep promises. Srebrenica is overrun. Masses flee ahead of the invading army. There is not enough room to house the people, and so they linger in the fields outside the theoretically safe international encampment, which looks all the more feeble and ineffectual by the second. Aida does her best to run between her desperate neighbors and the harried UN officials (like Dutch actor Raymond Thiry selling stress with every bead of sweat in his trim mustache) and their babyfaced soldiers. She carries messages and passes along calming announcements. But it’s clear from her clenched jaw and darting eyes — she sees the hunger, the squalor, the lack, the uncertainty — that she knows the situation is desperate, on the brink of danger. As the Serbian troops demand to negotiate and approach the refugees with threatening, bullying swagger, it’s clear who’s really taking charge.

The filmmaking makes the situation a cramped epic, pinpoint precise and specific in scale as masses of extras pile into small spaces, as news of enormous danger is whittled down up the chain of command and hands are tied by off-screen dithering and delay on the other end of the phone. In the compound we can feel the heat, the frustration, the commotion. But, although Žbanić’s docudrama approach captures with an expansive understanding the slippage of UN authority, and the terrible position in which these characters find themselves is rendered with a dread-soaked historical inevitability and all the immediacy of a vice tightening with each development, the movie never leaves Aida’s side. She’s constantly weighing options, asking favors, angling for better information, trying to position herself, her husband (Izudin Bajrović) and sons (Boris Ler and Dino Bajrović), to stay safe in a steadily, increasingly out-of-control situation. The nature of her job places her next to levers of power frozen in moments of inaction that allow the genocidal strongmen to fill the gap. They are the ones who organize an exit strategy for the refugees, promising safe passage and fresh food while the UN finds itself increasingly at a loss to help. When the buses and guns start to arrive at the compound, it sure starts looking like a holocaust in progress. Aida sees this, and is increasingly frustrated as those who claim to be there to keep them safe can’t see the danger, or won’t allow themselves to think that the sense of fair play and rules-following that animates their world — even in this most extreme of moments — will extend to the fascists at the door.

Žbanić’s film confronts the messy interpersonal struggle that is any big historical moment. It avoids the easy answers of noble suffering, righteous resolution, or quiet heroism in the face of the odds. It simply exists in this deeply painful sequence of events. In the sharply drawn present tense trauma settling into Đuričić’s performance we see a smart woman doing everything she can in the moment. But nothing prepares a person for a brewing massacre, not even surviving three years of civil war. Here she is vividly confronted with the fact that there are those in her country, those she knows well, who will kill her and her loved ones, simply because they have been enthralled with an evil ideology, and an evil leader, with prejudices enflamed and a renewed sense of purpose behind the barrel of a machine gun. One of the Serbian soldiers pointing a rifle at men, women, and children stranded in the field sees Aida near the gate. “Teacher!” he shouts. He wonders if she remembers him. Yes, she does. He was in her class—not too long ago, by the looks of him.  He grins. This is how close and personal a genocide becomes, how cruel and mundane. In the final moments of the film, after the tension culminates in devastation, an epilogue takes us past the immediacy of its historical moment and moves forward. It is in this final sequence that Žbanić arrives at her film’s most complicated and graceful evocation of mournful lingering trauma, regret, and consequences as we see Aida’s life and her town’s routine, years later. What does healing look like in the wake of a tragedy so immense and so personal? How can one possibly move on? Where can anyone — where can Aida — go from here? The impact remains and remains, and is remains, buried just beneath the surface.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Fishy: WHAT LIES BELOW and MY OCTOPUS TEACHER

What Lies Below is what happens when the Netflix front page becomes the assignment editor for entertainment sections all over the web. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. People open the app, say, “what’s that doing there?”, and click over for a look, thus keeping it on the list and driving more clicks. It’s the reason for the streamer’s top ten, to fuel that sense of wanting in on whatever everyone else is watching. As if we know how much of everyone that is. And then it trends on social media and it gets written up here and there. (Guess I’m guilty of it, too, now and again.) It is a peculiar thing, especially given Netflix’s strategy to inflate viewership numbers and hide any real deep dive objective data on the use of their service. When, say, a seven-year-old Mark Wahlberg movie bubbles up on the list, how many people are watching how much of it? Who’s to say? So here we are now with a cheap indie genre movie, the feature debut of writer/director Braden R. Duemmler. The streaming rights have been snapped up by Netflix to keep the content a churning. It’s no mystery why people click. It’s right there. It has an interesting hook — teenager meets her single mother’s new boyfriend at their cabin in the woods and it turns out he’s a mysterious hunk who might be a sea monster in disguise? — and a poster emphasizing the shirtless guy. You can see why a certain number of people glimpsing it among the squares while browsing would hover over and let it roll for a few.

The movie itself is sluggish, and full of the kind of cheap, flat, expository, subtext-free dialogue you might hear in a lesser Lifetime Original Movie. The plot plays like the faintest copy of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank — dangerous guy might be a threat to his girlfriend’s daughter — transposed into a 90’s softcore mystery — without quite getting that steamy or mysterious — and crossed with one of those darkly missing-the-point post-Twilight paranormal relationships. It never quite digs deep into the potentially messy and uncomfortable interpersonal dynamics, instead skimming the surface for cheap dramatics. The mother (Mena Suvari) keeps thinking her daughter (Ema Horvath) is just trying to mess things up for the sake of keeping her mom all to herself. But we see the guy (Trey Tucker) sleepwalking into the lake and licking his lips and lurking in corners. And there’s that glowing light burbling in the middle of that lake at night. What’s up with that? Maybe it’s like evil Cocoon, I idly thought. The movie occasionally generates some modicum of squirmy tension as it sluggishly, somnambulantly trudges through its mostly predictable, partially convincing paces. Then it takes a swerve into outright horror for the final twenty minutes or so, with high-contrast red and blue lighting, and tense closeups, and violence, screams, and shocks. It gets pretty squirmy there in the final stretch, and ends on a note far more hopeless than I’d thought it’d get. In the end, it’s the sort of bad movie that makes you suspect its maker might have a good one in him one day.

Still, as lousy as that movie can be, I’m disappointed and a little embarrassed to admit I nonetheless liked it slightly more than another recent fishy Netflix movie, the Academy Award-nominated documentary My Octopus Teacher. It follows nature documentary cinematographer Craig Foster as he goes diving and meets an octopus. He feels a connection with this creature, who seems to recognize him and even forms something of a friendship. It’s clearly very powerful for Foster, who tells us in awestruck tones about what the animal taught him about its habits and habitat. That’s all well and good, but directors Philippa Ehrlich and James Reed are far more focused on the “my” than the “octopus,” and it never quite escapes the feeling it’s an intensely personal journey of one individual, the film of which can’t quite universalize in the ways to which it’s intended. It has copious nature photography, and it’s always a delight to see all the interesting critters under the sea. If you can’t go snorkeling or scuba diving, one of these nature documentaries is the next best thing. But I almost feel badly how little interest the movie kicked up in the personal experience of this guy. I wanted more of the creatures and less of the story of how meaningful Foster found it. He balances between anthropomorphic impressions of the octopus — “old lady in a dress” is one metaphor that sticks out — with oceanography understandings, and sentimental ruminations. I’m glad he had a good time, but I guess I didn’t need to see it. In the words of Keke Palmer, sorry to this man.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Myth, Legend, Man: HEMINGWAY

Ernest Hemingway was only a man, after all. How’s that for a lede Hemingway himself might’ve enjoyed? For a writer interested in masculinity — a writer of tough, lean, declarative sentences so stripped and spare and straight-to-the-point that one can practically hear the clattering typewriter painstakingly stamp out each letter — he lingers in the public imagination as everything complicated suggested by that designation. At this point he’s passed into cultural assumptions and cliches. We remember him for bull fighters and trench ambulances, for drinking and womanizing, for excursions and adventures, for hunting and fishing, for boating and safari, for shooting and killing. He puffed himself up through self-mythologizing, then sometimes lived up to it. But above all else, he’s a writer and a man. He wrote what he knew. He observed closely, keenly. He wrote careful prose, confronted the difficulties of life. He’s a great writer. And like all great writers he is both exactly what we remember him for, and so much more. He may be a lion of literature, a legend of letters, but he is still only a man and all the complications and contradictions that implies. He was talented — a once-in-a-generation-if-we’re-lucky author who, as Tobias Wolff says, “rearranged the furniture” of American literature. And he was mortal, troubled, fallible, complicated. He was capable of writing about people and places, inner lives of men and women alike, with such vividly drawn and precisely rendered minds suggested in evocative detail drawn in poetic simplicity. And yet he could also treat those around him — his wives, his children, fellow writers, even himself — with breathtaking cruelty. He was masculine to the max, and interested in understanding women, and playing with androgyny. He was quintessentially American, and loved nowhere more than Paris and Cuba. To wrestle with his work is to recognize his genius, and to acknowledge him as a man wrestling with himself.

He’s a figure perfectly suited to the Ken Burns style, intersecting as he does with so many of the great documentarian’s usual thematic interests: Americana, war, letters, literature, the ways social forces and big personalities impact each other. Burns, surely among the most consistent  of working documentarians, and his usual collaborators (co-director Lynn Novick, historian Geoffrey C. Ward, narrator Peter Coyote) load up the six hours devoted to Hemingway with their usual style and technique: perfect pans across striking photographs and documents, well-curated historical footage, an all-star voice-over cast (Jeff Daniels, Meryl Streep, Keri Russel) bringing writings to life, and a handful of literary critics, academics, and writers speaking to the history. Burns’ sturdy filmmaking is not surprising in its construction, but builds to wonderful revelations all the same—a soft, poetic joining of ideas and images that invites contemplation. It may not approach the majesty of his masterpieces (his epic The Roosevelts — a wide ranging, big-picture historical view with all the moving intimacy of close, personal portraiture — is his finest hour in my book), but there’s value to his approach to historical documentary. This particular work digs deep into the man’s life and work, treating both with the rigorous criticism and beneficial biography that builds a full portrait. Brushing past the easy received wisdom — confronting his family’s perspective, allowing debate over some works, acknowledging his blind spots and blurred lines — it leaves you with a good sense of the man and his times, and why, exactly, his work was and remains such an important moment in literary history.

It’s like the best professorial lecture on the topic at hand. There’s a firm steadiness in Burns’ filmmaking that slows the breathing, quiets the mind, and makes one open to listen and interpret, make connections, push back on claims or welcome new information. It also makes the few bum notes — like the late John McCain saying he understands why Hemingway would kill himself — clang. Yet one only needs to see how dry, slow, scattered or undigestible Burns’ imitators’ films are to see what makes his team’s series special. He brings an immediacy to the artifacts, an intellectual engagement to the voices he selects, and a willingness to contrast talking heads. For instance, here Edna O’Brien, who earlier speaks emotionally and persuasively about the short story “Up in Michigan,” scoffs at The Old Man and the Sea, immediately followed by Mario Vargas Llosa declares it his favorite. Burns is building a careful, dense, and thorough picture. But the whole grand sweep of it becomes like sitting in on a great conversation about a notable figure, several hours marching through the chronology of a fascinating life in the company of interesting people arguing for a great writer. Best of all, it sent me back to my bookshelf, to pluck down a volume of Hemingway’s stories and reread them with renewed eyes and even deeper appreciation.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Promising Young Women: SHIVA BABY
and THE CRAFT: LEGACY

Shiva Baby is so drenched in social anxiety — not to mention family obligations, professional frustrations, and sexual tension — that one could practically wring it out. The whole endeavor has a palpable feeling of discomfort, the camerawork close and ever-so-slightly trembling, the score spare stabbing strings, the dialogue surface pleasant, subtextually jabbing small talk of needling relatives gossiping and hesitant strangers networking. It takes place almost entirely at a shiva for a distant relative (someone’s second wife’s sister—that sort of thing) of our protagonist, a college senior (Rachel Sennott) whose various worlds are about to uncomfortably collide. Her future looks uncertain, graduating without good prospects, to the dismay of her mother (Polly Draper) who tells her to let the other mourners think she has interviews lined up. Her father (Fred Melamed) still pays her bills since her babysitting job is so erratically scheduled. And neither know that her alleged babysitting job is a cover story for her real meager source of income: meeting men on a sugar daddy app and getting some easy money for a good time. We start the movie at the end of her latest hookup with an older man (Danny Deferrari), the better to recognize him when he enters the house. Small world. His wife (Dianna Agron) and baby are meeting him there, too. The walls are closing in.

There’s a constant sense of teetering on the edge of potential embarrassment, and Sennott capably plays the squirm, blundering forward though her insecurities and realizing only too late each escalating cringe. The tension rises as she’s bolstered by craft that keeps her tightly framed and blocking that presses her into corners or into uncomfortable exposure. In this small gathering the rooms were already full of elderly family friends (like Jackie Hoffman) prying nicely or passive aggressively into her personal life, and her childhood best friend and first romantic partner (Molly Gordon) makes eyes at her, too. Now it's only more complicated. Writer-director Emma Seligman, in a striking debut feature, has the confidence to sustain this small, well-tuned picture — a mere 70-some minutes and just a wisp of plotting to carry it — by signaling the largely interior stakes through small gestures and flushes of discomfort. The movie’s all about eye lines and furtive glances, the cold sweat of conversational awkwardness and the tension between polite fictions and outright deceptions. All the while, the whole thing plays out like a prelude to a panic attack, emotionally edging right up to the brink of a psychological catastrophe that never quite erupts. It feels like an achingly real emotional state.

You never know where you’ll find that. For instance, I just caught up with writer-director Zoe Lister-Jones' The Craft: Legacy. Who’d have thought the couple decades belated sequel/remake of the cult teen coven classic would have some emotional truth in it? I didn’t. But there it is anyway. There’s a scene in the middle, a sort of Breakfast Club misfit confession circle, in which the star teen girls who dabble in witchcraft as a form of self-empowerment — but dangers lurk, because of course they do — talk with a former bullying boy from their school. He tearfully admits his closeted bisexuality and earnestly confesses to feeling stifled by gender norms. It’s a real bolt of interesting emotional valences that changes the temperature of the scene and resonates throughout the rest of the picture. The whole thing is an amiable teen flick, with lockers and house parties and cute montages and, befitting its horror roots, a bit of dark sinister intentions lingering underneath. There are a few good creepy moments, and fine parallel plots about our new-in-town lead girl (Cailee Spaeny) getting to know her new friends and her latent powers, and her single mother (Michelle Monaghan) finding a new beau, a masculinist self-help guru and maybe-cult-leader (David Duchovny). (Some shades of The Lost Boys, there, perhaps.)

So there’s decent contrast drawn between the girl-power witches and dark forces of misogyny, and there’s the usual stuff about crushes and classes and learning to grow into oneself inherent in the teen movie of any genre. It’s a consistent through line of inquiry connecting the boy’s troubles and the girls’, a frank admission that societal expectations can hurt everyone, even those who are theoretically built up by them. Even if the movie never quite leans all the way into horror — though there’s a bit with a figure in a mirror in a darkened bedroom that’s quite spooky — and there are fleeting moments where it feels like one of those featherlight Netflix Original buzzword Mad Libs pictures, the whole project has a consistent and pleasant earnestness about its characters that makes for a modestly enjoyable effort as it coasts to its routine conclusion.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Learned Behavior: OPERATION VARSITY BLUES

Through the lens of the recent massive college admissions scandal, Operation Varsity Blues tracks the current state of American meritocracy in our new Gilded Age of staggering inequality. On the one hand, the rich are powerful, able to buy their way into any school through bribes and trickery. On the other hand, sometimes that placement was, until the FBI investigation and subsequent criminal charges, made possible by a self-made con man who rose from nowhere in particular to market his college counselor business into this perfect confluence of foundations, networking, and fraud. After all, is there anything as quintessentially American Dream as a con? We’re a country that valorizes getting ahead by any means necessary, and admires, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes shamelessly, getting one over on the suckers—pulling yourself up by anyone’s bootstraps. Here we watch Rick Singer, a former high school basketball coach, remaking himself as a college admissions guru, finding himself at the right place at the right time to market a hush-hush elites-only “side-door” into prestigious schools. It’s a business whose clients — CEOs, showbiz types, designers, real estate tycoons, hedge fund guys, the Hot Pockets heiress  — don’t mind making fake claims, tricking standardized tests, and fudging facts for a guaranteed placement in the college of their choice.

Why do these people even want to send their kids to these schools? You’d be surprised to hear the words “getting an education” don’t really come up. For such an anti-intellectual age, it sure is strange that the elite cling to college, not as an opportunity to learn about the world, but as a status symbol. One kid slipped into USC can be seen on video griping about her classes and accommodations, and then expressing relief when she gets to go home. They don’t care if they actually learn. And why not? They’re already in a position of extreme privilege, ensconced from a need to interface with information. They, or, more accurately, their parents, just want the diploma, the feather in the cap, just one more way to prove their own sense of worth. It’s a box to check on the prestige list, a way to convince themselves their powerful positions bought by inherited wealth are just as good as what others have to work for—or a fig life falsehood to claim those who don’t luck into that status just didn’t work hard enough. There’s a remarkable blend of cold calculation and total moral confusion that spills out of the minds of these clients. One repeat customer admits: “The thing is my younger daughter is not like my older daughter. She’s not stupid.” But, she and clients like her, must think, why take a chance on your merit, when money is a guarantee?

The film is a good way to think through the ideas of which this scandal is chock full, placing the facts of the case — which some of us might have followed closely already; it was a juicy true crime tale, after all — in a logical and clinical documentary retelling. There are just-the-facts talking heads from experts and (some) participants cut with a clicking keys and glowing texts and sound waves and blinking cursor modern immediacy, and a minimalist, shimmering, propulsive score co-composed by Atticus Ross, putting it in line with the aural tone of other pulsing modern tech stories The Social Network and Blackhat. Director Chris Smith (American Movie) shoots it that way too, in sleek scope frames with a cold color palate of steel grey and ice blue. He’s also wrapped this True Crime doc structure around a reenactment that goes beyond the usual spice and makes it a substantial portion of the meal. He casts Matthew Modine as Singer and follows him through talky scenes copied straight from wire taps. It’s a deft blending, with Modine’s inhabitation of this particular man — always on the movie, all business talk, salesman patter, constant athletic wear selling a casually confident sense of hustle — enlivening the ideas inherent in his scheme. Other actors play the other sides of his conversations, and it works up to a fine sort of catharsis — a methodical Soderbergh build to a climactic snap — as the walls close in and the authorities ready their raids. There’s still room for someone else to do a juicier take on this story — a looser, funnier, more savage and gossipy recreation, perhaps — but this accumulation of documentary detail gets the righteous anger and broader implications.

Undoubtedly everyone involved in this scheme is worthy of some scorn; but it’s hard not to also look at this as an indictment of a system that commodifies the diploma instead of a desire to actually get an education. The schools are beleaguered — pawns in the culture wars, beholden to whims of wealthy donors and confused boards, viewed as a product more than a conduit for personal growth in knowledge and selfhood. It can be hard, even isolating, out there for those of us aligned with the idea that knowing, understanding, and thinking are virtues in and of themselves, with a core commitment to cultivating a sense of critical thinking and constant curiosity in ideas, ourselves, and others. That’s what a good school at any level and any program should get you: an opportunity to think and learn, to deepen and grow. When it’s just another cog in the machine — when school is reduced to a mere utility, as either status symbol of wealth management on the upper end or mere functional job training on the other — we lose the real liberating power of a well-rounded knowledge of the world, an ability to process information and sort out the deepest truths about ourselves and our society. We are currently paying for this lack. Smith’s film gives us the time to consider the state of education in this country by shining a light on one of its horrible corners of privilege and corruption, and lets the implications grow, implied or unspoken, from there.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Monkey's Business: GODZILLA VS. KONG

So what if Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong is easily the least of these new Hollywood Godzilla flicks? Sometimes you just want what this thing delivers. It has giant monsters who fight each other three times throughout a relatively trim runtime that collapses into the credits before the two hour mark. It has a team of scientists (and a little deaf orphan) who think Kong can lead them to the Hollow Earth, and corporate stooges who think he’ll lead them to an ancient power source, too. They have to fly around in little spaceship tanks that zip along on neon blue jet trails to survive the pressure of the Earth’s Core. The vehicles make cool little bass-pumping Jetsons noises. There’s a rampaging Godzilla who doesn’t mean it—we know pretty quickly that the lizard’s being provoked by a glowing orb in the secret laboratories of a no-good tech company. A goofy podcaster teams up with a character from Godzilla: King of the Monsters to track down the truth. So we have two sets of characters, each following one half of the title bill around as they do their thing. It’s just a matter of time before the big critters come to blows by land and by sea. And, sure, Kong’s the underdog, but given how much more plot time is given over to him and his supporters, it’s pretty clear the movie’s out to make it an even match.

It’s all about the shallow spectacle. Gone is the majesty and awe of the perfectly proportioned 2014 Godzilla, with its trembling mortals staring up at the monsters spelling certain doom. Gone is the ecological pessimism of its 2019 sequel, a foolish-humanity-eclipsed-by-raw-power-of-nature parable wrapped up in terrifically overheated family drama. This thing’s just an empty go-go-go rock-‘em-sock-‘em effects picture with ramped up cartoony bouts of kaiju combat and long stretches of exposition and pokey CG light shows between. But at least it still has a host of fine character actors (this time Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgård, Brian Tyree Henry and Demián Bechir join the mix) who don’t mind playing second fiddle to two famous monsters of filmland. They stare off at the digital chaos and say things like “Kong bows to no one” or “Those are Skullcrawlers” or “That podcast is filling your head with garbage!” It’s bright and colorful and dumb. And then a building will fall over or lasers will slice out of a shiny glass pyramid or a column of radioactive fire will drill a hole to the center of the earth. Then the roaring and fighting, and running and screaming. Wingard (hit and miss, but his The Guest is a rare Carpenter homage that hits and Death Note is a decent anime riff) is adept at recreating the genre pleasures we need to make it a passable lazy afternoon pleasure.