Review Round-Up: February 16

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Black Panther (dir: Ryan Coogler)

You may or may not have heard that Marvel has a new movie out this month. Black Panther is out, promising to break February box office records and, perhaps, change the film industry. The theory is that this movie—a gargantuan blockbuster directed by a black man, starring an all-black principal cast—will make Hollywood more open to black voices. That remains to be seen; I see it as just as likely that entrenched Hollywood producers will conclude from this movie that Marvel can sell anything, not that black heroes sell.

Reviews are glowing, praising director Ryan Coogler and the expansive cast, none more so than Coogler’s frequently collaborator Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Creed), who plays the film’s villain. Critics are citing his character, who bears the unlikely name of Erik Killmonger, as perhaps the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a charismatic man with complex motivations. At RogerEbert.com, Odie Henderson compares the Coogler/Jordan pairing to that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, predicting we’ll one day be talking about them with the same aura of awe.

Coogler, for his part, generally isn’t praised for the film’s spectacle or action sequences, but for making the characters feel grounded, their interactions real. This, critics point out, makes Black Panther stand out among the quippy Marvel movies. The film has an authenticity—despite being set in an invented fantasy land—that the other Marvel films lack, David Ehrlich of Indiewire writes:

'Black Panther' is different. It’s the first one of these films that flows with a genuine sense of culture and identity, memory and musicality. It’s the first one of these films that doesn’t merely reckon with power and subjugation in the abstract, but also gives those ideas actual weight by grafting them onto specific bodies and confronting the historical ways in which they’ve shaped our universe. Last, but certainly not least, it’s also the first black superhero movie since the dawn of the genre’s seemingly endless golden age (or at least since that one where Will Smith hurled a giant whale at a bunch of innocent sailors).

Another thing that sets this film apart from the Marvel rabble is that, for once in the last decade, it’s a standalone movie: it doesn’t crossover in any serious way with the ongoing drama of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, allowing it to establish its own identity. David Edelstein at Vulture is thankful it isolates itself from the “tiring” franchise.

Ehrlich believes decisively that Black Panther is the best superhero movie yet; Henderson calls it one of the best of the year; Edelstein calls it the “most original” superhero film. Slightly more reserved is the AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who gives the film a B+. 

Nevertheless, the reviews are encouraging. I thought last year’s Wonder Woman was a stiff, cheap-looking, badly written superhero origin story—and also a potential step forward for women in the industry. With these reviews I have renewed hope that Black Panther, which looks to break similar ground in terms of representation in front of and behind the camera, will be both Good and good. 

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Tehran Taboo (dir: Ali Soozandeh)

This new drama about sexual hypocrisy in Tehran distinguishes itself by the fact that it’s rotoscoped, meaning that it was filmed in live action and then traced over and accentuated with—well, with computers, no longer with hand-held tools—thus turning it into an animated movie. As many reviews recount—no doubt, this information was in the film’s press packet—director Ali Soozandeh did this because, an expatriot living in Germany, he was not able to make the film in Tehran, and did not want to use a substitute. 

Rotoscoping the film made it possible to capture some authentic Tehran atmosphere, which Geoffrey Cheshire, apparently a frequent visitor to the city, confirms in his review for RogerEbert.com. Cheshire appreciates the film’s complexity in its handling of its subject matter, the double standards applied to men’s and women’s behavior in Iran: 

Although the primary female characters here—and to a lesser extent, some of the men—are trapped in the strictures of a traditional patriarchal society that’s enforced by a theocratic government, the film wisely doesn’t come across as a two-dimensional polemic. That’s largely because Soozandeh’s storytelling is so engaging and nuanced.

J.R. Jones at the Chicago Reader is on board, citing the film’s revelation of religious hypocrisy. But Film Journal is much more ambivalent, much more concerned that Soozandeh may have chosen an easy route of attack: “While certainly insightful about life governed by Islamic Revolutionary law, Soozandeh’s script traffics in a seedy sort of suspense.”

Cheshire, who likes the film, even points out that it’s probably outdated: his friends in Iran assure him that the morality police (a thing) aren’t so bad anymore. And in the end, my suspicion is that, despite generally positive tone of the reviews, this film is not very good. The praise is a bit too tepid, and the constant citation of the same fact about why Soonzandeh chose rotoscoping makes it seem like critics were reaching for something to say about it.

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Early Man (dir: Nick Park)

The most fun recurring comment between reviews for this latested clay-mated film from the makers of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run is that Hognob, the main character Dug’s pet warthog, should have been the main character. Unfortunately, for critics, that’s just a way of voicing their disappointment in the failure of Aardman Animation to produce another mild hit/critical darling.

First: Anthony Lane, whose one-two punch review of Black Panther and Early Man reviews at The New Yorker is further evidence of his disinterest in popular film. His short review finds time to get lost in its own meandering tangents more than once. Here’s one perambulation he makes while trying to tell us what he thinks about Black Panther:

There have been black superheroes before, and Will Smith’s character in 'Hancock' (2008) was an unusual blend of potency and dysfunction, but none have been given dominion over a blockbuster. (The one who merits it best is Frozone, from 'The Incredibles,' who has to miss dinner to save the world. “We are talking about the greater good!” he cries. Back comes the reply: “Greater good? I am your wife. I’m the greatest good you are ever going to get.”)

He does manage to catch up to Early Man, though, according with the general consensus that the film is not up to Aardman’s usual quality:

If 'Early Man' slips below the studio’s highest standards, that may be due to its length. In 'A Grand Day Out' (1989), Park managed to rocket Wallace and Gromit—one man and his dog—to the moon and back in twenty-three minutes, whereas the new movie takes more than an hour longer to tell a plainer tale, topped with a lighter scattering of laughs. 

The reserved praise of critics like Sam Adams at Slate assures us that, 16 years from now, we will not be reflecting fondly on the fun time that was Early Man, as we all do periodically on Chicken Run (right?). 

There’s something especially captivating about the miniaturist backgrounds in stop-motion animation. Even characters as ingratiating as Wallace and Gromit were sometimes in danger of being upstaged by their wallpaper, and Dug, who’s little more than a generic good guy, doesn’t stand much of a chance. (His pet warthog Hognob, who’s voiced, or more accurately snorted, by [Director Nick] Park, would have made a more interesting lead.) If you’ve already devoured the Wallace and Gromit canon, as well as 'Chicken Run' and 'Shaun the Sheep,' 'Early Man' is a wonderful way of extending their giddy glow, even if it feels like a small step backward. 

Most obviously disappointed is Stephanie Merry at The Washington Post

In the grand scheme of movies for kids, the stop-motion comedy is hardly a stinker. But it’s also less fun and inventive than you’d expect, given the company’s stellar, Oscar-winning track record.

Merry’s review helped me settle something that had been bugging me since the first trailers for the movie. Many of the jokes from the trailer, which involved cave-people doing modern things with primitive implements—e.g., using tiny alligators as clothespins—seemed terribly familiar, but I couldn’t quite place them, or didn’t want to expend enough energy to do so. Merry makes the connection: they’re Flintstones jokes!

The upshot, this week, it seems, is go see Black Panther.

The Seventh Art 2.0: Our Hospitality

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The copy of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality on Youtube looks great, and this is because it’s a rip of a DVD released by Kino International. Kino is one of the best sources for silent films on disc, and perhaps it’s here I should emphasize that this series is not meant to dissuade anyone from owning physical media. Indeed, I think owning physical media is almost an imperative for people interested in film and TV; Youtube, Netflix, and the other services are convenient, but even when you “buy” a film on iTunes or Amazon, you’re not buying it: you’re licensing it from its owners. You can’t loan it to friends or rip it to your hard drive (which is, by the way, legal)—you don’t own it. One can’t buy everything, so streaming services like Youtube can expand our horizons. But if you’re into silent film, I’d encourage you to pick up some discs from Kino. They do good stuff.

Keaton’s Our Hospitality is one of the comedian’s best films as a director, but it’s also one that contains fewer overt physical gags than classics like Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1927). It sets its sights elsewhere: the film is a parody of the kind of romantic melodrama popular in the teens and early 20s, particularly those associated with the director D.W. Griffith. Griffith’s films were often sentimental portraits of the antebellum South, and they set the mold for Hollywood’s idealized portrait of womanhood and chivalry, the moral struggles of simple people that climax in heroic deeds. His then-recent hit Way Down East (1920) had concerned a woman (Lillian Gish) who is seduced, impregnated, and betrayed, its climax sublimating this intense emotional drama into a thrilling rescue of mother and child on a partially frozen river.

Our Hospitality likewise concludes with its male hero rescuing the object of his affection from watery death, but that male hero is the slight Keaton—who is not racing across ice blocks to grab the heroine, but hanging awkwardly over the precipice of the waterfall by a rope caught on a branch. Keaton’s typical persona, with his small frame and impassive face, is, as usual, part of the joke. Far from the typical melodramatic hero, he is not someone who makes things happen, but to whom things happen. 

In the story, set in the 1830s, Keaton’s character has returned to his hometown, where his father was killed in a duel with a rival family years before. This history is given in an opening sequence devoid of humor, a straightforward melodramatic involving a nighttime storm, a panicked mother, and a shootout in the dark. Fearful for her baby’s life, the widow flees to New York City, which Our Hospitality jokingly depicts as a two-street, rural town. Then, grown and eager to claim his inheritance, Keaton departs for the South, taking a rickety, primitive train whose tracks can be adjusted by hand. The convention of melodramatic coincidence necessitates that on this train Keaton meet and fall for the daughter of the rival family, and be invited over for supper to a house full of men who want to kill him. 

Part of the humor is in the actors chosen to enact these melodramatic conventions. Far from the honorable hero or passionate lover, Keaton’s character is both self-interested and stoic. The head of the rival family, the father of his love interest, is less a southern aristocrat and more a typical vaudevillian “heavy”—a tall, portly man with an absurd mustache. 

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Calling the parody subtle would be a gross overstatement, but Our Hospitality does find the conventions of the Southern melodrama fertile ground for humorous scenarios. Realizing Keaton is a man he’s sworn by family duty to kill, one of the rival family’s sons stops in to ask to borrow a pistol at every store he passes while carrying on a conversation with his target, Keaton. Discovering another of the brothers hiding behind a shed struggling with his pistol, the hyper-oblivious Keaton un-jams it and shoots it for him. The rival family’s sense of southern hospitality forbids that they shoot a man who is a guest in their home; an amusing sequence has them trying to trick Keaton into stepping out of the house so they can shoot him.

To me, though, where Our Hospitality really distinguishes itself from other silent comedies of the era is in its storytelling and its use of the camera. While the humorless prologue is perhaps a bit long, the story is tightly controlled and expertly paced, with the humor arising organically from the story. And the camerawork distinguishes itself from other comedies in the film’s use of composition in the frame. In general, the frame of the film image is more important to the humor of Keaton than that of Chaplin or Lloyd: to them, the frame is simply where the action happens, but for Keaton it is a player in the action, and its meticulous arrangement can express character, theme, and humor. In films like Playhouse (1920) and Sherlock, Jr. (1924), in-camera effects self-consciously push the boundaries of the cinematic frame. 

In Our Hospitality, Keaton uses balanced, often symmetrical frame compositions that have sometimes a certain humor in themselves. Perhaps the trademark shot of his films is the frontal shot of Stone Face himself, situated directly in the middle of shot and directing his impassive gaze almost directly at the camera. Inside the rival family’s plantation, Keaton uses staging in depth and frames within the frame to express themes and gags; the film’s two most effective gags—one involving a waterfall, the other a horse in a dress—consciously use the perspective of the camera as part of the joke.

These days, there’s little point in continuing the old Chaplin/Keaton debate, but to indulge the Keaton side of the argument for just a second: at least in the 1920s, Keaton does seem to be the one who is most interested in playing with the cinematic image itself. The effects of camera perspective, composition, and even editing come alive in the films of Keaton in a way they do not in Chaplin. And this Keaton is able to do while often maintaining a more rigid narrative structure than most Chaplin features, which tend to be very episodic. 

That being said, Keaton’s films, particularly this one, can feel somewhat mechanical: his approach to narrative and character is more detached, much more ironic than Chaplin’s. While Chaplin, initially an anarchic vaudevillian, came to believe in the humanity of his character, Keaton’s Stone Face persona has always been a symbol of ironic distance from the machinations in which he is caught. Chaplin’s passionate tramp recognizes that mechanized labor is exploitative and struggles free; Keaton’s young man feels the waterfall coming and puts up an umbrella.
 

Review Round-Up: February 9

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The Cloverfield Paradox (dir. Julius Onah)

This film, a surprise reveal during the Super Bowl that was posted to Netflix immediately after the game, which is the third film in the loosely associated Cloverfield franchise, is supposedly pretty bad. Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com finds a bit to appreciate about the film—Onah’s approach to revealing the film’s SF world, for example—but settles on a star and a half for the film. In his final paragraph, he pins the film’s failings on its creative team, headed by J.J. Abrams: 

J.J. Abrams, whose name is on the film as a producer, perfected the so-called "mystery box" method of storytelling that promises profound and shattering revelations only to pivot to bromides like, "We should all be nicer to each other" or "Let's learn to forgive ourselves." The script to this one falls well within that wheelhouse. I'd like to visit the alternate universe where 'The Cloverfield Paradox' is worthy of the stroke of PR genius that launched it.

This sounds about right to me. Abrams’s schtick has been old for some time. There were several things I didn’t like about The Last Jedi, but the best thing about it was the way it exploded all of Abrams’s silly mystery boxes from the first film.

A tired-sounding David Edelstein (whom I’ve been a bit iffy on ever since he spent half of his Wonder Woman review crassly detailing his fetish for Israeli women) also doesn’t see much to appreciate in Cloverfield except its director. The content of the film is familiar SF melodrama, but ...

The Nigerian-born director Julius Onah is extremely skillful. The screen is loaded with colorful sci-fi bric-a-brac but the frames are nonetheless spacious. He knows how to keep the camera in motion without being a hot dog about it.

Far less forgiving is David Ehrlich at Indiewire, who is almost convinced that J.J. Abrams has managed to kill a franchise that seems to have excited no one more than the reviewer himself:

By the end of the second quarter of Super Bowl LII, 'The Cloverfield Paradox' was revealed on national television. By the end of the fourth quarter, it was already streaming on Netflix. By the end of the night, Abrams’ best idea had led to his biggest blunder. It’s too soon to say if 'The Cloverfield Paradox' killed its franchise (a fourth installment is already slated for later this year), but it’s already clear that the 'Cloverfield' brand — until yesterday a magic word capable of stirring excitement out of nothing — is now tainted beyond recognition.

Come on, dude, Netflix is making a sequel to Bright. J.J. Abrams’s baby is not in danger.

Fifty Shades Freed (dir. James Foley)

The erotic movies that, reportedly, are roughly on par with 90s Cinemax softcore—but tamer—and in which the principal male character is a never nude chauvinist, may have just gotten watchable. At Indiewire, Manuela Lazic reports that the films have finally found a sense of humor about themselves: 

At this point, who would have thought that a 'Fifty Shades' film, supposedly interested in the very alternative kind of sexual experimentation, would provide enjoyable (and maybe for some, even exciting) sequences of respectful and playful foreplay and oral sex?

Even more surprising: how this lighter approach to sexual intercourse seems to lift the spirits of the characters along with the tone. Johnson, radiant and committed, gives Ana a certain confidence and ease that she’d never had before, and Christian, the man of steel himself, proves he has a few decent jokes in him – though Dornan struggles slightly to portray that goofiness. In cinema as in sex, a dose of self-awareness can do wonders.

Other critics are less sure. Diametrically opposed, in fact, is Chris Nashawaty’s review at Entertainment Weekly, which accuses the new film of the same anti-feminist inclinations as the other films. Nashawaty, too, found humor in the film, but reaches different conclusions about it.

The audience I saw this with cracked up the whole time. And not in the we’re-uncomfortable-so-let’s-nervously-laugh way, but in the can-you-believe-this-is-an-actual-movie forehead-slapping way.

Emily Yoshida has my favorite take, neither as dismissive of Nashawaty’s nor as accepting as Lazic. Her review takes sum of the films series’ cultural impact and relevance, and lightly mocks the superficialities that are almost too obvious to dwell on. Bad sex scenes, cardboard acting, tepid romance, and staid plot aside, what should bother us about these films is its adoration of money and the billionaire lifestyle. The films are on the wrong side of the defining cultural war of our era:

Money has always been the cushion for 'Fifty Shades’ spicier provocations, and it’s the aspect of the series that has aged the worst in the three years. Since E.L. James’s books originally made their splash, we as a culture took our sweet time realizing that most billionaires are more interested in deporting immigrants than sweeping young assistants off their feet, and we have become more suspicious of the powerful boss/naïve intern dynamic that fuels so much of the film’s sexual intrigue. Not that anyone is or should be looking at these films with such a stern eye, I’m just saying that they look more out of step with the times than ever. As the trilogy goes out, more desperate than ever to convince us it was in on the joke all along, it’s hard to say exactly what the joke was.

Another February weekend, another slow week for film releases. Maybe we should all just go see Phantom Thread again: it’s like Fifty Shades but without the sex, the violence, the helicopters, the expensive vacations, or the jeans. This week, we’re stopping with two films; Black Panther reviews also started appearing this week, but I’m saving that for its release next week. In the meantime, I’m going to try to catch that Hedy Lamarr documentary at the Music Box before it’s gone.

Canon Fodder: The Naked City

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In Film/Genre, perhaps the best Film Studies book I know of, Rick Altman points out that Hollywood genres evolve through a process of a kind of grammatical synthesis: an existing genre is modified with new elements, which are tacked onto the description of the genre as an adjective. Over time, this adjective becomes a substantive noun, taking the place of the word it used to modify. For example: did you know that when the Hollywood Musical emerged in the late 1920s, it was advertised as “Musical Comedy,” or that Westerns from the teens were actually called “Western Melodramas”?

The point isn’t just about language: the change in terminology signifies a change in narrative form. In this shift, either new elements are dropped into an existing structure (think “Space Western”), or well-worn tropes are revivified by a new narrative structure. The Naked City (1948) is a moment when the very familiar tropes of the urban crime film—what would only later be called film noir—found a new narrative home when they were dropped into a pseudo-documentary structure. What emerged is what we would later call the “police procedural.” You can see in this film shades of the thousands of episodes of Dragnet and Law and Order to come.

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them.” This, the film’s tagline, is repeated a couple times within the film by its narrator, Producer Mark Hellinger. The line is clearly an outgrowth of the anti-Romantic romanticism of the city typical of film noir, but it also immediately strikes one as similar to the preludes to shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: “... In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” Likewise, The Naked City is, of course, about a salacious, sexually tinged crime: the murder of a shapely blonde model named Jean Dexter.

The voice-over narration is at least partially meant, one imagines, to tie more firmly together the sequence of events in the film. The Naked City doesn’t have much of a main character: it’s certainly not Jean, whose face we never really see (but whose murder is depicted in as much detail as 1948 can muster), and there’s no private eye to shepherd us from scene to scene. The closest we have is Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Irish character actor Barry Fitzgerald) and his young underling Detective Halloran (Don Taylor). But even they don’t direct our attention. Instead, it’s the narrator who shifts our attention between the action of the team of investigators led by Halloran. Being disconnected from its characters allows the film to play a little more loose with convention, however: the narrator sometimes speaks over the characters, when the detectives’ procedure becomes too rote to bother with an elaborated scene, and he sometimes leads us on tangents through the city.

The narrator also grounds the film’s interest in the procedures of policing. The film is fascinated by, and meticulous in depicting, forensic and administrative procedure in investigations. Forensic examinations, processes of deduction, technologies of examination and communication, the functioning of rank within a department, correct protocol for confronting a suspect—the film depicts a world in which these fine-tuned rational methods conquers the ambiguity of events. It defines the agents of this process—its characters—only enough to make them relatable in its isolated moments of drama. Muldoon is Irish, and Halloran is a decent, innocent guy—that’s what I got from 96 minutes of this movie. Hellinger’s narration gives the film character and structure that it would otherwise be hard to find.

That the film has a narrator is hardly strange for the time; that this narrator identifies himself as the producer of the film, and, rather than merely introducing the film, narrates the entire thing, is rather unexpected. Hellinger’s narration provides an objective tone, and sometimes even a bemused detachment, to the film. This quasi-objective stance is in line with the film’s most distinguishing characteristic among Hollywood crime films of the time: it was, apparently, filmed entirely on location in New York City (though one assumes that they at least used the old film studios in Astoria for some of the interior shots). The film takes advantage of its location shooting, with roving aerial shots of the skyline, montages of everyday life in the city, and chases through the streets. It’s striking, even now, to see a detective walk into a jewelry store and see framed behind him through the glass door a real city street

But this form has limitations in all kinds of areas. The purported objective stance of the film is really a kind of fetishization of law enforcement and its methods. The scant characterization sometimes feels cheap: when we see Halloran empathetically refuse to beat his son upon his wife’s request for him to do so, we know he’s in for life-threatening danger later in the film. The insistence on location shooting means, for lighting purposes, that almost the whole film takes place during the day—perfectly realistic, perhaps, but not very cinematic. Where the film noir used urban crime to examine social and existential anxiety, from its foundation the police procedural often slips into affirming easy truths—Police, Criminals, Family, Reason.

Tucked within The Naked City, it’s striking, if not terribly surprising, to find visual references to the films of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock (in 1948, directors were already using Hitchcock references as cultural capital!). The shot in which Jean’s landlady discovers her (off-screen) body, turns to the camera, and screams, is taken straight from Hitchcock’s Blackmail! (1929). The motif of small girls jumping rope in city streets while the city hunts a murderer comes from Lang’s M (1931)—there’s even a scene in which Muldoon observes their game from several floors up, evoking the high-angle shots in the opening sequence of that film. 

These allusions make sense: with films like M, Lang set the stage for the emergence of the police procedural, and of course, even before Psycho, nobody murdered women like Hitchcock. But those directors’ interest didn’t stop at form or procedure. Hitchcock’s films are dark, often wry looks into the hidden desires of (male) human beings. Lang wasn’t just interested in modern methods of police procedure; he was interested in the order and the chaos produced by modernity, in the alienated and distorted subjects that rationality produces. M ends with a kangaroo court set up by criminals—imitating the form of the legal system—which ends up being incapable of dealing with the twisted soul of a serial killer, answering it only with violence in kind. It’s difficult to extract that kind of meaning from the police procedural: it doesn’t give itself room to reflect on the processes it depicts, preferring to cultivate a sense of “objectivity” in its presentation of the facts. The Naked City may not lie in the way a melodrama lies, but it manages to find its own kinds of untruths to tell.

Review Round-Up: February 2

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Happy Groundhog Day, everyone! 

...Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!

It’s a pretty sparse week, release-wise. The next two weeks, what with Fifty Shades and Black Panther coming up, promise to produce plenty of critical discourse. But here’s what critics are saying about a batch of this weekend’s few releases:

Good Time (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)

If you’re in Chicago, you can catch this film for another week at The Music Box. The only review you need to read is Sarah’s, here at The Cinessential, which crafts a particularly vivid portrait of the film:

The world of 'Good Time' is so lived in and fully realized and populated, it felt like I could plunge my hands into the movie and pull out its guts with my fists. “World building” so often refers solely to fantasy and sci-fi, but it’s what the Safdie brothers have done here. The New York they explore is technically real, but it’s a version of the city that feels like it’s free-wheeling through space and time. City hospitals, empty amusement parks, and outdated apartments form the backdrop for a mess that unfurls over the course of what can’t be more than 36 hours or so, but what a beautiful mess the Safdies make it.

It’s supposed to be pretty damn good. I plan on catching it this weekend.


A Fantastic Woman (dir. Sebastián Lelio)

Chile’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year is a melodrama about a transgender woman that—get this—stars a transgender actress (Daniela Vega) in the lead. This surprising innovation is singled out for praise over at Slate:

The entertainment industry’s habit of casting cisgender actors in transgender roles—some of them, like Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor, giving performances that are exceptionally fine—has gone hand in glove with its near-monolithic focus on stories of transition. Focusing the camera on Vega, an openly trans actress (apparently Chile’s first), allows 'A Fantastic Woman' to tell a different, richer kind of story and allows us to process the subtleties of her performance without always having to evaluate the success of the underlying transformation.

It isn’t the only reason the film’s getting high marks, though. David Ehrlich of Indiewire praises director Sebastían Lelio, who manages to be strike notes of authenticity even while quoting melodrama auteurs known for their use of stylization and artifice: 

Second only to Pablo Larraín among Chile’s most popular emerging filmmakers, the young Lelio has already established himself as a compassionate chronicler of marginalized women (Paulina García won Best Actress at the 2013 Berlinale for her role as an aging divorcée in Lelio’s 'Gloria'). He deepens that sense of empathy here, unpacking a drama that resists the heightened sensationalism of genre and remains sobering even as it cribs a number of highly stylized elements from the likes of Fassbinder and Almodóvar.

There is a note of reserve in much of the praise, however—the consensus would seem to be that A Fantastic Woman is not quite a masterpiece, but it is a step forward in the representation of transgender individuals. Indiewire gives the film a B+; The AV Club only a B. Good marks, but not great ones.

The main dissenting voice is Anthony Lane at the New Yorker, who goes after the film a bit harder—but contrarian disdain is his bread and butter, after all. To his credit, his critique seems well-grounded: morally, the film is impeccable, he writes, but dramatically, it is obvious, predictable, somewhat wooden. The problems extend to the main character, Marina, who lacks the kind of impenetrability that make characters interesting:

Fans of Lelio will recall the eponymous heroine of 'Gloria,' his memorable film of 2014. She was a divorced woman in her fifties who hung out in singles bars, saw too little of her children, and woke up on a beach, alone, after a heavy night. Something about Gloria evaded our grasp, whereas Marina feels all too solidly present and, despite the defiant poise of Vega’s performance, oddly bereft of moral ambiguity. Her conversations tend to be the opposite of quick-fire, with the characters pausing for a while—or an eternity—before responding, just to make quite sure that we get the point.

It’s not hard to imagine that the film’s drama seems a bit on-the-nose at parts; but then, isn’t that just the melodramatic mode? In Fassbinders’ films, an apparent reference point for Lelio, characters often express their feelings and motivations with Brechtian directness, and oppression is always depicted in heightened eruptions of emotion or violence. Perhaps, though, Lelio doesn’t quite strike the right balance of authentic affect and melodramatic style. Fassbinder, too, sometimes missed that mark.


24 Frames (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

This is the final film by late director Abbas Kiarostami, an experimental film that, rather than assembling moving images into a story, contemplates 24 discrete still images. (24 frames per second is the standard frame-rate for movie-making.) Each still image, over the course of its four minutes onscreen, is gradually brought to life through digital animation. For Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, the effect is “as delightful as it is surprising.” The film invites the imagination of the viewer: the experience of watching the film is “curiously dual”:

It’s very easy to be swept along by the cleverly playful visual patterns and evolving quasi-storylines. Yet at the same time, I suspect that every viewer will simultaneously (re)make the movie in his or her own mind by providing a wealth of personal thoughts and associations. Among the many that I flashed on were: the early films of the Lumiere Brothers and Georges Melies; the discrete worlds of Joseph Cornell’s boxes; experimental works by filmmakers ranging from Maya Deren to Stan Brakhage; a host of early animated films leading and including the masterpieces of Walt Disney; the valedictory purity of Kurosawa’s 'Dreams.'

Cheshire likens the film to an array of modernist art, but a more immediate reference point for me would be the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky loved to point his camera at paintings, especially religious and medieval ones, in films like Andrei Rublev (1966), The Mirror (1975), and The Sacrifice (1986). These films, like Kiarostami’s new film, were also very interested in time and the relationship between how the cinema represents it and how the mind perceives it. Other filmmakers it calls to mind are classic experimental directors like Chris Marker, who composed a narrative sci-fi film out of still images with La Jetée (1962), and Michael Snow, best known for his decidedly un-human-centric, slow-moving experimental films Wavelength (1967).  

Manhola Dargis at the New York Times does not agree with Cheshire’s unambiguously admiring take on the film. True, she has a soft spot for it 24 Frames being the last we’ll have from Kiarostami—but she doesn’t seem to be able to get into it:

'24 Frames' can’t help but be affecting because it is Kiarostami’s final movie. But it’s intellectually uninvolving, and its technical limitations prove frustrating. In a few shots, snow or rain falls, for instance, on the same left-to-right diagonal, creating a distracting pattern that suggests the software wasn’t altered for each photograph. This synthetic quality may be an intentional imitation of life; certainly it’s obvious that Kiarostami was thinking a great deal about cinema.

From the descriptions, the film seems most suited for university film theory courses—but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Your level of intellectual involvement may depend on how interested you are in the question of how time, the moving image, and human affect relate to each other.

Review Round-Up: January 26

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Review Round-Up is kind of like Rotten Tomatoes, but more human.

The Maze Runner: The Death Cure (Dir: Wes Ball)

Ben Kenigsberg of the New York Times has surprisingly sympathetic things to say for the teen dystopian action franchise you forgot about: 

But as silly as they sound, these movies are pretty well made, capable of outsize action and teary intimacy. The director, Wes Ball, knows how to move his camera around a futuristic medical compound, and the filmmaking brio — especially the sights of Earth’s last city, shot in Cape Town — mitigates the eye rolls prompted by the plot.

The venerable (though the jury is still out on their late-2017 redesign) A.V. Club concurs. Jesse Hassenger’s praise for the film is both reluctant and tepid—compelled largely, one suspects, by The Maze Runner’s underdog status—but the review is positive nonetheless:

As it turns out, with hardly anyone outside of hardcore Maze Runner fans (and however many supplemental moviegoers it takes to get within range of $100 million domestic) paying attention, the runty little brother of The Hunger Games has gotten surprisingly proficient in that area of well-produced sci-fi junk where a lot of the dialogue consists of variations on, “Go, go, go!”

The film’s director, Wes Ball, is frequently cited as a reason this third film kinda almost works, against all odds. Apparently style saves a film that is otherwise a jumble of young-adult tropes and dystopian cliches. What turns out to be a less favorable review by Emily Yoshida over at Vulture singles out Ball as well, if not for making a good film, at least for making it less painful than it could be: Ball and his “engaging cast” are “able to wordlessly communicate dynamics and histories that I’m grateful the script did not spend too much time rehashing.”

Decidedly less positive, though still appreciative of Ball’s action sequences, is Christy Lemire at RogerEbert.com:

For better and for worse, it’s an overwhelming experience. And just when you think it’s over, there’s another coda, and then another. The music will swell to a crescendo, signaling our need to experience peak emotions and planned catharsis, and then there are more loose ends to be tied up, more overly explanatory narration to endure.

You can read a certain amount of fatigue in each of these reviews, and not just because, at two hours, the film is a tad long, or because the experience itself is overwhelming. Yoshida notes with discernible relief that the YA-dystopia craze is fading. May we be so lucky.


Hostiles (Dir: Scott Cooper)

Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian appreciates the look—and even the drama—of the film, but finds something lacking in its handling of its purported moral material:

The violence of the white pioneer and the Native American in the old West are set up against each other, and (tacitly) declared to be of tragic equivalence, though eligible to be redeemed by gestures of good faith and unexpected romantic developments. The beauty of the landscape and the violence of its human inhabitants are evidently supposed, in their respective extremities, to add up to something. But what?

To my mind, if indeed the violence of white settlers and that of Native Americans is portrayed as equivalent in the film, Bradshaw isn’t outraged enough. Surely Native American tribes fighting whites committed terrible acts, but that doesn’t make the two sides equivalent. The Allies committed atrocities during World War II, but that doesn’t make their crimes equivalent to the Nazis’. Portraying a genocidal force as equivalent to those desperately defending themselves against genocide is ideological; no matter what moral quandaries the main (white) characters face, the project of such a film is equivocation: “but everyone was murdering!” This equivocation draws our attention away from who the original aggressors were, who is most responsible for the bloodshed, who committed the greatest crimes, and who benefited from these crimes.

Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com is more attentive to this particular flaw in the film, ending his review with the observation that Hostiles is

a film that’s beautifully shot and acted, but also meandering, overlong and only sporadically focused on its central issues. As for its politics, in making the story primarily about one (white) man’s redemption, “Hostiles” falls back on a well-worn if still potent dramatic trope while saying virtually nothing about the genocide committed against Native Americans.

The film, by all accounts, seems to add nothing new to our Western mythos, inasmuch as it approaches racism and war from an exclusively white perspective. In all, I would recommend you just re-watch Fort Apache (1948). It’s not not-chauvinist, but it is a harrowing drama about white racism and bloodlust—a version of the Old West story that, from my impression, Hostiles adds little to.


Please Stand By (Dir: Ben Lewin)

This indie dramedy is eliciting some conflicting appraisals. The story concerns a young woman on the autism spectrum who is travelling across California to enter her Star Trek spec script in a competition. (The script, for those of us in the know, sounds a lot like the concept behind the classic DS9 episode “Trials and Tribble-ations.”) For the A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo, the film’s handling of autism is same-old, same-old: 

By the time Patton Oswalt shows up for a winking cameo as a cop who defuses a situation by speaking to Wendy in Klingon, Please Stand By has lost all touch with reality. It’s just another instance of equating autism with kookiness.

Slate’s Marissa Martinelli, who betrays a little more partiality to Paramount’s sci-fi franchise, disagrees, writing that

It’s a relief to see Wendy played as more than simply a bundle of symptoms. While her color-coded sweaters, nervous knitting habit, and deep well of Trek knowledge might seem quirky—she is in an indie comedy, after all—she’s also a fully realized person who is determined to prove that she’s been underestimated, while also showing off a softer side, which we see in her interactions with kids and babies along her trip.

I’m inclined to favor the former perspective, not only because its account of the representation of people with autism rings more true, but also because I prefer its relative neglect of Trek discussion to Martinelli’s apparent enthusiasm for the current “Treknaissance.” Sorry, everyone, but the Abrams movies and Discovery suck. I’d rather go on watching repeats of TOS, TNG, and DS9 (400 episodes of television!) for the rest of my life than feel obligated to witness all the half-cooked ways that CBS-Paramount wants to revamp Star Trek.

Jeanette Catsoulis in the New York Times has somewhat reserved praise for Dakota Fanning’s performance, but goes after the film for reasons similar to D’Angelo’s:

… despite her commitment to the role — and the generally fine supporting performances — this timorous tale sidesteps uncomfortable realities in favor of soothing whimsy and preordained uplift.

Catsoulis’s brief snippet of a review doesn’t cover the film in very much detail, but it does find time to mistake Worf’s rank, referring to Starfleet’s only Klingon officer as “Lieutenant Worf.” Worf was promoted to Lieutenant Commander back in 2371; come on.

Review: 42 Grams

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“Food is just a medium,” Chef Jake Bickelhaupt opines toward the end 42 Grams. “It’s really a connection between random people.” That upscale dining is really about forging intimate connections is an ethos reflected by the design of the titular restaurant, as well as the illegal, “underground dining” service he ran out of his apartment beforehand. A single, moderately sized dining table is the extent of the restaurant’s seating, from which they can see—and interact with—the chef preparing their food behind the restaurant’s small bar. The setting is one that evokes an elegant, if modest, home, more than a restaurant. It is an atmosphere of intimacy that seems far more effortless than the film reveals it to be.

In fact, the moral that food is only the medium for relationships between people is not wholly supported by what Jack C. Newell’s documentary shows us. Rather, 42 Grams is a portrait of an artist driven to create perfect dishes more by his own inarticulable passions than by a deeply held belief in the communal nature of dining. Bickelhaupt and his wife Alexa opened their restaurant in Uptown Chicago to, as they say, “give Jake an outlet,” not necessarily to create a forum for interaction. This passion is the driving force of the film, an engrossing look at Jake and Alexa as they work together to make Jake’s dreams a reality.

The filmmaking reflects this passion that drives Jake’s work. The camerawork by Newell and cinematographer Patrick Warren brings us close to the variegated dishes that Jake prepares, showing us the layers, the textures, the artful arrangements in great detail. These details, though, reflect more on Jake than they do on a broader picture of upscale dining. While we see an extended “R&D” scene, in which Jake meticulously selects ingredients to be used in the week’s menu, and while we follow his and Alexa’s restaurant from its inception to its closing, this is not a film from which you will gain an abundance of information regarding chefs and restaurateurs in the United States, or even in Chicago. Somewhat ironically, 42 Grams the movie is intimate—is a “medium for connecting random people”—in a way the restaurant it portrays never really seems to be.

All of this is not to say that the restaurant seems uninviting, or that Jake’s story is not sympathetic. Indeed, as a viewer I was surprised to find how adamantly I was rooting for Jake and Alexa. As one might expect of a perfectionist chef, Jake’s personality can bristle at times: the way he treats his sous chef and other underlings at the restaurant, for example, seems to often be unfair, even borderline cruel. He becomes impatient quickly when things don’t go his way, which clearly leads to (mostly off-camera) problems with his wife and business partner Alexa. And yet, the scene in which Alexa and Jake wait for word about their restaurant’s initial Michelin rating is a thrilling piece of film because you have come to identify so thoroughly with Jake’s overwhelming passion.

This effect on the viewer is, of course, aided by the excellent narrative sense of Newell and editor David Burkart. From the collected chaos of the first year of an upstart restaurant, they compose something very akin to a classical narrative, a straightforward but very effective structure that leads us from the modest beginnings of illicit dinner gatherings in the couple’s living room through their multiple struggles (not the least of which being Jake’s personality) as they struggle to realize their goals, and to a cathartic conclusion. The timeline of events is clearly subordinated to this narrative—we learn about ongoing family health crises in the film’s “second act,” rather than as they happen—but the effect is to draw us closer to the subjects, to help us feel their very real struggles and triumphs. I must confess that my eyes got a little bit misty at the climax of this 80-minute movie, when the call from the Michelin Guide finally comes in.

Chicago, the film informs us in its sole use of infographics, has only 102 one-star Michelin restaurants, 18 two-star restaurants, and just 12 three-star restaurants. Knowing virtually nothing about fine cuisine, I was surprised by these numbers, and they also reminded me what a rarefied area of culture the film is talking about. It gave me pause to think about what is left out of this narrowly focused, tightly structured documentary. 

42 Grams is a Chicago film, no doubt: periodic drone shots give us beautiful vistas of the Chicago skyline; Jake, originally from Wisconsin like so many Chicago transplants, speaks with those identifiable, North-midwestern short “a” sounds; Uptown landmarks like the Lawrence and Wilson “L” stops, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the Aragon Theater, the Riviera, and that diner next to the Riviera are featured throughout the film. Anyone who lives in Uptown (like this reviewer, for instance) can figure out exactly where this restaurant used to be, given the information provided. 

And yet, for all the recognizable Chicago landmarks in the film, the film doesn’t really have much to say about the relevance of Jake’s restaurant being in Chicago. Part of what the film sacrifices in focusing so intently on Jake-the-driven-artist is the context into which he is bringing his art. That 42 Grams is not intended to give us an introduction or overview, a glimpse into the world of fine dining in microcosm, is clear, but nevertheless the film leaves one curious about Jake’s place in his chosen profession, his city, his neighborhood. The shots of city streets and skylines end up adding flavor, but not very much depth, to the film’s dish.
Despite feeling somewhat alienated from the world outside Jake and Alexa’s restaurant and upstairs apartment, 42 Grams is an excellent documentary, a compelling story about the struggle to create. At a brisk 80 minutes, it offers something analogous to the plates we see Jake complete dozens of times in the film: a deceptively small, expertly crafted work of art.  It will be playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago starting Saturday, January 27th, with a nationwide premiere coming on Netflix soon thereafter.

The Seventh Art 2.0: Berlin, Symphony of a Great City

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Youtube is a veritable treasure trove for those interested in silent film. With many of the surviving films of the 1890s-1920s in the public domain, and given the relatively low viewership numbers, copyright claims are rare. This series, named after early film critic Riccioto Canudo’s defense of cinema as “The Seventh Art” features a new silent film of artistic and/or historical importance that can be found on Youtube with each entry.

Today’s film: Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis (Berlin: Sinfonie der Großstadt, 1927)

When a city becomes more than just a backdrop for the action in a film, when its idiosyncrasies play a role in the development of the story, we love to observe that that city is almost like a character in the film. But what is the character of a city? In the 1920s, an experimental and highly influential genre of cinema called the “city symphony” attempted to answer this question. More (or in some ways, less) than simple documentaries, city symphonies are essentially feature-length montages that attempt to create a cinematic portrait of a given city, capturing its movements and mirroring its rhythms in the pattern of the film image. 

Manhatta (1921) is usually recognized as the first city symphony or proto-city symphony, but the term itself comes from the genre’s paragon, Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis (also translated as Symphony of a Great City, 1927), directed by Walther Ruttmann. The film is comprised of documentary footage, but Ruttmann was renowned as an animator by the mid-1920s, having applied his streamlined, modernist aesthetic to avant-garde productions (Lichtspiel: Opus 1, 1925), advertisements (Der Sieger, 1922), government propaganda (Der Aufstieg, 1926), and even big-budget productions (he animated Kriemheld’s premonitory vision of Siegfried’s death in the first part of Fritz Lang’s excellent Die Nibelungen, 1924). His work on Berlin marked a turn to the creative assembly of documentary footage that would last, unfortunately, into his time producing propaganda for the Nazi regime in the 1930s and ‘40s. 

(All of Ruttmann’s pre-Nazi films are available on a single, region-2 DVD release that I highly recommend if you have the dough and a way to play European discs. Otherwise, though, the links above will lead you to his filmography.)

In 1927, Fox Film Europa engaged Ruttmann to edit together footage of Berlin shot by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund (The Last Laugh [1924], Metropolis [1927]). The idea of a documentary portrait of Berlin, at the time Europe’s fastest-growing city and the center of artistic innovation, came about as a cheap way to fulfill production quotas: according to German regulations, a certain percentage of films exhibited in theaters had to be German productions. As Fox Film Europa’s primary business interest was moving Fox Film productions (the company had not yet merged with 20th-Century Films) into Europe, Berlin was intended as a so-called “quota film,” to free up room to move more American films into the German market. 

Its most recent model was previous city films like Die Stadt der Millionen (The City of Millions, 1925), a documentary produced by the German film monopoly Ufa just a couple of years before. While Die Stadt der Millionen showed a certain interest in cinematic effects—including animated and stop-motion sequences, staged flashbacks, and composite imagery—it had been a rather staid, factual documentary of Berlin and its environs. Given his background in experimental animation, Ruttmann had something else in mind: a study of the forms of the city, as expressed in the movements of workers, idlers, performers, architecture, machines, transportation, construction, commerce, and entertainment. Berlin: Sinfonie der Großstadt would create musical movements out of the city’s rhythms and formal correspondences, pieces that have imagistic accelerandos and ritardandos, crescendos and decrescendos.

The term “city symphony” may reference Ruttmann’s film, but the name of the film itself comes from cinema’s analogy to music, which was frequently observed by its early theorists: cinema does not just capture real-world movement—it tracks change in time. Just as melody does not inhere in either of two individual notes but in the difference between those notes, movement does not consist of a single image, but of the difference between one image and the next. Movies do for the eye what music does for the ear. This, anyway, was the notion of many early champions of film, including Ruttman and fellow makers of “absolute film,” a genre of animation that dealt in abstract forms and movement. 

Ruttmann opens Berlin by referencing his absolute films of previous years. It begins with a close-up shot of gently moving water, which fades into shifting horizontal lines of white and black that run the length of the screen. As the movement of these lines accelerate, geometric shapes emerge and disappear behind them: a circle, a thick rectangle, two thin rectangles that pivot on an axis, falling from the top to the bottom of the screen. In a graphic match, the film cuts to railroad barriers falling into place. A train speeds by the camera, and we’re treated to a montage of sights from the train as it chugs across the German countryside: rapidly disappearing railroad ties, crisscrossing telegraph and power lines, the railroad wheels themselves. The speed of the editing intensifies as we begin to recognize in the images the simultaneous combination of abstract shapes that Ruttmann’s animation has already shown us.

The analogy between highly abstract shapes and rhythms and the modern world undergirds Ruttmann’s approach to the material of Berlin. With this opening scene comes his thesis statement—that the cinema can reveal the underlying “true” forms of the city through montage (meaning, in a broad sense, editing) that reveals analogies in shape and rhythm. The train slows down and pulls into Anhalter Bahnhof (once Berlin’s greatest train station; today merely a bomb-scarred facade), and the film, likewise, enters Berlin. Throughout, it asks the viewer to find analogies through its juxtapositions: between industrial machines and modern architecture; between masses of workers trudging to their jobs and regiments of soldiers marching in the streets; between the incessant movement of communication networks (telephones, typewriters, telegraphs) and the chaos of animal life; between mannequins and modern humans.

The overriding analogy, however, is between kinds of movement, and particularly the movement of the film image and the various kinds of movement in the city. This movement is structured into five acts, structured around themes (e.g., work, shopping, entertainment) and times of day, that each contain their own patterned accelerations and decelerations, both within the image and between the images. Berlin follows the intense visuality of the silent image to a logical extreme, creating one of the finest examples of what film could be before the advent of sound. Although it has been critiqued over the years for its tendency to idealize and depoliticize social relations—explicitly reducing them to mere forms to be played with, which critics have seen as foreboding Ruttmann’s fascist turn—Berlin: Symphony of the Metropolis remains a masterwork of the silent cinema, one of the greatest formal accomplishments of an era.

Review: Django

In narrative cinema, history becomes myth. In dramatizing real events, we encode the chaos of reality into an order that makes sense and gives meaning to those events. The sum of these stories become part of how we understand the current world—a mythology—and the events and people themselves take on mythical status. In Django, director Étienne Comar takes on the convergence of two important myths for Europe and France: that of the German occupation during the Second World War, and that of Django Reinhardt, who, the myth goes, emerged from virtually nowhere to become the best guitar player in the world.

Reinhardt, who came to fame in the 1930s, was a Romani from Belgium. He popularized what is known as Gypsy Jazz, a fusion of that quintessentially American musical form with Romani tones and instruments, with the guitar as the lead (atypical for popular music at the time), backed up by a violin or clarinet. The infectious sound of his upbeat, swing-inspired music garnered him immense popularity in Europe, as well as acclaim, though only limited success, in the United States. And this despite Reinhardt’s seemingly debilitating handicap—necessary for his story to be truly mythical—of having the use of only two fingers on his left hand.

(If you don’t know his music, Django Reinhardt is truly incredible, and all the more so knowing that the breakneck arpeggios and complex phrasing of his guitar solos were accomplished with two fingers. Check him out.)

Django joins Reinhardt (Red Kateb) at the height of his popularity, which coincides with the height of World War II and the German occupation of Paris. It is 1943, and he is still in Paris, giving officially sanctioned concerts in large concert halls. The Nazis were officially disdainful of jazz, considering it a degenerate form of culture invented by their racial inferiors (African-Americans), though recognizing the difficulty of banning such a popular form outright, they instead heavily regulated its presence and form. A sign at the rear of Django’s concert hall in the film reads “Swing tanzen verboten” (“Swing Dancing Prohibited”), the almost comic futility of which Comer emphasizes in the first concert scene by having the audience gradually stand up and irresistibly sway to the music. Later, Django will receive instructions on acceptable musical forms—”no more than 5% syncopation”—which would likewise be funny if they weren’t so deadly.

In 1943, swing was officially banned in Paris, and gypsies were, according to Nazi policy, racial inferiors with restricted rights. However, Django’s popularity, including among German officers, seems to have shielded him and his family from expropriation or even censure. There is one German officer in particular among Django’s admirers, whom he and his friends sarcastically call Dr. Jazz, who is protecting them. He wants something in exchange, however: Django and his band need to tour Germany, or they risk losing their livelihoods and perhaps even the safety of their family. Django is apolitical—he has no small share of disdain for the ways of the gadjo (Christian-European)—but he has no interest in performing at Nazi events, and is prepared to turn Dr. Jazz down and continue performing in Paris.

Convinced that the Nazis will neither let Django and his family return from Germany once he enters the country nor allow him to continue performing in Paris, Django’s mistress Louise (Cécile de France) urges him to flee to the Swiss border, where the false papers she supplies him with should serve to get him across the border. Ducking the authorities, Django, his wife, his mother, and his brother head to a small town in Eastern France. There they reconnect with fellow Romani and wait for passage to the Swiss side of the border. 

Reintegrating with his people and witnessing their persecution firsthand--harbingers of the horror to which the Germans would subject the Romani people--pulls Django out of his isolation. He begins working on ways to get the entire group of Romani out of France before the Nazis’ persecution reaches its logical endpoint. 

Reinhardt’s awakening to the reality and scope of the problem is explicitly, and thankfully, not figured as a nationalist awakening: this Belgian Romani does not realize that his and France’s plight is the same. One imagines that this kind of biopic could easily veer in that direction. Instead, the film wants to use Django’s story to talk about the relatively overlooked plight of the Romani in the Holocaust as a whole. The very first scene, a prologue, shows a group of Romani in the Ardenne being gunned down as they perform Django-style jazz together. It begins with the plight of the Romani, narrows down to undoubtedly the most famous “gypsy” of the 1940s, and broadens out again by the end to address the persecution of this entire ethnic group.

And yet, Django can’t resist mythologizing the role of the French Resistance, and at times it feels as if everyone who is not a Romani is either a member of the Resistance or a Nazi. Louise, the film’s embodiment of French womanhood, manages to be a bit of both. The character feels most often like a convenient plot device, acting in whatever way is necessary for Django’s story, or, rather, a transparent symbol for the ambivalent situation of France during the occupation (tragically divided between acquiescence and rebellion). The context of the surprising reappearance of the character after Django leaves Paris makes the film increasingly feel not like the story of a privileged member of an oppressed minority attempting to survive the worst tragedy in his people’s history, but like an attempt to integrate this story into France’s own myth about its role in the Second World War.

Django himself, although played with ice-cool charisma by Reda Kateb, is somewhat awkwardly fitted into the “Rick’s American Cafe” myth. There is not much known about Reinhardt’s life—illiterate, he left behind little but his recordings—but his arc is a bit too clean, a bit too familiar, to carry much weight. That this is a case of fitting the real person into the archetype is evidenced by how liberal the film has been in other areas: the events around his (in the film) thrilling escape from France seem to be almost wholesale inventions, for example. 

Although its intentions are admirable, Django ends up being something of a paint-by-numbers, mythological WWII biopic. Its focus on the Romani people, including employing Romani actors to play Romani characters (besides Kateb, who is French-Algerian), is unique, but most of the rest of the film is predictable. Faced with a subject about whose biography not much is known, it chooses a safe route, inventing a clean arc for him and giving him a white French companion who can ground his story in familiar tropes around WWII. Despite a strong performance from Kateb, the film offers little new in its representation of the multiple struggles of the Second World War. While within the world of WWII films, more focus on the Romani is welcome, on a broader view, perhaps it is time to find new subjects for major narrative films.