Fast Color

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2016’s “Miss Stevens,” starring Lily Rabe and Timothée Chalamet, came and went without too much commentary, although it got generally good reviews. Movies sometimes get lost in the glut of what is horribly referred to as “content.” “Miss Stevens” deserved more attention. It was such an eccentric film, funny and smart, with Lily Rabe giving one of my favorite performances of the year as the title character. Directed by Julia Hart, and co-written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz, “Miss Stevens” is ripe for discovery. “Fast Color,” the next collaboration from this husband-and-wife team, is far more ambitious, including dystopian-sci-fi elements, and held together by two very strong performances from Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Lorraine Toussaint. 

“Fast Color” takes place in the near-ish future, when water is so scarce it’s become the currency of the realm. The American West, as envisioned by Hart, her astonishing production designer Gae S. Buckley and cinematographer Michael Fimognari, is a near-empty wasteland, sparsely populated with roadside bars and diners, empty storefronts, lonely houses beneath a gigantic sky. Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is first seen escaping from a warehouse and fleeing into the night. Making her way across the desert, hitching rides, Ruth has secrets. People are looking for her, tracking her movements. People from the “government.” A recovering addict, Ruth also has violent seizures which appear to cause earthquakes. She’s so accustomed to this “power” that when she feels a seizure coming on, she calls the motel’s front desk and warns them to take cover. Such a power might prove very useful in this parched New World. What if it could be harnessed, controlled? 

<span class="s1" The opening sequences of the movie are gripping and mysterious, as Ruth—tormented by flashbacks to happier times—tries to get home to her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and her daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), whom Bo has raised, since Ruth had been so wild. Hart takes her time establishing the backstory, allowing space for questions and confusion. Nothing is handed to us. People don’t sit around explaining themselves to one another, and these characters don’t either. Some of this leads to unnecessary confusion, but confusion is sometimes preferable to exposition underlined ad nauseam. Bo is first seen smoking a cigarette out on the porch of the family home, Nina Simone’s “New World Coming” drifting out of the open windows. Slowly, the cigarette dissolves into shimmering dust swirls, hovering before Bo’s eyes, before swirling back into its original form. This is the first inkling that Ruth’s apocalyptic seizures may not be some weird individual “power,” but something inherited and passed on. Lila, a young child who barely knows her mother, has a mechanical mind, and looks longingly at Ruth’s battered pickup truck, aching to get under the hood. Lila’s powers are wild and undeveloped. What starts as a wary family reunion, filled with bristling tension, transforms into an event far more urgent, with heavy-duty implications for all three of them.

How this plays out is not as important as “Fast Color”‘s devotion to the rhythms of life in this one family, grounding us in their dynamic, even as events become more and more supernatural. There’s one beautiful stationary shot of the kitchen, with the three characters moving in and out of the frame, getting their breakfast at staggered intervals, with no dialogue. Ruth is still almost feral, fearful of hurting someone when a seizure comes on. So she camps out in the barn, a stark white structure at night, with orange lamplight gleaming into the midnight-blue, stars exploding in the sky above, a sort of Thomas Kinkade filtered through a dystopian-glamorous lens. These moments provide texture and background, atmosphere and specificity. 

Mbatha-Raw has a frayed-nerve intensity as Ruth, flinging her body away from approaching threat, charging down an empty road clutching a gas can, or running across the desert from someone in pursuit. She’s gloriously physical in “Fast Color” but there’s something jagged about it, as though her body is not entirely under her control. Ruth is like a bucking wild horse, beautiful but dangerous. Toussaint is one of the busiest character actresses around, working steadily for decades now, a familiar face from countless television series and films. Here, Toussaint has a role she can really stretch out in. Mbatha-Raw and Toussaint’s scenes together are the heart of the film. 

Hart undercuts the expected “superhero” element of the story, up until and including the final sequence. She’s more interested in issues of power and creativity, more specifically women’s power and creativity. Power is creative, but—as Ruth knows, as Bo knows—it can be destructive too. Power comes with a price tag. Bo has paid the price. Ruth has too. Can Lila be protected from having to pay the same price? Threaded through with interesting thoughts about matriarchy, climate change and generational trauma, “Fast Color” tries to do a little too much, and there are maybe one too many things shoehorned in, but Hart wisely keeps the focus intimate, staying close to the characters. What interests her is Ruth, Bo, and Lila. By the end, you feel you’ve gotten to know these people. You care about what happens to them.

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Little Woods

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If “Little Woods” had trusted its two leading ladies just a little bit more, it could have been a truly great movie. As is, it’s a very good one that is worth seeing mostly for its cast, especially two leads who are increasingly rising to the top of their generation in terms of ability. Tessa Thompson and Lily James have arguably never been better than they are here in Nia DaCosta’s film about people on the edge of society who are forced into illegal behavior by a system that really does not care what happens to them. And they’re surrounded by an incredible supporting cast, including memorable turns from James Badge Dale, Lance Reddick, and a menacing Luke Kirby. Everyone here is very good to great, which makes it all the more frustrating when the dialogue given to them by DaCosta gets a few shades too literal. With character work this strong, we don’t need someone to say, “Your choices are only as good as your options are.” The movie makes that crystal clear.

Thompson plays Ollie, a woman near the end of a probation period—Reddick plays her officer, who warns her not to get in trouble in the end run before her freedom in a way that people in that role always do in the movies. Ollie’s mother has passed away and she’s having trouble making ends meet. She used to deal drugs like Oxycontin, something we’re aware of early in the film when one of her former clients comes looking for a fix. However, DaCosta’s film is not a movie that castigates junkies and those who feed their addictions. It has more empathy than that. The client has a horrible injury and he just needs to keep working. He’s one of many people in this country who get addicted to painkillers for their literal purpose—to ease the pain so they can get through the day. He can’t afford to take a day off work to get it fixed medically. He can’t afford to lose his job. He literally needs the Oxy to make ends meet.

But Ollie isn’t dealing anymore. She’s gone clean, despite the constant pressure around her to go back to her old ways. That pressure is intensified when the bank forecloses on her house and then her sister Deb (James) gets pregnant. There’s no easy financial fix to either problem. Abortions aren’t easy or cheap, and Deb discovers that a pregnancy with no health insurance costs close to five figures. Ollie is pushed back into dealing to solve both dilemmas, first casually and then with increased intensity to get what she needs and get out again.

“Little Woods” is full of wonderfully nuanced character beats. James and Thompson battle for who gives the better performance, both of them embodying a world-weariness that has infected so much of this country in places where the economics of daily life feel increasingly unmanageable. But they don’t sink into the archetypes these characters could have easily become. They’re two of the best performances of the year so far, almost more impressive in the little beats than the plot-driven ones. It’s in the look James gives when she’s told how much delivering a baby costs or realizes that a journey to get a fake ID could suddenly be very dangerous; it’s in Thompson’s defeated body language when she realizes everything could come crashing down. 

The larger problem here is with DaCosta’s script—characters too often say exactly what they’re feeling or need in ways that make them sound like mouthpieces for a writer instead of real people. It doesn’t happen often enough to detract too much from appreciating “Little Woods” as an acting showcase, but just enough to make one wish it was a more subtle film overall. In the end, it’s a film that feels deeply inspired by “Frozen River” and “Winter’s Bone,” other movies that went to depressed, unsafe parts of the country and allowed their leading ladies to really get under the skin of those who live there. “Little Woods” deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those films.

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“I hate everyone, but I still think I am better than everyone else.” To understand the egotistical Kate Stone (a frenzied Taylor Schilling in a series of power suits), look no further than this statement she delivers early on in “Family,” Laura Steinel’s quirky and formulaic debut about a work-obsessed loner discovering her softer side. Appealing on a scene-by-scene basis but generic like its title—it might as well have been called “About a Girl” as a thematic nod to Chris and Paul Weitz’s superb 2002 film—Steiner’s dull comedy lacks the crucial feelings that could have made the suburban aunt-niece tale at its center something more memorable. 

It all starts with a voiceover, as these sorts of films often do—Kate wonders how she ended up in the midst of a raunchy, open-air gathering of Juggalos (those face-paint-wearing, seemingly vulgar, party-crazed rebels) just by doing something nice for someone for once. We soon find out just how unusual good deeds are for her, when Steinel takes us back a week where a perennially dissatisfied Kate treats everyone she crosses paths with awfully. A senior executive at a New Jersey-based hedge fund, Kate routinely agitates and insults fellow employees—in one instance, she offends a pregnant co-worker so severely that in real life, her controversial rudeness would have resulted in a lawsuit. In another, she belittles the familial relationships of her assistant. She isn’t exactly a popular employee of the month or life of office parties; though her colleagues’ rejection doesn’t stop her from crashing a baby shower to steal a slice of cake.

<span class="s1" Things don’t seem to be much better at home where the selfish heavy drinker roams alone and ignores her familial ties. Still, her brother Joe and his wife Cheryl (Eric Edelstein and Allison Tolman) don’t hesitate to ask Kate the favor of watching their 11-year-old daughter Maddie (Bryn Vale, amiably disgruntled), while they tend to Cheryl’s dying mother. Kate’s overnight visit turns into a whole week, during which she observes an isolated and angry kid in Maddie, victimized by the impossible demands of her parents. Maddie sneaks off to a karate workshop taught by the affable Pete (Brian Tyree Henry), while Cheryl insists on the supposedly more girly ballet. She prefers to wear a suit to a school dance, yet she’s ordered to put on a feminine dress. Moreover, she seems to be picked on at school by a group of popular meanies. Seeing herself in Maddie and discovering her troubles slowly (while irresponsibly allowing her to get away with excessive snacks and chicken parmesan every night), Kate takes her niece under her wings, especially when Maddie makes friends with the Juggalo crowd through a chance encounter.

In fairness, “Family” makes a decent attempt in trying to dismantle sexist societal perceptions. Steinel examines the concept of being a toughened workaholic and wonders why it is deemed acceptable and desirable for men, when women with the same level of dedication get pushed to a lonely corner, often in competition to one another. True to her modest ambitions, Steinel thankfully doesn’t pair Kate with a romantic interest. Instead, she introduces a younger female executive whom Kate trains only to watch her become an alleged threat to her own career. Meanwhile, a second female frenemy lurks next door to her brother’s home: a helicopter mom (Kate McKinnon, bringing along much-needed frothiness) adamant to show a completely disinterested Kate the ropes, with tensely funny results. 

And yet despite all that, the script neglects to give Kate personal depth beyond the bare minimum—“Family” almost takes for granted the idea that we’ve seen her kind before in countless other films. Consequently, Kate’s eventual make-good reunion with her father seems like an afterthought in her shakily sketched journey of self-realization. Still, Schilling makes the most of her part and establishes winning chemistry with Vale, reminding us that the star of “Orange is the New Black” should have become a more valued cinematic asset. As for the Juggalos … They remain hazily in the background even when they set the stage for a frantic finale. You won’t all of a sudden grow to care about this anarchic yet often misunderstood subculture, as it’s just another half-realized excursion from Steinel’s debut.

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One of the most recent horror movies to polarize audiences was Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” that creepy 1630s period piece with Old English dialogue, an iconic sinister goat, and a terrifying finale. But Lukas Feigelfeld’s “Hagazussa” makes “The Witch” seem as zippy as “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” in comparison—“Hagazussa” is even more atmospheric and muted, with even less of a threat that something will jump out at you. Those are noble values for a horror movie, but it’s a shame they’ve lead to a frustrating genre pic that’s just too dreary to be scary. 

Presenting a 15th century woman’s psychological horror in slow motion, “Hagazussa” doesn’t so much have a story as a compelling yet straight-forward theme, which is that living alone in the mountains at such a period of time is a terror, especially if you’re a woman. The main focus of the story is a meek woman named Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen), who has been living in a hut next to a creek all her life. In the first of the film’s four segments, we see Albrun as a quiet young girl who witnesses her mother Martha (Claudia Martini, in a freaky performance) become bedridden with bulbous tumors on her body, and then begin to act very animalistic. Feigelfeld establishes aesthetic confidence early on by relying on minimal dialogue and expressive sound design, and this unsettling passage is like a 25-minute short film about a mother and daughter that could stand on its own. 

Hopes of that nervous energy continuing, however, are dampened by a resulting character study that isn’t ominous so much as monotonous. As strange as the mostly silent preceding events are, watching a grown-up Albrun in a vulnerable environment with a newborn baby and gradually embracing her witchy genetics, many scenes play out in a straight-forward fashion. An interaction with a possible new friend named Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky), a stroll through the dark woods after hearing her dead mother call her name—”Hagazussa” goes from one droning sequence to the next and doesn’t make its bare script more interesting with its glacial pace. All the while, Feigelfeld’s horror only comes from a couple horrific images but not an overall gripping fear, and he withholds so many details about any sinister mechanics that “Hagazussa” can only best function as another example of how madness runs in the family. 

“Hagazussa” is largely held together by an intense performance from Cwen, who adds bulging eyes and guttural screams to her character’s largely internal nature. Given the very spare dialogue throughout the movie, we merely watch her from the outside, making for a vivid performance in a straight-forward course of events. She is intricately tormented, we can see, but the script keeps us from getting too close.  

Feigelfeld approaches this project with a precise vision, reminding you of that any time he has a seamless edit (a close-up of a skull that fades into the mountain’s billowing fog) or when cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro tidily frames Albrun within her wild forest surroundings. He wants you to get a five-senses experience of being on that mountain with Albrun, often focusing closely on hands for long takes, like when Albrun is milking one of her goats in a moment of tranquility, resting her lonely head on its side. But intent is not the question in “Hagazussa” so much as purpose—Feigelfeld simplifies Albrun’s descent into madness until there’s no anxiety to offer, while forcing his audience to gaze upon extended, defiantly murky images and project grandiosity onto them. His taste for psychedelic horror in nature likely comes down to personal preference, but I found numerous shots plainly ugly, if not wasteful of his fledgling ambitions.

Whether it’s the reoccurring, gorgeous mountainside shots that run dull or the trippy shots that submerge the camera in green swamp water, “Hagazussa” has a very blunt idea of the peace and chaos it wants to use for its atmosphere. Even the flourishes that are usually thrilling in films like these—minute-long static shots of someone slowly standing up, oppressive passages of silence, a score that’s comprised of approximately two-and-a-half notes—feel cheap here. In the end, you don’t take away an atmosphere you can’t shake off, so much as the forcefulness of a new director demanding to be taken seriously. 

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“Rafiki” is a lesbian romance set in a place where such love stories, in real life and onscreen, are forbidden by law. It is the first Kenyan film to be screened at Cannes and, more importantly, the first film with a positive message about homosexuality to play in Kenyan theaters. The latter occurred after a  successful Supreme Court defeat of a ban imposed by the government. In the ruling, the judge wrote, “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society whose moral foundation will be shaken by watching a film depicting a gay theme.” And yet, morality is a commonly used excuse wielded like a cudgel against civil rights at worst, mere representation at best. Why is the act of being seen in a positive light such a “moral” threat?

Director Wanuri Kahiu creates a lyrical ode to finding a kindred spirit amidst an uncaring majority by using Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story, “Jambula Tree” as her basis. The cinematography is as lively, colorful and engaging as the hairstyle of Ziki Okemi (Sheila Munyiva), the boisterous object of affection for our protagonist, Kena Mwaura (Samantha Mugatsia). Several times, lens flares from the Sun invade the frame containing Ziki, presenting her as the center of Kena’s galaxy. Ziki’s astonishingly festive coif becomes a complementary personality symbol, the yin to the grungy yang of Kena’s skateboard and backwards baseball cap; Kahiu often introduces these characters into scenes by their trademarks.

<span class="s1" The way Kena dares to publicly gaze at Ziki reveals a mixture of the naïveté in handling a first love and a teenager’s penchant for defiance. Ziki returns the gaze even more forcefully, which scares Kena. Their feelings are not tolerated by society, and while their story has a simplicity that feels at times a bit too light, Kahiu never shies away from the inherent danger the lovers face. When violence befalls Ziki and Kena, Kahiu’s tight framing is as harrowing as the act itself. The canvas of the screen is often used as a representation of feeling rather than narrative, with scenes cropped so we can only see pieces of the action. It makes the most intimate moments seem larger-than-life, which is exactly how they must feel to our heroes.

Ziki and Kena are the daughters of rival politicians, which adds an extra layer of problems to their relationship. Gossips like storefront owner Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathecha) can’t wait to wag their tongues about the burgeoning friendship between the progeny of political enemies. There’s also a class difference. Kena’s dad, John (Jimmy Gathu) runs a store while the more financially successful Okemis are, in the words of Kena’s mother, “folks who can elevate you.” These issues would be enough strife for most cinematic lovers, but there’s also the patriarchal ideas perpetuated by Nairobi society. “Good Kenyan girls make good Kenyan wives,” we’re told. The men we meet like Blacksta (Neville Misati) flaunt the one-sided rules of romantic entanglement, peppering any and every woman with raunchy come-ons. They also torture the one man they consider to be gay, yelling homophobic slurs at him as he quietly walks through the neighborhood.

This nameless man—the film never reveals whether he is gay or just perceived as such—becomes a rather blatant symbol of the country’s homophobia. He never gets a line of dialogue, which bothered me initially because I saw his existence as an empty gesture. But, late in the film, Kahiu upended my expectations in a scene where he quietly sits next to a battered, heartbroken Kena. As the two share the frame, neither making eye contact with the other, I hoped for some exchanged words. Instead, the scene ends in silence and I realized that the visual of a shared solidarity was more powerful than anything that could have been said in that moment.

“Rafiki” has several quiet scenes like that, which elevates the familiar material. And unlike older films such as “The Children’s Hour,” this doesn’t end with sacrifice and punishment but with hope and ambiguity. Munyiva and Mugatsia are both excellent, sharing an energetic chemistry that the film can’t help but amplify in its tone. This is a bittersweet yet ultimately positive depiction of young, forbidden love that radiates empathy by showing how misguided it is to be against this kind of devotion. Kahiu draws blood with a “pray away the gay” scene that left me fuming, but she also finds a surprising level of understanding in a few secondary characters.

When the ban was lifted and “Rafiki” got a week’s run in Kenyan theaters, it sold out and even beat “Black Panther” at the box office. I imagine some of that came from a morbid “how bad could it be to have been banned?” curiosity, but I’ll bet most of the audience was driven to it simply to feel the joy of seeing themselves warmly represented onscreen. To feel seen is a potent, potentially life-changing emotion, and only those who were never in the dark would have a moral problem with it. “Rafiki” makes this serious point quite effectively, never losing its ebullience.

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Red Joan

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A based-on-a-true-story spy thriller, Trevor Nunn’s conventional yet sneakily absorbing “Red Joan” eases into the familiar mold of “The Imitation Game” at once. As it toggles between two separate eras, Nunn’s period piece frames its story by introducing us to the 80-something Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) first. She lives a quiet life in a British suburb and tends to the cookie-cutter demands of her uneventful days in the early 2000s. Except, this simple old woman (whose story is based on the real-life case of Southeast London’s Melita Norwood) doesn’t seem to be all that ordinary—soon enough, the British Secret Service pulls her out of her quiet retirement and arrests her on the grounds of treason. But did she really commit those crimes and give away Britain’s secrets to the Russians as a KGB spy in the 1930s?

The pull of “Red Joan”—an adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s bestselling novel by screenwriter Lindsay Shapero—oddly isn’t in the search and reveal of an answer to this question. Admittedly, the expected attributes of a slick espionage thriller (like globe-trotting mystique and heart-pumping moments of suspense) aren’t great in number here. Instead, Nunn’s film works better as a period melodrama and I don’t mean this as a slight at all. Unapologetically feminine in the vein of Lone Scherfig’s overlooked gem “Their Finest,” “Red Joan” resolves into a genuine study of an intelligent and ideologically budding young woman. As the old Joan settles into an interrogation session in a drab room (and repeatedly denies every accusation), the film’s lengthy flashbacks chart Joan’s opinionated past in thoughtful increments. Nunn swiftly takes us back in time to 1938, when Joan (a gracefully convincing Sophie Cookson) was a green but genius physics student at Cambridge, grabbing onto new inspirations and expanding her political horizon while growing into her sexuality.

The initial catalyst to Joan’s awakening enters her life through an open window. To work around the strict curfew of her dorm, the confident Sonia (Tereza Srbova) climbs into Joan’s room with movie-star glamour and in due course, introduces Joan to her fiery cousin Leo (Tom Hughes), a dedicated communist like herself. Allured by their world of ideas around societal justice—and equally swept away by the noisemaker Leo, who patronizingly calls her “my little comrade”—Joan joins in their meetings and rallies against Hitler. The advancing timeline gently pushes Leo out of the picture and introduces a new partner-in-crime/love-interest for Joan, the gentlemanly professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore). Working out of a government laboratory and eventually becoming lovers during a perilous cross-Atlantic trip, the duo shares a joint view of the world but differs in their respective implementations. Further muddying the waters is Max’s marriage and inability to get a divorce from his wife.

It would be too easy to dismiss the romantic entanglements of “Red Joan” as fluff, but along with screenwriter Shapero, Nunn treats Joan’s affairs with the respect they deserve, while never losing sight of her as an intellectual. A virgin until she gets involved with Max—thankfully, the film doesn’t brush over a very crucial sex scene—Joan matures in her dealings with men, learning about both male entitlement and masculine nurturing. In other words, we stay within Joan’s womanly point of view throughout and even halfway understand the basis of her unlawful actions when she finally admits them to both her son and the stone-faced interrogators. 

Turns out, Joan didn’t just pass on her country’s nuclear secrets in the innocent name of devotion—in reality, she took up an ideological agenda entirely of her own after seeing the catastrophic atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She had thought it was only with access to equal information could the superpowers be on balance with each other, and stopped from such disastrous actions in the future. While this reasoning doesn’t seem to hold much historical accuracy, it makes sense within the context of a sound film that commendably insists on differentiating a woman’s inexperience from naïveté—“Red Joan” doesn’t burden its female protagonist with the latter. 

Capably lensed by cinematographer Zac Nicholson with a focus on the period’s earthy colors and textures and costumed to perfection by Charlotte Walter (who also dressed “Their Finest” with the same level of attention to the era’s knitwear and suiting), “Red Joan” leaves a lasting impression mostly with its flashback scenes. While Judi Dench is flawless in bringing time-spanning depth to her melancholic character (with accidental nods to her infamous “M” persona), her contemporary segments are comparably bland by narrative design. Uneven it may be, “Red Joan” still emanates a memorable essence, one that’s refreshingly and believably feminine. 

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When the blackly humorous arthouse dramas of Korean filmmaker Sang-soo Hong first arrived in America (from 2002-2004), they were often compared to the work of French New Wave pioneer Eric Rohmer. That’s an understandable point of reference since both Hong and Rohmer are—both rightly and wrongly—often pigeonholed as filmmakers who make conversation-driven, visually spare movies about self-absorbed men who project their own emotions and values onto the elusive objects of their desire, as in Rohmer’s “Claire's Knee” or Hong’s “Like You Know It All.” More recently (2017-present), Hong has continued to develop his own style: non-linear, elliptical, and (often) purposefully repetitive narratives about petty, middle-aged male Korean filmmakers who regret, but cannot stop themselves from alienating their loved ones and love interests, especially shy, independent female artists and/or academics. The typical Hong avatar is mercurial (at best); he lays on the compliments (and poetic observations) a little too thick, always drinks too much, makes everything about him, and inevitably loses control of his own story. He hates himself; he can’t get over himself.

In recent years, Hong’s accelerated his productivity, partly because of a messy and very public affair with leading lady Minhee Kim (long story short: Hong’s wife will not grant him a divorce). Now many American reviewers (understandably) praise the prominence and versatility of actress Kim in Hong’s movies. Unfortunately, many of Hong’s recently imported dramas—even superior efforts, like “Claire's Camera” and “Hotel by the River“—inevitably stop being about unattainable, but free-spirited women and continue being about Hong’s, I mean his stand-ins’, failure to get over themselves. These movies are only superficially about women who get roped into relationships—platonic and otherwise—with Hong-like dudes; most are just about his, I mean his characters’, inability to control themselves. (Hong used to have a reputation for awkward, booze-fueled social interactions at and around film festivals.)

<span class="s1" Thankfully, “Grass“—Hong’s latest movie, and the 14th or 15th by him that I’ve seen—is one of the best expressions/variations on Hong’s usual formula. A black-and-white drama, “Grass” follows a series of characters as they congregate in and around a cafe. They’re not legally allowed to drink there, but they do anyway (the owner says it’s ok). They also accuse each other of being responsible for their loved ones’ suffering and generally act embarrassed when their friends indelicately air out their dirty laundry. Sometimes, it seems like one character is imagining what the others are saying; other times, it’s apparent that they’re just daydreaming in close proximity to each other. One sketch-like subplot begins moments before another ends … only to pick up again later on. These characters’ conversations overlap and inform each other, but never really progress, because these characters don’t really grow before your eyes (or inevitably regress, thank goodness)—they just stew in their emotions.

Once again, Hong’s male protagonists try to feed off of their female counterparts’ creativity; but Hong’s women, led by a characteristically versatile Minhee Kim, can’t submit themselves to that kind of emotional blackmail anymore, and are often forced to say as much. All of these characters worry about each other, even as some accuse others of their own personal failings: You don’t know him like I do. You didn’t love him like I did. Can I stay with you a while? Want to be my writing partner? Sorry, I can’t do that. Please, control yourself. Oh, that’s a shame. Want another drink?

In “Grass” and a couple of other superior efforts—like “The Day He Arrives” and “Right Now, Wrong Then“—Hong suggests a world of meaning through free associations and atonal juxtapositions. Look at the way that he places his camera over the shoulder of sullen actor Jaemyung (Myoungsu Kim) as he, in focus, accuses the recently widowed Soonyoung (Youyung Lee) of driving her husband to suicide. This scene’s dialogue is one-sided: he yells at her while she tries to remain composed. But the scene builds to an unbearable kind of emotional hysteria, until suddenly a raggedy version of “O, Susanna!” (performed on what sounds like a recorder and a triangle) starts playing on the cafe’s PA system. The song doesn’t relieve tension, but rather adds an extra layer of disharmony to the already unnerving conversation. It’s not a tidy scene, but that’s kind of what makes “Grass” so intriguing: we follow characters—many of whom are actors, playwrights, would-be writers—as they struggle to re-write their own narratives. This isn’t just about Hong—it’s about a community that doesn’t know how to continue supporting Hong-like characters.

Hong also articulates a central theme of his work to date: art cannot be used to neatly compartmentalize and/or diagnose one’s own problems. These stories, these conversations … they keep happening because there’s no definite beginning or ending to their implications, not even when some participants die or just leave. So Hong’s protagonists drink, apologize, and struggle to set boundaries with each other. They float from table to table because none of them really belongs to their loved ones’ stories: they just sometimes play supporting roles and then move on to the next bit part.

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A Journey Through the Addictive World of The Division 2

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I was just complaining the other day about being tired of “it gets better” criticism. With so many options out there for your entertainment dollar, who’s got time for a TV season that isn’t worth watching until its fifth hour? And yet there’s something different about video games. Maybe it’s because we spend $60 on new ones, but patience is sometimes just a part of the game. They often require you to recalibrate your playing style and get accustomed to a game’s aesthetic and gameplay before you can really appreciate it. That certainly captures my experience with “Tom Clancy’s The Division 2,” a game that almost infuriated me for several hours before becoming a title that I’ve plugged more hours into than anything else so far this year. Maybe it’s a form of Video Game Stockholm Syndrome, but I can’t stop returning to the world of this game, one that the developers promise will keep changing and updating all year long. This is a fascinating trend in games – titles that don’t want to just be finite experiences but things that are a part of your life for months or even years. Consider the success of “Fortnite,” “Overwatch,” and “Destiny”—games that become phenomena more than standalone titles. “The Division 2” wants to be that for millions, and I think I may be addicted.

One of the reasons for that first wave of frustration (other than playing a fast-paced game like this and a slow-paced one like “Sekiro” at the same time can lead to whiplash) is that this is an undeniably repetitive game. That’s part of the structure of it. You will shoot the same enemy over and over and over again as you try to reclaim Washington D.C. after the end of the world. And you have to come to terms with basically doing slight variations on the same thing again and again. It’s a traditional open-world game, in that it’s broken up into “Main Missions” and “Story Missions” with a bunch of optional things to do in between, like taking control points from the enemy or just wandering the streets looking for people to have target practice on. It’s a not a game with a ton of variety in setting or objective.

So what makes it so addictive? A wonderfully structured system of upgrades and what the kids call “loot.” Each mission brings new weapons, armor, mods, even outfits—and it’s incredibly tempting to “just do one more” to see what you can unlock next. The story of “The Division 2” is almost an afterthought—it’s about what you can find out in this deadly, dangerous world. You’re always looking for a new weapon or new way to present yourself to fellow gamers, and that’s an interesting, relatively new dynamic in the world of gaming in that it makes your experience distinctly your own. No one looks or plays exactly like my “Division 2” officer, and it’s not merely cosmetic (although his outfit is currently pretty bad-ass)—it’s also interesting to see how different weapon and gadget loadouts impact the experience and make it personal. As you dig deeper and deeper into the customization of your character, “The Division 2” becomes more and more addictive.

And what’s interesting is that all of this customizable experience is happening alongside a deeply co-operative game. Most of the main missions are impossible without fellow soldiers to help you. They can be your online friends or strangers with whom you ally just for that mission, but the game encourages teamwork. And so “Division 2” becomes not only a place where you author the experience through the many choices you can make through your character choices but then you show off your creation in a way with fellow players. And the game promises to offer more and more choices for both—challenges that will offer gamers new ways to make the experience their own and something they share with others. In that sense, these games are mimicking the culture’s addiction to social media in that much of what makes that world so addictive is the blend of self-expression and community. 

 It feels like there could have been a stronger narrative under the world of “The Division 2,” but it’s a minor complaint for what feels like a major game of 2019. The first game was dogged by a weak endgame and a few too many bugs, but both of those issues have been ironed out this time and it’s one of those titles that feels like has only grown in cultural prominence over the month it’s been out. People keep finding new loot, new strategies, and new ways to play the game. More than any game since the first “Destiny,” it’s one I personally know I’ll be dropping in and out of for months to come. See you in D.C.

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A Look Back at the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival

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HOLLYWOOD — Double anniversaries: This year’s TCM Film Festival marked two milestones, the 25th anniversary of the classic movie channel, which bowed on April 14, 1994, and the 10th anniversary of its namesake annual event.

In a movie landscape challenged by new platforms, industry consolidation and general entertainment overload, TCM remains a beacon for film buffs. “We’ve stayed true to our mission of showing films the way they’re meant to be seen, uncut and commercial free,” said Jennifer Dorian, TCM general manager. “That mission has not changed over 25 years. And when we started doing this festival, it made sense that it would be the context in which we started to bring people together and then showcase these films once again on these incredible screens in Hollywood.”

Held April 11-14 at the historic TCL Chinese Theatre complex, Egyptian Theatre, Cinerama Dome and the Roosevelt Hotel, the classic movie marathon featured more than a hundred films and events, with most programmed to reflect the festival’s main theme “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies.” That certainly was the case for the opening-night attraction “When Harry Met Sally …” (1989), with stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan and director Rob Reiner appearing at the TCL Chinese IMAX to celebrate the rom-com’s 30th anniversary. Though “Harry” might seem relatively new by TCM standards, “We had no idea back then if it would stand the test of time,” Crystal told the crowd. Reiner added, “You never know. You make a movie, and hopefully it turns out well, and hopefully others like it, too.”

Also in the opening-night audience was Ted Turner, the broadcast industry magnate whose purchase of the MGM film library in 1986 gave rise to TCM. Along with Turner, others receiving special tributes during the festival were casting director Juliet Taylor, producer Fred Roos, filmmaker Nora Ephron and film historian Kevin Brownlow. Fox Studios, founded in 1905, reincarnated as 20th Century Fox in 1935 and swallowed whole by Disney in 2019, also was feted, with screenings of landmark titles such as “Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans” (1927), “The Sound of Music” and perhaps the studio’s biggest all-time blockbuster and game-changer, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope: Special Edition” (1977).

Adding star power were appearances by actors and filmmakers Diane Baker, Jacqueline Bisset, Ronee Blakley, John Carpenter, Keith Carradine, Frank Darabont, Dana Delany, Angie Dickinson, Louis Gossett Jr., Bill Hader, Barbara Rush, Kurt Russell and Alex Trebek. Also scheduled to appear but unable to attend were Norman Lear, Shirley MacLaine, Gena Rowlands and Lily Tomlin.

Among the restored titles receiving world premieres were “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979), “Holiday” (1938), “The Killers” (1964), “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949), “Merrily We Go to Hell” (1932), “Nashville” (1975) and “Winchester ’73” (1950, U.S. premiere showing). 

<span class="s1" Though the festival’s tent-pole titles attracted overflow crowds, some of the greatest moments came courtesy of lesser-known films, such as the many pre-Code offerings, rediscoveries and special formats (including nitrate and Cinerama). Here are 10 for the 10th:

“Night World”

Eighty the hard way: Introducing the pre-Code drama “Night World” (1932), Susan Karloff noted that her father Boris “made a lot of films like this”—movies that weren’t prestige projects but were entertaining and well-made nonetheless. A year earlier, Karloff teamed with Mae Clarke for “Frankenstein,” his breakthrough movie, and they reunited for “Night World,” which also features Lew Ayres, George Raft and Hedda Hopper, before she reinvented herself as a professional gossip-monger. “’Frankenstein’ was his 81st film,” Susan Karloff said. ”Nobody saw the first 80.”

Ted Turner on the success of TCM: It comes down to one simple truth: “People like old stuff.” That’s how the founder of Turner Broadcasting, which begat Turner Classic Movies, explained the enduring popularity of the acclaimed cable channel. Now that he’s reached his golden years, the onetime Mouth of the South admitted that he has realized “I’m old, so people finally like me.”

The low-budget bang of the Bs: A turn-away crowd flocked to “Open Secret” (1948), a film noir tinged with social activism, and screened as one of the festival’s many “Discoveries.” Eddie Muller, “The Czar of Noir” and host of TCM’s “Noir Alley,” observed: “This is probably the biggest single crowd ever to see this movie, which is as B as B gets. If they spent more than $2,000 on this film, I’d be amazed.” Despite the movie’s modest origins, “Open Secret” bravely takes aim at nativism and prejudice in post-war America. “I’m very happy to present this movie,” Muller said. “It’s as down and dirty as it gets.”

“Santo vs. the Evil Brain”

Lucha libre, viva Mexico! The midnight screening of the cult/camp classic “Santo vs. the Evil Brain” quickly turned into spectacle as two fans in lucha libre garb swarmed the theater, tossing out treats and trinkets, including El Santo masks on sticks. A Mexican folk hero, El Santo was a luchador enmascarado (masked wrestler) and fighter for justice. As portrayed by actor Rodolfo Guzman Huerta, El Santo appeared in more than 50 films, including the first in the series, “Santo Contra el Cerebro del Mal” (1961, “Santo vs. the Evil Brain”). “It’s a miracle that we’re showing this film,” said archivist Viviana Garcia Besne, whose grandfather introduced El Santo to the screen. “The Mexican film industry is not supporting these movies, despite their popularity.” Her father found the original camera negative of “Santo vs. the Evil Brain,” “so with the centennial of El Santo [Guzman Huerta] in 2017, we thought we should restore his movies.” She implored the audience to revel in the film’s over-the-top spirit: “You must react or you’ll fall asleep.”

Remembering the King of the Cowboys: Through the ’20s, Tom Mix rode tall in the saddle and revolutionized the Western by focusing on action and performing his own stunts. A century later, however, he’s all but forgotten. Introducing a double feature of “The Great K&A Train Robbery” (1926) and “Outlaws of Red River” (1927) at the Legion Theatre, TCM senior programming director Scott McGee paid tribute to “the ultimate cowboy star” and mentioned that several of his younger TCM colleagues had never heard of Mix, once nicknamed “The Rent Man” by theater exhibitors. Most of Mix’s nearly 300 films (all but nine were silent) were lost in a 1937 studio fire, so those TCM youngsters could be forgiven for their ignorance.  

Shot on location in Colorado, “The Great K&A Train Robbery” proved that “the real natural wonder was Mix himself,” McGee said. “He was a bona-fide cowboy and horseman of the highest order.” Mix’s penchant for fancy duds emphasized that he was “all about the show and the flash. He knew that clothes do make the man.” MoMa curator Anne Morra added that even though “his clothes weren’t trail-worthy, he always gets the girl,” and pointed out that Mix’s trusty steed, Tony the Wonder Horse, outlived his master, who died in a car accident in 1940, by two years.

“It Happened Here”

Speaking truth to power: Accepting the second annual Robert Osborne Award, which honors individuals crucial in maintaining the legacy and preservation of classic films, historian, author and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow warned the crowd that he was going to go off-script. “Where’s release of ‘Hollywood’?” he said, referring to his influential documentary series about the silent-film era, shown on TV in 1980 but never released in a home-video format due to rights issues.

As part of the Brownlow tribute, TCM screened his own “It Happened Here,” which imagines what might have occurred if Germany had conquered Britain during World War II. At 15, Brownlow began making the docudrama with creative partner Andrew Mollo, and over eight years, the two attracted eventual assistance from directorial lions Tony Richardson and Stanley Kubrick. As “It Happened Here” began to roll at the Egyptian, and introductory credits about the movie’s restoration identified it as a 1965 release, Brownlow from his seat shouted out “1964!”

The patriarchy strikes back: Though she was the first female to receive the Directors Guild Fellowship Award and successfully helmed seven films from 1966 to 1974, writer/director/producer Stephanie Rothman found herself on the outs by the mid-’70s. Speaking before a midnight screening of her “Student Nurses” (1970), Rothman recalled that studio chiefs thought she was “too intellectual”—even though she specialized (by necessity) in exploitation fare. In the early ’80s, one exec finally brought her in for a meeting to discuss a project for a young male director about to make his first studio film. “It sounded just like my own ‘Velvet Vampire’ [1971],” Rothman said. “So I asked them, why not hire me? They didn’t.” The filmmaker and film in question turned out to be Tony Scott and the vampire-themed “The Hunger” (1983).

“The Killers”

Taking dead aim at the truth: Always the straight shooter, actress Angie Dickinson told it like it was in her introductory remarks before “The Killers” (1964), Don Siegel’s crime thriller, loosely based on the Ernest Hemingway short story. Shot in unusually vivid Eastman Color, it follows two hit men (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) trying figure out the score of their score. Neither of the male leads—John Cassavetes as the mark and Ronald Reagan as the mastermind—wanted to be in this movie, she recalled. In his last film before he launched his political career, Reagan made “The Killers” “just to get out of his contract.” And Cassavetes—“that is some Greek”—“was pretty quiet,” she said. “The film wasn’t his style but he needed the work,” she added, referring to the actor-director’s preference for his own indie, iconoclastic projects. Dickinson attributes the film’s success to Siegel (“an absolute doll—adorable!”) and Cassavetes (“he was so charismatic, he didn’t have to do anything on the screen”), and not so much to Reagan: “You could tell that he was kinda dying back there.”

As for why she didn’t become a bigger star, Dickinson said, “It didn’t happen. It takes a lot of luck, and I didn’t have the drive. The parts weren’t there. So I did ‘Police Woman’”—her hit ’70s series—“which was a grind and did me in.” At that point, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz reminded her that 100 episodes of “Police Woman” was nothing to sneeze at, and Dickinson quickly corrected him: “Actually, 91.” She laughed and added, “I am such a truth buff.”

The circle of life, Tinsel Town edition: Introducing the silent film “A Woman of Affairs” (1928), starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, which was screened with a full orchestra led by Carl Davis conducting his own score, at the historic Egyptian, film scholar Leonard Maltin acknowledged a stroke of serendipity: “We have one of those only in Hollywood moments tonight. Performing on the French horn in the orchestra is the great-great grandson of John Gilbert.”

The enduring legacy of Robert Osborne: Throughout the festival, many luminaries saluted the late figurehead of TCM. “Robert loved this festival,” said Kevin Brownlow. “He lobbied for it for years and basked in its success and its shared community.” Speaking ahead of “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), in which she co-starred opposite Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, Barbara Rush recalled, “We grew up together in the business. It was Robert who really got TCM going,” she said, reflecting on Osborne’s own magnificent obsession. “He was like a very dear brother to me. Plus, he knew everything, especially about the movies.”

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Belief-Testing People: Penny Lane on Her New Documentary, Hail Satan?

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As the new documentary from writer/director Penny Lane makes clear, the members of the Satanic Temple do not worship the Sunday school vision of Satan as the representative of evil. They do not believe that such an entity—or any other spiritual being—actually exists. They admire the mythological Satan as a free-thinker and rebel, and carry that ideal forward by challenging any government sponsorship of religiously based material, from a 10 Commandments monument in a courthouse to a Christian curriculum in a public after-school program. 

In an interview with about “Hail, Satan?” Lane talked how the Satanic Temple membership is linked by a love of books, and how the one characteristic that connects her films is a fascination with the way people shape their stories.

You got remarkable access in this film, not only in your own filming but also in your selection of materials they filmed themselves.

When we first approached them, they were not especially interested at all. It did take a long time to convince them that our interests were sufficiently overlapping with theirs, for them to believe that our goal was to prevent their worldview accurately and coherently to the best of my ability, to a wide audience and not revel in shock for its own sake or make it all seem like a joke. They get plenty of that! They were very wary. 

I think what eventually won them over was they came to understand I wasn’t interested in trying to do a “Satanists! They’re just like you and me!” personal portrait or biography. They had less than zero interest in doing a film like that, especially [Satanic Temple co-founder and spokesman] Lucien [Greaves], who is very self-conscious about being the central figure of this organization. He does not derive any pleasure from being viewed in that way and he definitely does not want the Satanic Temple being confused with him. Once they understood we were not interested in watching them play with their kids and make breakfast in the morning they were more interested. We focused on their outward-facing activities.

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Your collection of clips showing the dismissive, willfully ignorant, and downright insulting attitude of the media is shocking.

Just to be fair, it’s local news, they have two minutes, and it is very confusing. They’re Satanists, but they don’t worship the devil and here are their values, and what does it mean that Satan is an allegorical figure and how can that possibly be a religion? Even if they have the best of intentions, they just end on a joke and let it go. It does take 95 minutes, which is what we have in the film, and I could have made it much longer.

What about the willfully ignorant and inflammatory comments made by the politicians?

They have no excuse! But as long as they get elected and re-elected on their opposition to Satanists, their illegal prejudice and discrimination will continue.

The Supreme Court has said it will not question the sincerity or legitimacy of those who claim to have a particular religious belief or faith. But do you think the Satanic Temple is a religion?

I do. But I understand why some people don’t. Trying to define religion has been vexing scholars for a long time. It is incredibly complicated, which is why courts stay out of it. The sticking point for most people seems to be that they don’t have a supernatural deity or worship a divine being. They would say their divine being is mankind and their religion starts from there.

Our crazy culture seems to think that the measure of a religion is how impervious to fact it is. Whereas believing in justice and equality and civil rights is not crazy so it can’t be a religion. But if you take a broad view of what people believe defines a religion throughout history and around the world, you find that the deity at the core is not universal. 

The Satanists have an allegorical, mythological framework that is very meaningful to them, with symbols and art that have meaning and power, with rituals meant to access something bigger than themselves, and they have tenants with very affirmative values, not separating themselves from other people but confirming their commitment to science, justice, and compassion. They have everything that a religion needs. They just don’t believe in invisible people in the sky and obedience and blind faith in archaic texts that don’t change, and it’s increasingly untenable to continue to believe in that in this rational, individualistic age. It’s not just non-modern but anti-modern. The Satanic Temple could be the first modern religion.

One of the most fascinating moments in the film is when a member of the Satanic Temple is essentially excommunicated. Even a group explicitly committed to challenge and rebellion has its limits.

Do you need any more proof that it’s a real religion? When you start having schisms and excommunications, that’s a pretty strong indication. We knew from the beginning that there was a tension. Satanic and institution—those two words are not particularly well suited to be in the same sentence. They are anti-authoritarian! They hate groups! They can’t have dogma! This makes it very difficult for them to organize. That’s been its own set of problems. A handful of people doing volunteer work are trying to manage a growing group, at great personal cost. They make mistakes, they move on. I don’t know if the institution will continue to flourish. The legal stuff is its own vector of activity.

“Hail Satan?” / Magnolia Pictures

The Satanists in the film are a pretty varied assortment. Some have piercings and tattoos but some are ordinary looking guys in suits. One even has a bow tie. What do they have in common?

If you ask any Satanist about their life story, about their religion, their foundational moments in their life, all their stories involve book stores and libraries. One hundred percent. I failed to get that in the film. We tried really hard but never got it in. Boy, they love books. They love to read. They are knowledge-seeking, information-gathering, belief-testing people. That binds them together despite their massive differences. 

The other thing they have in common is being okay with being the kind of people who call themselves a Satanist, which is a very particular kind of person. They’re saying, “I’m okay with being the vessel for everyone’s fears and hatred.” You’ve got to kind of like that. Most of us don’t. We say we want to be individuals and rebels but we also want to get along and have people like us. That’s good. You can’t have a society without most of us being like that. But you also can’t have a good society without some Satanists around who say, “I don’t care if my existence is offensive to you; I’m going to ask some tough questions.” That’s why there is such a large LGBTQ population in Satanism. There’s an overlapping population of people whose outward appearance is reviled by so many people.

There’s a moment in the film where the lawyer, a straight, white, good-looking guy, asks “Is this what everyone who is different is treated like?” That is really the moment he becomes a Satanist because now he understands what it is to be a minority in our culture. And the other “normal” looking guy, the one with the bow tie, will tell you he came from a total evangelical, almost zealot background that was like “Bible Bible Bible” all the time, evangelizing at work, on the street. After his crisis of faith and leaving the church and becoming an atheist he starts to care a lot about exposing certain hypocrisies that he feels he has been damaged by and society has been damaged by, too. And then, once you’re an atheist in the eyes of your former tribe you’re a Satanist, so why not be one?

And what is the common theme in your films? What keeps drawing your attention?

Essentially, all I really care about is why people believe what they believe. I made a film about this quack doctor who was able to convince people using the power of stories. And religious belief is about stories as well. That’s what binds us together as tribes and people. And also, they’re all kind of funny. I’m trying to have a good time! Making movies is hard, so I try to have some fun.

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