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Top 20 Films of 2022: #3- The Rehearsal

The Rehearsal (TV Series 2022– ) - IMDb

 

Anyone who says a true artist never repeats themselves isn’t paying attention to film history. So many of the great ones love to recycle (and recontextualize past elements of their work. Fellini and Scorsese love their religious imagery, especially when contrasted with the vulgar (or violent in Scorsese’s case), the sacred and profane. Michael Mann loves men at work. John Woo loves to punctuate an action scene with doves. Beyond themes and visual motifs, there are a great many filmmakers who love to bring back actors over and over throughout their careers. Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman. James Cameron and Bill Paxton. Both Wes Anderson and Christopher Guest have spent their careers regularly calling back whole softball teams’ worth of the same character actors like the theatre troupes of old. All of this is to say that deadpan comedian and new god of the televised medium, Nathan Fielder (his recent cringe satire with Emma Stone and Benny Safdie, The Curse, is now blowing minds and generating chatter), is in good company. Since his brilliant reality TV piss-take, Nathan For You, Fielder has loved to run it back, whether than meant a running theme (frequently his own inability to connect in the modern world) or a bit (Nathan For You‘s vignettes had a way of steadily stacking upon one another). More than anything, he loves bringing back the strange real-life characters he finds and using them in new scenarios far outside of how he originally found them. And he mines those repeat appearances not just for humor but surprising pathos. In Nathan For You‘s hour-long finale, he brought back a bizarre, distinctly untalented Bill Gates impersonator not for cheap mockery but for a strange and quietly heartbreaking journey into one eccentric old man’s romantic past. Nathan Fielder’s love for repetition takes him to some side-splittingly funny places, but what makes his repetitions so exciting and artful is his spontaneity. He’s not plugging these singular reality TV characters into the same old scheme. He’s letting the same personages walk into new situations and letting new realities play out.

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He’s not just lampooning reality television; he’s curious about how reality (televised or not) is constructed and who does the constructing. It’s not just cool and funny and wildly entertaining. It’s literally the same way that a lot of great directors create the most organically natural films (I wonder how the great Mike Leigh would feel about getting mentioned next to Comedy Central’s own Nathan Fielder)). His miraculously strange and singular six -episode reality miniseries, The Rehearsal, is a natural yet completely unforeseeable culmination of Fielder’s fixations. It’s a masterwork that not only marshals the power of obsessive repetition but asks questions about why we repeat ourselves.

Describing the plot is consistently my least favorite part of film criticism, so luckily for me The Rehearsal doesn’t have the kind of structure one describes in detail. It has an opening premise, the kid of idea that could be repeated episode by episode like so many of the reality television programs that Nathan For You sent up and spoofed. The germ of an idea here is that Fielder will find people dreading some fateful, looming conversation with a friend or loved one and he will help them rehearse for it. And, because this is Nathan Fielder, rehearsing doesn’t just mean running through what the person has to say but running through a dense spiderweb of reactions the other side of the conversation might have; any conceivable thing they might say or do. Nathan Fielder doesn’t so much help them create a script as bring an entire flowchart to life. It means hiring extras and building sets all in service of rehearsing an elaborate tree of possible realities. The idea is that this will help the nervous, conflict-phobic beneficiary feel more comfortable not only with having a talk but with every version of reality they can imagine. And when I say “reality”, I mean not just the conversation but the physical details of where the talk will take place. It means constructing elaborate facsimiles of houses and restaurants. It means conducting detailed research on the person his latest subject will be talking to. What Fielder, a man long curious about artificial realities, is attempting to simulate is nothing short of reality itself. In the first episode, a socially awkward pub trivia nerd has to confess to his teammate that he has been lying for years about having his Master’s Degree and is fearful the admission of his deceit will terminate their friendship. Nathan builds the pub. A working bar full of actors playing patrons. A bar with its own fake staff and fake working kitchen full of people pretending to cook food. It’s funny, absurd and fascinating. And then, in episode 2, the show’s premise completely changes, when Fielder helps a single Christian woman rehearse having a child by letting her live for weeks with a fake baby (actors playing the baby at different ages, that is) in a fake house run by Fielder from a control room with children ranging from infants to 15-year olds playing her fake child as it rapidly grow up. By episode 3, The Rehearsal‘s concept has expanded and mutated to the point of being unrecognizable and the snowballing social experiment has completely overtaken Nathan Fielder (he always is the true butt of his jokes), turning him from his own show’s director and architect into a full-time participant. The mad scientist sucked into his own demented machine.

I can’t say I predicted virtuoso of awkwardness Nathan Fielder capturing the trippy, meta-textual Charlie Kaufmann spirit better than anybody not named Charlie Kaufmann. Maybe I should have. The signs were always faintly visible. In Nathan For You, the simple objective of helping a small business market themselves mutated into convoluted Rube Goldberg plots; outrageous examples of the tail wagging the dog. That show always had a touch of the Ouroboros to it. Fielder would seize upon a dumb idea for a local business to attract customers, but executing his idea would always require him to hatch infinitely dumber and more outlandish ideas (like when he paid a stranger to change his name to Michael Richards, just so a cafe could act like Kramer once dined there). The Rehearsal is Fielder doing what he’s always done on a vast, HBO-funded canvas. If Nathan For You saw him mocking reality TV artifice by daftly twisting truth to meet his ends, The Rehearsal is him inventing fake real worlds out of whole cloth. It’s very fitting that he’s not only subverting the reality TV format again, but this time making a bonafide single-concept (at least for a moment) reality TV program. They say you have to love what you parody, and The Rehearsal is Fielder’s renewed vow of devotion to the reality format. Loving it honestly means loving it in his own special Nathan Fielder way: larking about, gently teasing it and reflecting televised reality (that great oxymoron) back at itself through a dozen different funhouse mirrors. The Charlie Kaufmann of it all is how The Rehearsal churns actual reality and TV reality, truth and fantasy, together until his show becomes a true paradox of fake-real. With one magician’s hand, he unnerves and confuses us and with the other he pulls threads of genuine insigne and poignant truth from his sleeve. The distorted mirror he creates for that Christian woman is so dizzyingly strange that she eventually bails on the project and leaves Nathan as the one remaining constant; the man pulling the strings performing his bizarre magic act for nobody but himself (and us, of course). He conjures an entire dreamworld to help these entrants, but like children in Willy Wonka’s factory (one man compares Nathan to the magically disquieting chocolatier), they fall away. We realize the story is less about what the subjects hope to achieve by participating in Fielder’s show, and more about why Fielder felt compelled to create it in the first place.

I hope I am not being overly vague in describing what happens in this hilariously bewildering mindfuck of a miniseries. Partly, it’s that it feels too hazy and surreal to just deconstruct, as if that would undo its wondrous spell. Go describe a magic trick! It’s also tough to describe a show that feels designed to be slippery and erratically shifting. A basic account of what happens and who shows up does nothing to capture its essence. Suffice to say though, the people who populate these four hours of heady delirium might be the major secret to its brilliance. It’s another talent that Fielder has brought over from his work on Nathan For You and sharpened to razor perfection. The man has the knack for finding the most unforgettably idiosyncratic and authentically funny people on Earth. Have you ever met a truly unique person and told friends, “You wouldn’t believe this guy. He’s a total character.”? I don’t know if Nathan Fielder just wanders through life constantly running into the most elite oddballs, like one of those pigs who sniffs out gourmet truffles. But he certainly knows them when he sees them, and not a one of them feels stock or stereotypical. If you hear me mention a single Christian aspiring mother and have an image in your head, let me inform you that you probably only have about 10% of it. Fielder has a smidgeon of sharp meanness in his comedy, but sweetness and real curiosity always win out with him. He only judges a tiny bit, but he also graciously cedes the spotlight to them and lets their beautiful, ineffable weirdness take center stage. He is obviously the most (only) famous person in The Rehearsal, but he knows the subjects he finds are the stars. Much of the reality TV I’ve seen does come off as grotesque (sorry, Nathan), a parade of shrill caricatures for the viewer to look down on. But Fielder’s people feel full and complex (even the shrill ones). You won’t soon forget any of them, and I’ll wager you’ll remember them in more three-dimensional, human terms than the people you watch on Discovery and Bravo. For all the snarky irony in Fielder’s lampooning of reality TV, for all the fun he has showing human frailty and insecurity, I don’t think he ever sets out to simply mock these people. I think he’d sooner we look at them and recognize something similarly weird in ourselves that we can chuckle at and maybe embrace.

But Fielder is not content to simply find fascinating screen presences. He has decided he would like to make some from scratch, or more specifically find people who can make them. As ever, the genesis for Nathan Fielder’s idea starts out simple. It’s born out of basic necessity.  He’ll need to find extras to populate these artificial worlds he creates. But, because perfecting each social experim

\ent (each rehearsal) means making his fake worlds as authentic as possible, he finds himself demanding increasingly more authenticity from his extras. What he needs aren’t just bodies to fill these spaces. He needs actors. Every concept in The Rehearsal is like the monst

er from John Carpenter’s The Thing. It may start out as a dog: Nathan needs actors to fill out his meticulously rendered rehearsals. But what it ends up as is a tentacle monster: Nathan Fielder has to start an acting conservatory in Los Angeles to steadily pump out more actors for his endless scenarios. And the patented Fielder Method taught at Nathan’s conservatory is one that Daniel Day-Lewis might say is a little much. I misspoke when I said that The Rehearsal turns into Fielder alone in his dream factory. What it more accurately turns into is Fielder in his dream factory surrounded by people playing the roles of other people that Fielder has trained and hired them to play for the benefit of a subject who is no longer there. Fielder the artist becomes Fielder the subject interacting on multiple levels with his actors. Actors who, once again, he has trained to help act out realistic, detailed scenarios of what could be real life. But with his participants gone, the actors still stay on to do their jobs, but with the grand objective increasingly unclear. Unclear to no one so much as Fielder himself (his talent for tuning the job on himself really is the key to his genius). Werner Herzog’s Aguirre the Wrath of God ends with an obsessive maniac lost in the wilderness and surrounded by monkeys. The Rehearsal ends the same way, if you replace “monkeys” with “actors”. The fact that the original concept for The Rehearsal falls apart and gets sucked into a Kaufmannesque meta-hole is very funny. The fact that the disciples of the Fielder Method turn out to be legitimately great at acting is the funniest joke of 2022. The Rehearsal may come up short in its search for reality and authenticity, but it does take us into a ruefully witty World of Pure Imagination.

Various insightful pieces have been written about how The Rehearsal speaks to people on the Autism Spectrum. And, as someone who lives somewhere along that street, I’ll say I wholeheartedly agree that it speaks to us. I think it also speaks to the general struggle to understand in a time marked by confusion; to understand what is real and to separate the authentic from the fake. And, if I didn’t already muse on it in a different top 10 review (Marcel the Shell With Shoes On), I could probably devote a paragraph to how it speaks to COVID-era loneliness and social anxiety; how we’ve all had to gradually rebuild our social muscles in the last few years. The Rehearsal is a work of artistic genius because it speaks to a lot in the human condition. But every autistic person has probably thought about how they might become a little more normal through practice. What Fielder sets out to do here is reduce enough of the chaos and unpredictability in life to have some control over the outcome. But as he does so, he also worries if all that constructing of reality isn’t making reality less real. If you have to rehearse reality to manage it, how authentic does that make you as a person? If you have to analyze human behavior and emotions under a magnifying glass to better understand them, does that draw you further from authentically feeling and having those emotions? Does looking hard at reality though a magnifying glass actually warp it and make it harder to really grasp? People on the Autism Spectrum understand the paradoxical tug-of-war between practicing behavior and effortlessly grasping behavior. The other community that understands that struggle is actors. An actor must study hard and internalize their scene up to a point. And then, they must simply embody that knowledge without apparent effort. They must study enough to create the appearance of being unstudied. It’s a heady, funny idea that Fielder mines to deadpan delirious effect. It’s also a very relatable rabbit hole to go down. From time to time, we all feel not quite ourselves.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #4- The Banshees of Inisherin

I don’t entirely know what changed between 2017, the year of Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-courting Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and 2022, the year of his perfect black dramedy, The Banshees of Inisherin. I can say that America’s leadership turned over, even if a lot of the rancor of the Trump years barely feels like it’s abated. Three Billboards, a film about forgiveness and redemption, specifically set within red state America, debuted into a culture that was vociferously and publicly trying to exorcise its racist demons. As many of us were calling out the hypocrisy of patiently abiding bigotry, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri wandered into the fray and posited a facile question: what if a violent, ignorant racist were also a good person just trying their best (Jojo Rabbit would pose the same question about Nazis a year later)? I still find McDonagh’s 2017 film fundamentally wrong-headed, the cinematic cousin to the myriad New York Times op-eds about the wholesome, domestic lives of white supremacists. Useless and obtuse at best; insidiously accommodating to hatred at worst. The major reason The Banshees of Inisherin works so beautifully where Billboards faltered is not just the new-but-not-that-new political moment it arrived in but its decision to not try to speak directly to the moment. And, in such a way, to speak inestimably more eloquently to the moment (its isolation and loneliness, its acrimony, the sputtering struggle to connect with one another) than Three Billboards’ America-targeting hot takes ever could. It is a film that hits more pointedly for aiming at a larger target. The setting this time is McDonagh’s own native Ireland. And, while I can only speculate whether the more familiar environs has helped to ground him, the results are hard to argue with. He has made the most emotionally grounded, eloquent film of his career. And, McDonagh enthusiasts will be pleased to note, he has grounded himself without losing so much as a dram of the puckish, fanciful, anarchic liquor that runs through his veins. He is still the same clever imp making dark, uncomfortable jokes and holding very little sacred. But that impishness has a glorious soulfulnesss here that surpasses even the most poignant moments of his feature debut and former high watermark, In Bruges. Both artistically and geographically, cinema’s hyperliterate enfant terible feels more at home than ever.

Home is McDonagh’s green Ireland, though a somewhat fictionalized version. The remote island of Inisherin is a made-up place, barely touched by the realities of the film’s 1920s setting. The Irish Civil War is grinding to a close on the mainland and only exists to our isolated characters in the odd far-off gunshot or in rumors told by the contemptible local constable. In this verdant backwater lives an endearing dimwit named Padraic (an astonishingly funny and moving Colin Farrell) and his older friend, a surly, frustrated intellectual named Colm (the great Brendan Gleeson, who handles this scintillatingly sharp dialogue so well that some have given him the backhanded compliment of being “effortless”). On a day exactly like every other day in these beautiful boondocks, Padraic walks the old country road from his tiny farmhouse down to Colm’s seaside cottage to pursue their daily tradition: an early afternoon round at the village pub. When he raps on his friend’s window, he sees Colm inside stoically staring at the wall and not responding. Puzzled by Colm’s silence, Padraic walks up to the bar alone and the barkeeps are surprised to see him without his usual company. They wonder if the two chums might be having a fight and Padraic’s sharp-tongued spinster sister Siobhan (a revelatory Kerry Condon) wonders the same. When Colm finally turns up at the pub (alone but for his dog), Padraic gives him a blanket apology for whatever he’s done to wrong his friend. But Colm tells him there’s nothing to forgive. “I just don’t like you anymore, ” Colm flatly explains. “But you liked me yesterday,” Padraic stammers back in dismay. Colm has become keenly aware of the passing years and feels he has little to show for his time on this desolate corner of the planet. He wants to think and write music to leave to the future generations, but his scant time is being rapidly siphoned away by the banal rituals and mundane conversations he shares with his dull friend, who he bluntly calls “a limited man”. Colm simply does not want to associate with Padraic anymore, and he is unmoved by the reminders from Siobhan and the local priest that cutting a friend off just for being a little boring isn’t very nice. Padraic doesn’t take this rejection well and their ensuing fallout takes a McDonagh-worthy turn for the blackly comic when Colm backs up his antisocial request with a grisly ultimatum. Every time Padraic ignores his wish for silence and solitude, Colm will cut off a finger; from his fiddle-playing hand first. McDonagh’s film is a vicious and bleakly lyrical parable about social niceties, civil obligations and estrangement that drags the mores of an entire Irish town down into a peat bog.

As a child of largely Irish ancestry, my first exposure to my ancestral land came through media that depicted the Irish as kind of amiably prone to squabbling. McDonagh’s is certainly not the first film to depict two Irish men bickering. It’s a romantic cliche that endures in films like The Quiet Man and Darby O’Gill and the Little People. The Irish are portrayed as rowdy, drink-loving fighters. Insults and barbs are their love language (and their hate language). Bar fights and fisticuffs are seen as almost whimsical and at the very least spirited. That cliche can be fun, but McDonagh is here to take the ever-fecking piss out of Hollywood-friendly Irish whimsy. His film starts not unlike Kenneth Branagh’s milquetoast Irish autobiography, Belfast, with shots worthy of an Irish tourism commercial. Lush green pastures, narrow lanes choked with sheep, rugged coasts and bracing sea foam. By design, he is situating us in the Ireland of Tinseltown’s reductive dreams. He is placing us in the same charmingly folksy Ireland of films like Waking Ned Devine, only so he can torch it all by the end. He knows audiences will coo at the quaint greenery and colorful locals and he hopes they do. It just makes it all the funnier by the film’s finale, when Martin McDonagh informs us with a wry chuckle that this little emerald paradise may as well be Hell on Earth. The painterly vistas and rolling hills are the kind of scenery that prepares us for romance, wit and wonder (the wit is here in droves), but McDonagh delights in having those landscapes play host to a tale of wounded pride and wicked human pettiness. Of all the jokes in this riotously funny tragicomedy, its charming, rural mise en scene may well be the funniest of them all. Idealize the Emerald Isle all you want as far as McDonagh is concerned. And sure, it does look nice. But there is no place in the world too awe-inspiring or magically picturesque to be sullied by the very basest and most childishly stunted of human behavior. And there’s something in that universally mean notion that is oddly kind of beautiful.

McDonagh gets a lot of mileage out of his quaint, pastoral setting. One of the chief criticisms of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was that McDonagh was training his sardonic crosshairs on rural America when he had never set so much as a foot there. His barbs lacked specificity and accuracy because he only had the most generalized idea of the place he was sending up. Coming home to his native Ireland seems to have focused him and rejuvenated his peculiar knack for marrying the poignant to the mercilessly cutting. He also mines the Irish Civil War backdrop well without making too much out of it. Quite to the contrary, these characters are so isolated and cut off (from Ireland and from each other) that the Irish Civil War hardly exists to them in any real sense. It’s as much an abstract idea to them as it is to McDonagh’s screenplay. The Civil War exists for McDonagh as metaphor and as a larger story playing out in tandem with the film’s very small story. All shapes and sizes. The War is the epic macro version of Banshees’ microscopic feud, and McDonagh is suggesting a world full of meanness, stubborn pride and childish squabbling. Siobhan begs her brother to leave Inisherin’s lonely gloom, but it is not simply this desolate place that traps Padraic and his fellow villagers. It is the human condition and everything small and self-defeating inside of us. What I love about McDonagh’s laceratingly funny parable is that, while the Irish setting is important and personal to the writer-director, Banshees of Inisherin is a story that could be set anywhere and at any time in human history. It could have been the tale of two ancient Greeks or two lords in Orwellian England or two hunter gatherers on the Serengeti in the 1800s. It could be one year ago or one thousand In the distant, dystopian future or at the dawn of mankind. Feuding and pouting and shutting people out are subjects for any era. Falling out with a friend is forever.

More than anything, after growing a little weary of McDonagh’s bratty stylings after 2017, I am over the moon to be a full-fledged fan again. I think there’s something in this breed of precociously hyper-literate writer-director that can slip easily into lazy, self-satisfied territory. Aaron Sorkin spends half his time being one of the sharpest, funniest writers of his generation and the other half being exasperatingly pleased with his own, ahem, liberal talents. David Mamet started out with one of the best ears for insightful, rhythmic dialogue imaginable and a rapier wit for skewering masculinity, but later devolved into a tiresome conservative Zionist. Even Quentin Tarantino, a writer who has been a passionate cinema advocate and hardly ever written anything less than great, occasionally becomes over-exposed and lapses into self-parody. We like our artists to be humble and sensitive but writers like Martin McDonagh thrive on provocation and snark and dynamic writerly flourishes. A fair bit of brazen braggadocio is just part of the sauce for guys like that. Screenplays with that kind of kinetic, show-off style can be thrilling but they can also tip into being smug, self-consciously overcooked and grating. AS much as provocateurs like to pride themselves on pushing people’s buttons, there is an actual artistry to good provocation. You can’t just ruffle feathers and automatically label their discomfort as your success. Banshees of Inisherin is a roaring success because it attacks social norms in a way that doesn’t feel superior to its characters or its audience. This is classic firebrand Martin McDonagh operating with real empathy. It’s a film about human frailty that does actually like people. Nobody is being looked down upon, not even the local creep Dominic (an astonishing Barry Keoghan). Banshees does drag humanity through the muck, but if you look right behind you, you’ll see Martin McDonagh is there, just as caked in filth as the rest of us.

Banshees of Inisherin represents a huge step forward for just about everyone involved. The only exception is the towering Brendan Gleeson, an actor so consistently brilliant that I have heard some accuse his performance of being effortless. My only response to that is that highwire Martin McDonagh dialogue doesn’t get to feel effortless unless the actor speaking it has an impeccable grasp of the material. THere is very little that Gleeson can’t make look easy. Everyone else in the film is raising their career zeniths. Martin McDonagh, usually thought of as a writer first and a director second, creates a gorgeously subtle tone and even creates some rich and memorable shots. Kerry Condon is a sweet, sardonic delight. My only exposure to her before this was Better Call Saul, a great show that gave her its most thankless and uninteresting role. Her performance as Siobhan is so soulful, sad and sharply funny that it should immediately establish her as a star. She should never have to play a blandly supportive girlfriend or daughter-in-law again. Barry Keoghan gives not only his best performance, but one that acts like a proof of concept for the whole singularly strange Barry Keoghan Experience. His Dominic walks a tightrope of characterization. He balances notes of daffy humor, creepiness, pitiable weirdness and sweetness in such a way that the character shapeshifts before our very eyes. McDonagh loves to peel back the layers of his characters so that we check our initial impressions of them, and Dominic may be his best character rug pull yet. And finally, it is such a pleasure to watch Colin Farrell bloom into his full masterful potential. Farrell broke through in the early Aughts in films like Minority Report, but he spent the next decade being repeatedly mishandled by studios who could only conceive of him as the latest leading heartthrob. He was in danger of turning into Ireland’s Val Kilmer: an endlessly gifted character actor doomed to mediocre parts by his own handsomeness. It was Martin McDonagh who finally unlocked Farrell’s true depth with In Bruges. His knack for quick comedic banter and underselling a dark joke.  His wonderfully dopey soulfulness. In Bruges showed Hollywood that it had been using Farrell all wrong, that he was so much more than UK-exported beefcake. Banshees of Inisherin soars because it seamlessly blends the wildly funny and the deeply sad. In other words, it’s what a Colin Farrell film should have been all along.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #5- TÁR

During the Will Smith slap fiasco at the 2022 Academy Awards, a handful of people offered a perspective that differed from the standard tones of mortified shock and flabbergasted schadenfreude. A small number, without excusing Smith’s battery of Chris Rock, felt sorrow for Smith; not embarrassment, but genuine pity. Smith,

Can a standard urine test detect drugs?

Urine drug testing is a common method employed to detect the presence of various substances within the body. Employers, healthcare professionals, and law enforcement agencies often utilize this method to screen individuals for drug use. But can a standard urine test effectively detect drugs? Let’s delve into the details.

Introduction
Urine drug testing plays a crucial role in identifying drug use patterns, monitoring treatment progress, and ensuring safety in various environments. Understanding how these tests work and their limitations is essential for accurate interpretation and decision-making.

Understanding Urine Drug Tests
What are urine drug tests?
Urine drug tests, also known as urinalysis, analyze urine samples to detect the presence of drugs or their metabolites. These tests can identify a wide range of substances, including illicit drugs and prescription medications.

How do urine drug tests work?
Urine drug tests typically involve collecting a urine sample and analyzing it for specific drug compounds. The presence of these compounds indicates recent drug use. The test’s sensitivity and specificity determine its ability to accurately detect drugs.

Types of Drugs Detectable in Urine
Common drugs detected
Urine drug tests can detect various substances, including but not limited to:

Marijuana (THC)
Cocaine
Opiates (such as heroin and prescription painkillers)
Amphetamines
Benzodiazepines
Duration of detection
The duration for which drugs remain detectable in urine varies depending on several factors, including the drug type, dosage, frequency of use, and individual metabolism.

Accuracy and Reliability of Urine Drug Tests
Factors influencing accuracy
Several factors can affect the accuracy and reliability of urine drug tests, including:

Sensitivity of the test
Cross-reactivity with other substances
Sample handling and storage procedures
False positives and false negatives
Urine drug tests may yield false-positive or false-negative results due to various factors, such as:

Contamination of the sample
Errors in testing procedures
Interference from medications or dietary supplements

wherever you might stand on his gold-winning King Richard performance, had trekked a long road to reach that momentous night and that glittery stage. It had twisted from his days as a wholesome rapper and a winning television presence through several action touchstones and a few flirtations with tony prestige (AliThe Pursuit of Happyness). And, for a number of years, he stood atop the highest peak in moviedom: the most famous, highly paid movie star in all of Hollywood. He had been loved as an icon and mocked as a one-time Scientologist and dabbled in a variety of genres without ever truly souring his reputation. It had been a long, long journey and he was minutes away from an already-guaranteed rendezvous with acting’s highest honor. And then something just snapped in him or came over him. If only temporarily, a man known for wielding an iron grip over his own unobjectionable image lost the cool, easy control that was the defining quality of his star persona. There have been scandals less egregious and scandals far, far worse than Smith’s violent tantrum, but it is undeniably tragic for Smith to have walked a movie star tight rope for decades and then topple  at his exact moment of triumph. In his stunningly assured TÁR, Todd Field seems to have a bedrock of sympathy for anyone who finds themselves suddenly unable to keep it together. For anyone who strives for perfection but falls into pieces. His third film and second masterpiece (a whopping two decades after his Best Picture-nominated debut In the Bedroom) is an account of a hard-working, marginalized person (a lesbian composer) who is white knuckling it toward their own moment of triumph just as the wheels start to come off of their meticulously constructed victory wagon. It is a story of bad behavior and horrendous judgment conspiring to undo a celebrated artist’s big day. It’s important to note Field’s empathy about how painful professional ruin and the loss of control can be, but Field is also clear-eyed about this kind of thing. The unfortunateness of an artist’s self-sabotage cannot negate the karma of a person becoming the architect of their own misfortune.

Field’s brilliant follow-up to 2006’s shaggy but worthy Little Children is maybe the year’s most cerebral film; a nuanced examination of art, success and the upward striving American Dream. But at its most surface level (a surface deeper than a great many Oscar vehicles ever reach), it is a sumptuously detailed dive into a fascinating subculture: the sophisticated, relentlessly competitive world of symphony orchestras. We meet genius conductor Lydia Tar as she is being interviewed at the prestigious New Yorker Festival and she already holds this entire cloistered classical music world in the palm of her hand. In so many ways, she has already won. She is a Leonard Bernstein protege with a prestigious position at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, numerous acclaimed works, the fabled EGOT (winning an Emmy, Oscar Grammy and Tony, the artist’s Triple Crown), a progressive non-profit for aspiring female conductors like she once was, and a hotly anticipated book on the way. And, in a matter of weeks, she will officially have conducted full cycle of works by Gustav Mahler, an honor no woman in her profession has achieved. We learn all of this in a masterfully acted scene in which Lydia Tar asserts herself as nothing less than a master of time itself. Like the sections in an orchestra, the various pieces of Tar’s life attend the movement of her precise hand and bow to her artistic command. She quickly emerges as one of the most controlling and composed (no pun intended) characters in all of cinema history. Daniel Plainview would probably find her a little intense (though when has he liked anyone?). And then, as so often happens to characters with the hubris to believe they are in full control of their fates, the tight-fisted power Lydia asserts begins to slip, gradually at first and then with increasing speed. TÁR is a piece of work that begins with an assured rhythm and then morphs and devolves into a breathtakingly discordant wall of sound. It is a tale of vanity and ego told with shattering depth and subtly rich humor. And the more Lydia Tar loses her balance, the more Cate Blanchett’s towering, instantly iconic performance takes on the perfect poise and discipline of a great wirewalker. While she lost the Oscar to the great Michelle Yeoh, Lydia Tar’s story of ruin is Cate Blanchett’s latest and greatest moment of triumph. Field’s masterpiece places Blanchett atop the same pedestal that her Lydia Tar falls from.

What we come to learn of Lydia is that she is what we would typically refer to as a “monster”, even though Field’s entire approach is to challenge the idea of categorizing people in that way. He lets us see Tar’s stature as a woman who has risen through the boys club of orchestral music. He introduces us to her as a queer woman, as a person with a devoted partner, as an adoptive mother and as a passionate (albeit brazenly arrogant) instructor of an art form that she clearly loves. In crafting a film about cancel culture, Field does a remarkably deft job of not forgiving professional abuses of power. This is blessedly not a screed about how moral censure threatens great art or how the effort to hold powerful figures accountable has become too prevalent. TÁR is not excusing the Lydia Tars of the world, nor is it apologizing on their behalf. It recognizes with serene detachment that power and success can enable cruelty and exploitation and it lays out the evidence of what is really goin on with Lydia in a way that becomes more alarmingly apparent as the film goes on. Field’s masterstroke is to humanize a mortifying, cancellable person without rationalizing their choices. In a way, Field has accomplished what Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could not, in trying to find something human in a very immoral person. But, where McDonagh patly tried to excuse a violent racist with a single good deed, Field isn’t trying to rescue Lydia. He is asking his audience what a person’s sins look like in the full context of their lives and whatever good they have done. And he is asking complex questions about our empathy for people who do harm to others. Do we save some small amount of it depending on the viciousness of their transgression? What does it mean, in a world full of toxicity and abuse, to see the abuser as human?

In assessing the value of art in relation to problematic artists, TÁR is in dialogue with a moment from another one of 2022’s best films, The Banshees of Inisherin (hello again, Martin McDonagh!) In a pivotal scene, one character scoffs at the value of being a nice, good person weighed against the value of creating a work of enduring artistic genius. TÁR asks its audience how much the character and integrity of the artist should matter when assessing their work. Lydia Tar feels strongly that the identity of the artist shouldn’t matter one iota. She reminds a colleague that the great composer Schoenbrun once threw a woman down a flight of stairs, but that never kept him from being seen as a great man in his field. When a student bristles at covering Bach (one more dead, white male composer) when so many great musicians from black and queer communities continue to go unheard, Lydia rudely bristles right back at him. The great artists, to her thinking, do not need to pour their struggles and personal idiosyncrasies into their work. Instead, an artist’s core self should be utterly immaterial to the work. The work represents something greater and purer than the artist’s mere identity.  She insists the artist must actually subsume their identity. The ensuing two hours are a reminder to Lydia Tar that, however noble the idea of art transcending its creator might be, we do not live in a world that holds the two separate. The public does no omit the artist’s identity when they judge the work, especially not for artists that commit heinous deeds. I still consider Woody Allen’s Manhattan to be a humane masterpiece, but it is impossible to rewatch the middle-aged lead (played by Allen himself) romance a 17-year old and not think of the acts of pedophilia the director has been accused of. A lot of great art doesn’t even attempt to hide the nature of the artist. What is auteur theory if not an acknowledgment that the great artists like to pour some of themselves into their work? To paraphrase something the writer JD Amato once said about film, every piece of art is in some way about its creator. In the end, Lydia Tar’s wish to have art cleanly separated from the artist may just be naivete. It could also be an unconscious fear that her abuses of power will catch up to her ; and not only to her but to her innocent creations. That the art will be made to pay for the sins of its parent. And she is not wrong to fear that outcome, even if she wrong in so many other ways. Subsuming your identity may sound high-minded and profound, but it’s also a hypocritical expectation. When an artistic genius feels entitled to indulge their every appetite regardless of who it hurts, that starts to sound like the very antithesis of subsuming yourself. Perhaps it is unrealistic to ask that your art be considered in a vacuum when so much outside of your art is about satisfying your own immoral ego.

To say that a film about a composer has a musical quality is an unspeakable cliche. It is also impossible to touch on TÁR’s bracing, disorienting style without noting that it feels like a piece of music. It is an astonishing work of rhythm and tone, from its confident editing to its subtly bold camera work. But it is not simply put together in a musical way. It has a musical sense of structure and story that it marries to its style. In the film’s opening scene, Lydia Tar waxes poetic on the importance of time in music and she humbly appoints herself the Lord Emperor of Time, at least in any piece she is conducting (Time itself may still be on the table though). Like his character, Todd Field directs with meticulous precision and control. He is not only matching Lydia’s formal perfection as a conductor but the precision with which she conducts her stainless life and the people who occupy it. Her students, her fawning peers, her wife and daughter are all instruments to be commanded. TÁR hums with the pitch perfect timing of a great symphony. And then, in a way that is no less technically assured, it turns into a great atonal symphony, its coolly controlled strains turning discordant, jarring and syncopated. It is, after all, not really about an artist maintaining perfect control but losing it. Field has written a cinematic piece of music to capture the feeling of a life spinning out of balance. A musical odyssey from the highest halls of power through a gauntlet of scandal and down into the back alleys of tarnished anonymity. In some ways, it feels like a film the Safdie Brothers would make if you replaced their gritty, DIY mise en scene with tight, Kubrickian polish. It’s both harrowing and sharply humorous. Just beneath the sober subjects of abuse, bullying and entitlement is a vein of black comedy. It’s the unnerving tickle that only schadenfreude can provide. You chuckle grimly because it’s not happening to you. But the joke is also on us. After we’ve borne witness to Lydia’s calamitous fall from grace, we might realize that her rock bottom is still a life that most of us have to crane our necks to gaze up at. Her hellish torment is to be exiled to a life where she might have to interact with the average person slightly more. Hell for Lydia Tar is having to rub elbows with the people watching Todd Field’s TÁR.

At the same time that Field complicates the nature of a toxic artist, he is also placing some blame back on the people who enable them. One of the most ingenious structural aspects of TÁR is the gradual way Field makes Lydia’s brazen abuse more and more apparent. He doesn’t do it in glaringly obvious ways, Though Lydia’s flirtations with an attractive young cellist who she personally hires over a more deserving musician paints a clear picture of how she uses her high position to extort favor. But, in a way that makes me think of 2023’s The Zone of Interest, Field is really interested in the kinds of crimes that are just concealed enough for people to turn their gaze away from. He brilliantly hints at what kind of person Lydia is in fragmented ways. Nina Hoss’ remarkable performance as Tar’s wife tells us a lot just with a pained gaze. There is a sense that she knows that Lydia is probably sometimes unfaithful, entitled and hedonistic in the way some rich celebrities can be. What’s more enigmatic is how much she suspects about the very young girls that Lydia is being unfaithful with. It’s possible that she has shielded herself from knowing. It is also possible that her patiently pained expression is the look of someone who is on the verge of really seeing what’s going on and can’t bear to take that final step into certainty. The same feels true of Tar’s attentive assistant, her mentor and other member of the symphony. They might all be holding themselves back from looking behind Lydia’s curtain. They know she is an arrogant hedonist, a person unafraid to take what she wants, but that doesn’t necessarily reach the realm of criminality. But to know, to let themselves know with certainty what is going on would be to tear down their own world. Field suggests maybe there is more to a cancellable monster than just the sum of their misdeeds. But he also says there is more behind a cancellable monster than just themselves. There are people with reasons not to want to see them fall. And maybe that’s also why, when people like that do fall, their plummet can oftentimes feel short and inadequate.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #6- The Fabelmans

Among the many qualities of Steven Spielberg’s basically autobiographical masterpiece The Fabelmans, the most surprising (especially if you’ve only watched its misleadingly tony trailer) is its humor. The latest brilliant collaboration between Spielberg and god-tier playwright-turned-screenwriter Tony Kushner is more than just surprisingly ticklish and light on its feet. It is often legitimately funny, as if to deliberately blow the dust off the acclaimed veteran director’s prestigious reputation. One of the funniest things about it is that its conceit relies on a truckload of braggadocio from the populist master. The Fabelmans goes well past the point of a humble brag and veers into bragging full-stop. Its thesis calls for one iro-clad premise: Steven Spielberg is, and probably always has been since his birth, an utter genius at every single aspect of making films. It’s a boast that he is using to engage in some very pointed self-deprecation and self-criticism, which feels like a particularly trusty kind of Jewish humor. There is something dryly funny in someone laying all their faults and neuroses bare by very directly stating that they’re kind of inarguably a genius. The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s most personally confessional and painful film, an analysis of the inner darkness that fuels his art and how much his wondrous filmmaking is actually an outlet for trauma, guilt and unexorcised demons. The genius, he explains to us with a wry smile threatening to break across his face, is actually not entirely a good thing. It’s the byproduct of his masochistic drive to dredge up old pain and his own unresolved emotional issues. He’s telling us that there’s a can of icky worms behind every spell-binding, magical movie he’s ever assembled. A primal scream behind the wonder and technical wizardry. The Fabelmans is rich with honest-to-God jokes. And the best joke of all might be that the greatest popular director of his generation makes a movie about puncturing his own genius that also sends the audience out with another reminder of that same genius. The man has never been more nakedly revealing nor more warmly hilarious.

 

The Fabelmans picks up at a New Jersey movie palace in 1952, where a six-year old Sammy Fabelman (charmingly played by Mateo Zorya for the first quarter of the film and by an electrifyingly confident Gabrielle LaBelle for the remainder) is about to watch his first genuine motion picture. The feature presentation is Cecil B. De Mille’s polarizing, bloated extravaganza The Greatest Show On Earth (mainstay on the lower half of ranked Best Picture lists). His two very distinct parents, genius engineer Burt (a wonderfully sweet and sad Paul Dano) and spirited art lover Mitzi (a terrific and poignant Michelle Williams) are trying in their own ways to ease Sammy’s nerves about the spectacle to come. Burt is using science to rationalize away his little boy’s trepidation about watching 20-foot tall people on screen, hoping that explaining how movies work might make them less intimidating. Mitzi is gushing about the dream-like magiv of movies. It’s a classic set-up for a cliched “power of the movies” coming of age scene, but what plays out subverts that. This will not be Spielberg’s CInema Paradiso. The movie scene that burns itself into Sammy’s brain is not some feel-good slice of enchantment but a grandly violent train crash complete with screeching metal and one horrifying death. The Fabelmans will follow through on its premise as the autobiography of Steven Spielberg’s lifelong love affair with the movies, but the journey will be exceedingly more complicated than you can imagine, borne more out of fear, dysfunction and heartache than childlike whimsy and schmaltz. It is the story of Sammy’s life with his Jewish family,. which consists of his diametrically opposite parent, two younger sisters, and a surrogate uncle figure named Benny (Seth Rogen, relishing the chance to add a completely different kind of film to his resume) who works with his father and shows up to every holiday and vacation. It’s an observant, intimately scaled domestic drama (one Spielberg had wanted to make for many years) shot through with the kind of majesty, invention and dewy emotion that only our finest blockbuster director can provide. It winds from New Jersey through Arizona and ends in the place you would expect the story of young Steve Spielberg to wrap up: Hollywood. And yet, nothing about hos this lovely, empathetic story unfolds feels expected or cliched. It is one of the most delicate, natural and spontaneously alive of Spielberg’s career and it is also the kind of breathtakingly confident, engaging entertainment you make when you are at the height of your powers. Spielberg tells an insular little yarn about a hard thing he and his family went through when he was a kid and somehow brings down the house once more.

From its opening scene, Spielberg is trying to  get at the nature of who he is as an artist and push back against the idea that he is only driven by wonder and childish innocence. He cagily locates himself at the nexus of vivid, often dreamlike imagination and precise whiz kid technique. He is a man of magic and science and The Fabelmans is his endlessly shrewd unpacking of how one sphere of his talent has always butted heads with and simultaneously relied upon the other. When a teenaged Sammy Ingeniously figures out how to create the illusion of gunfire in his first Western film by poking pinholes in the film that allow light to shine through, his dry father’s face lights up with childlike amazement. But, in the next scene, Burt asks his son why he isn’t devoting his prodigious talent for engineering to more practical, useful matters. Most engineers use their knowledge to design and invent practical things. Engines and bridges. Sammy’s inventions are cinematic dreams, cobbled together with economic proble-solving. His scientific discipline cannot be separated from the sense of magic he gets from his mother. The left and right brains of his two parents enrich each other and spar with each other. The Fabelmans is very much about the uneasy, if always loving, marriage of his diametrically opposed parents. But the core of his parents’ story is also the seed of Spielberg’s own cinematic identity. His films have always been a place where practical ingenuity and cinematic wonder coexist. , where one is impossible without the other (it’s what made him such an ideal mentor to Robert Zemeckis, another effects geek with romance in his soul). With his unique blend of practical know-how and starry-eyed enchantment, Spielberg is perhaps like the version of silent director Georges Melies that we see in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo: a crafty toymaker. Steven Spielberg may have become a great engineer like his father, but he clearly had a different notion of the word “useful”. Instead of applying his rigorous craftmanship to cars or computers, he saved it for the beautiful dreams so cherished by his mother. And in that way, if only that way, he managed to keep his two beloved influences in harmony and in conversation with one another.

There is a deeper truth to science and awe in this movie than just how it relates to Spielberg’s folks. The Fabelmans is the story of Steven Spielberg’s most painful childhood memory and it is about how all of his art, sometimes misunderstood as sentimental and saccharine, is suffused with the hurt and fear he felt as a child. Even at their most seemingly crowd-pleasing, Spielberg is saying his movies are an outlet for wrestling with what troubles him and frightens him. His first theater experience, sold to him as a wondrous extravaganza, also greatly disturbs him. He is unsettled by the cinema at the same time he is captivated and inspired by it. The Fabel mans is a reminder that Spielberg’s films are not mere wonder delivery systems; there is always some degree of horror mixed into the recipe. His world-beating Jaws, a film so fun that it literally invented the summer blockbuster, is also a bloody horror mov ie where an almost imperceptible menace lays waste to a small town’s Americana facade. ET, a sublimely magical piece of coming-of-age science fiction, also has one of the most viscerally upsetting death scenes; in any film, let alone a studio family blockbuster. His Hook, a film oft-malighted for its cheesy artifice, only takes us to Never Neverland after an unsparingly ominous kidnapping scene. In one of the setpieces from The Fabelmans‘ second half (an hour-plus cavalcade of perfect scenes that sent me out of the theater giddy), se see Sammy invent the fabled Spielberg Face, where an actor looks offscreen in a close-up that focuses on their awe-struck wonderment. Bu the source of the “wonder” in this scene is a carnage-strewn battlefield and the subtest if the crumbling of Sammy’s home life. The Fabelmans recontextualizes even the most plainly feel-good instance of Spielbergian wonder as an act of trying to shine a light into the gloom. The magic is real, but there is always some amount of pain and torment behind it. Spielberg has made a masterpiece about how the things that delight us and the things that terrify us are maybe one and the same. They are part of the great tapestry that Spielberg has spent his life mastering. One great  and terrible quilt of enchantment and dread.

One poignant and funny truth that Spielberg arrives at is that what scares him most might be himself. After watching that brutally explosive train crash in his first trip to the movies, the initial fear gradually fades to reveal an even more alarming truth: he loves the fear. Exciting or unsettling, Sammy only knows that he is helplessly drawn to it. In The Fabelmans, cinema is not some magical, sweet fairy brightening Spielberg’s young life with uncomplicated mirth and pixie dust. Cinema is more like a Nosferatu, a vampire with murky intentions that takes little Sammy by surprise, bites him and mutates him forever. That first viewing of The Greatest Show On Earth didn’t just rattle young Spielberg. It imbued him with an insatiable hunger, a bottomless obsession. From the outside The Fabelmans may look like it’s going to be one more love letter to the movies, but it’s actually about a fearsome addiction to them. Of course, this being our maestro of wonder and spectacle, the film’s account of that debilitating addiction cannot help but be dynamic, compelling, moving and ticklishly funny. The great joke of the film is Spielberg trying to point to the darkness in himself and having sparks and confetti shoot out of his fingers. His incurable curse is the world’s gain. By the end, Spielberg seems to almost lose his own argument, as he and his audience are washed away in a tsunami of sharp humor, visual wizardry and richly humane vibes. Sammy’s elderly, prodigal uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, doing more with ten minutes of screentime than should be humanly possible) warns him that art is no game. Once it has its hooks in you, if you are a true artist, you will be helpless prey to it. It will infest you and command you. It will fill your soul with poetry but it is a spout that cannot be turned off. We get plenty of romantic films about the siren song of art, but Spielberg may have made the only film of this kind to really contemplate how the artist can be dashed against the rocks of their own divine calling.

Spielberg’s effervescently great West Side Story cracked my top twenty films of 2021. In that review, I noted a couple Spielberg qualities that The Fabelmans also runs with. First is Spielberg’s most vital collaborator over the last two-plus decades: genius playwright Tony Kushner. John Williams is regularly and rightly discussed as maybe Spielberg’s top collaborator on the basis of decades of iconic, brilliant scores. But, since 2004, Spielberg and Kushner have had a four-film spotless miracle run together: Munich, Lincoln, West Side Story, and now The Fabelmans. It’s a partnership as  fruitful as it is impossible to pigeon-holeThe eloquent mournfulness of Munich gave little sign as to how the two men would make the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation both lively and subtly humorous in Lincoln. And Lincoln is distinct in its greatness from what they would do to bring a well-worn 1950s musical into the 21st century with sharp topicality and vibrant immediacy. The common thread of their stunning collaborations is just a sparkling attentiveness and an irrepressible sense for how to make material dazzle and sing. The other compliment I paid Spielberg in my West Side Story review is his incredible eye for discovering up and coming talents. After directing a virtually unknown Ariana Debose to an Academy Awards two years ago and discovering new star Rachel Zegler, Spielberg has found a tremendously exciting young actor in Gabriel Labelle, his teeenaged avatar in the film. Labelle’s tapdance between fizzy comedy and wrenching drama is simply a stunner. Like the director who has raised his profile, he seems to have a grasp of the places where joy and tragedy exist together. The kind of dark rainbow of oil and water that Spielberg only gets better and better at blending together.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #7- Everything Everywhere All At Once

Half a decade prior (a lifetime and a pandemic ago), poor Martin Scorsese gave an opinion that vast swaths of the American geek populace has yet to forgive him for. He remarked upon the shiny emptiness of Marvel and the unrelenting comic book movie culture. His opinion was that super hero movies were not cinema but something closer to rollercoasters. Slick, formulaic rides more concerned with rattling the senses and pleasing expectations than pushing the medium forward. There’s a moment early on in Everything Everywhere All At Once (the Best Picture-winning gem by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, or the Daniels) where the film all but announces itself as a kind of rollercoaster. As Evelyn’s husband Waymond (or more correctly one of his multiverse doppelgangers) explains the wild rules of hopping between this film’s mirror universes to his wife, he is also preparing us for a two-hour blast of zany forward motion. He is laying out the logic and structure of the film for the audience and starting the countdown to blast-off. As he gives his wife the instructions for starting her genre- and reality-hopping action extravaganza, you can almost feel the safety bar settle snugly against your chest. And then, in an unmistakably propulsive instant, Everything Everywhere All At Once hurtles into the sky and doesn’t come down for 120 exhilarating, teary minutes. Everything Everywhere is the exception to Scorsese’s rollercoaster critique that proves the rule of why the old master is right. It’s no sin to build your movie for fun, laughs, and top speed; to make your film a kinetic thrill ride. The only true failing is to do so obligatorily, uninterestingly, uncinematically. Like a great many vibrant 2022 blockbusters (Nope, The Woman King, Avatar: The Way of Water), the Daniels’ singular film was a call to arms for making popular entertainments with passion, character and thematic vision. Everything Everywhere All At Once was the year’s unforeseeable blockbuster Cinderella story. Movies should be more than just lucrative rides, but cinema itself should essentially act like rollercoasters for our minds and spirits.

I have no interest in using this review to kick Marvel Studios whil they are stumbling. What I am interested in is how films like Everything Everywhere All At Once seized on certain comic-friendly ideas and gave master clinics on how to do execute those ideas better. The Daniels (whose last film was the wonderfully insane Swiss Army Man) debuted their gonzo action dramedy in the unassuming 2022 Spring, four years after Marvel’s record-breaking Avengers: Endgame made the public go crazy for multiverses (parallel realms where the same characters live in tweaked realities) and delieverd a delirious primer on how much potential the multiverse concept holds. Everything Everywhere‘s lovably complex heroine is Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh, majestic and ass-kicking), a harried laundromat owner at the end of her emotional rope. On the single day when the film takes place, she is juggling a struggling business, house painting, a dinner with her stern Chinese father (national character actor treasure James Hong), the impending collapse of her marriage to the sweetly meek Waymond (a magnificent comeback turn from former child star Ke Huy Quan), miscommunication with her lesbian daughter (a strong debut by Stephanie Hsu) and a tax audit (overseen by a fat-suited Jamie Lee Curtis). This is all laid out before an inter-dimensional superspy version of her husband reveals that the universe is about to end and Evelyn is the one Neo-like figure capable of stopping the apocalypse. The bringer of doom is a young woman driven by zealous nihilism. And defeating her followers will require the bitter, defeated Evelyn to pick herself up and quickly learn a new talent: traveling seamlessly between multiverses. The means for doing so involves tricking tim itselby by behaving gizarrely and erratically. In short, zany invention and unbridled absurdism are baked into the very DNA of the Daniels’ gleefully weird, almost confoundingly moving tale of family, choices, hope and the trials of being a small business owner. It’s a film that finds room for cross-dressing cops, waves of giggly sexual innuendo, and tear-jerking reconciliations. It’s a film that runs around you in Daffy Duck circles without ever losing its emotional through-line. For all its flights of fancy (Everything Everywhere is basically made of flights of fancy), it has a throbbing heart that allows it to connect with eve the most avant garde-resistant viewer. It’s downright weird how accessible its weirdness is.

If anyone predicted 2022 having two great action films about the complex bond and friction between mothers and daughters (see also The Woman King; seriously, see it), I’m very impressed. If anyone predicted that one of them would boldly fly the flag of traditional blockbusting while the  other would embrace relentlessly caffeinated surrealism, I’m even more impressed. And, for as distinct as Everything Everywhere All At Once is in form compared to a film like The Woman King, both are unmistakably crowd-pleasers. Just as Woman King‘s mainstream exo-skeleton doesn’t make its look at the mother-daughter bond any less potent, Everything Everywhere‘s dizzy dadaism does nothing to weaken its cathartic ideas about parents and their children. There’s a kindred principle between the realms of music and film  that says if the artist can put a germ of something simply pleasurable and beautiful at the center of an artwork, they can give themselves more license for absurdism, experimentation and general weirdness. The Daniels dare themselves to be as sugar-high and frenetic and daffy as possible, but they know the glue that holds it all together is the universal catharsis and weepy reconciliation on the other side of the melee. The little bit of simple syrup at the bottom of the whiskey cocktail. Everything Everywhere All At Once can often feel like Daffy Duck’s unhinged “woo hoo!” distilled into cinematic form, but it crescendos in a handful of the year’s most unambiguously emotional scenes. Scenes where kinetic action falls away and dialogue and mutual understanding take the spotlight. It’s a testament to the power and diversity of 2022 cinema that two films multiverses apart in style, tone and setting managed to dovetail where it mattered. Calling your mother more often is the right thing to do in every universe.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is a film that leaves you with plenty to reflect on but a lot of its appeal is also very simple and immediate. In a year that saw the action movie go to deliriously inventive heights, the Daniels’ wacky action tearjerker feels like the proof of concept, the platonic ideal for all the fantastic places action movies went in 2022. All year long, it felt like the festive trumpet blast that summoned a merry cavalcade of bold action bonanzas. None of those other films were anything like Everything Everywhere, and that is as it should be. It’s less the kind of movie to inspire imitators than a call to dream big. It should inspire movies on the whole to be flamboyantly, defiantly themselves. Its ethos is about the staggering array of possibility we find in art and in life and how exciting that is. Saying a movie is about everything is so often a red flag or a cop-out, but this is the rare movie to be about everything in a cohesive way. This also makes the movie’s choice of antagonist (effectively an avatar of nihilism and nothingness) a rich one. Everything Everywhere All At Once is about tapping into our galaxy brains and hoisting our freak flags. And, as action cinema, it moves with its own free-wheeling sense of momentum. Whether you’re seeing a glamorously psychotic teenager pile drive a Carmen Miranda-clad cop or watching a diminutive Vietnamese man turn himself into Jason Bourne by eating a Chapstick, the film twirls and zooms and somersaults with maniacal conviction. Silliness may be the only thing that can save us. It’s the reason so many  were happy to see it take home Best Picture, even if there were still-greater films in the hunt. Because Everything Everywhere All At Once is not only great but great in a way that feels representative of what made 2022 remarkable. Emotionally cathartic and personal stories told with singular vision. Touching tales of communication between parents. The action film daring every other genre to keep up with it in terms of sheer scale, of cinematic invention, and of narrative richness.

The feat of Everything Everywhere is not just marrying gorgeous pathos to the action film in a way seldom done. It also manages to tell one of 2022’s most progressively empowering stories. It is a story with a resonant sense of what it is to be an immigrant in America, and an Asian-American in particular. It is evident not only in the intimate authenticity the Daniels bring to these characters (Daniel Kwan is the son of Chinese-American immigrants) but a lived-in familiarity, from the pressures of making parents proud to the struggles of carving out some version of success in a new land. Even the locations, the laundromat and that cozily cluttered apartment, feel tangible and real, tributes to real spaces where real people have lived and dreamed and fought for their happiness. It would be a wonderful thing to even have a standard immigrant drama or dramedy with this much insight and sweet soul. But again, we were privileged to watch it in 2022, when the parameters of genre and tradition were powerless to hem great filmmakers in. So now we have a wise tearjerker your grandmother could watch fused with a wacky action comedy to delight stoners and avant garde cineastes for decades to come. The sense of invention also feels thematically of a piece for a film that is partly about questioning suffocating convention and thinking creatively about how we find ourselves. Welcome to American cinema circa 2022. Where we’re going, we won’t need genres.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is so rich and colorful and full of warmth, I hate to waste any space discussing something as trivial as box office. Its very creation and the volumes of ingenuity and heart that went into that is what really matters. But, for a film that so openly invites its audience to tap into their emotions, creativity and silliness, it actually means a lot that such a wide audience found it and connected to it. It means a lot to the brilliant, undervalued Asian cast that anchors it. It means a lot to a mainstream film landscape that has often felt like it was languishing or going through the motions It means a lot to audiences seeking bold, original works to have their faith rewarded. The Daniels’ funky little hit isn’t going to save the theatrical experience all by itself, but it should be a reminder that revitalizing theater-going won’t be accomplished by Top Gun: Mavericks alone. The success of Everything Everywhere All At Once tells us that people want action but not only action. They want to meet interesting new characters and fall in love with them. They want to cry and laugh and even think. They want a little bit of everything and they deserve it. A Little more than a year later, a sorrowful visionary biopic about the invention of the atomic bomb is close to making Titanic money and it feels very much like a vindication of Everything Everywhere All At Once‘s spark of genius. The two films aren’t remotely alike and yet they both should encourage studios to take chances and not assume people just want more of the same. Maybe we’re ready to to rip up the rule books again and start making the kinds of movies with one foot in the subconscious. It’s time for directors to bring their wildest dreams to the screen, with a renewed faith in audiences  to meet them halfway. Give people a ride for their senses and their spirits and the tickets will sell themselves.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #8- Saint Omer

Great art has a way of making one think about other great art. In the case of French director Alice Diop’s transcendent courtroom masterpiece Saint Omer, an early moment made me reflect on cinematographer-turned-documentarian Kristen Johnson’s 2016 opus Cameraperson. There’s a gripping montage in that movie where Johnston briefly shows places where atrocities have happened: an old hotel where Bosniean refugees were tortured, a pickup truck that was used to carry out a brutal hate-crime. There is no talk; just background noise and informational titles to let us know what transpired there. What Johnson is doing, fittingly for a craftsperson who spends so much time thinking about where to shoot, is wrestling with the hypnotic power of space and place. Without saying a word, she is showing us how a mere building or room or site can take on a haunting reverie, as if some trace of the violence that took place there remains, like an eternal echo of the past. Diop’s cracklingly cerebral Saint Omer unfolds almost entirely in a French courtroom (in the northern French commune of Saint Omer) where a desperate young Senegalese woman has been accused of drowning her infant child in the nearby sea. Another black French woman, a novelist and college professor, has chosen to travel to watch the trial and possibly make it the subject of her next work. As the trial audience takes their seats, the regular players of any trial file in and we watch them go about their routines. Lawyers from each side shuffle their papers. Magistrates dutifully take their seats on the bench. A reporter takes photographs of the half-full courtroom before being sent out by the judge. And finally, a young black woman is led in handcuffs to the stand. What stood out to me was something uneasy and electric under the procedural banality. The camera was shifting and hovering about the room to take in the various people, swiveling back and forth to look around. But, to me, the gaze felt less interested in these bureaucrats than in the wood-paneled space of the court itself. I sensed it was taking in this space; a space of great power where countless lives had been ended or forevered altered. In a film about gazes and observation, Diop was first showing me how this unassuming room holds these people and how it will hold some trace of them after they leave. Just as it holds traces of the people who have come before them. As Diop unveils overlapping frames of perception over the course of two hypnotizing hours, the static, unconscious space where her story unfolds almost seems to have a point of view all its own.

One of 2022’s primary virtues was a kind of fountain of youth quality, where everything old felt new again. Prestigey war epics had a touch of the subversive and personal (when they weren’t All Quiet On the Western Front), director autobiographies dodged cloying preciousness and bristled with potent honesty. Action cinema announced it could be anything it wanted to be. And, in the case of Saint Omer, we got a courtroom drama (that most reliably staid of genres) with a haunting ambience and an understatedly radical sense of cinematic bravado. Taking place in recent times and inspired by a real French infanticide trial, Saint Omer is about two French Senegalese women living in France. The first is Rama, a media professor and respected writer who travels to the seaside community of Saint Omer to view the subject of her next book: the trial of a woman who left her 15-month old baby to drown on a moonlit beach in Northern France. The second lead is the accused, an elegantly poised and regally tragic young Senegalese immigrant named Laurence who came to France to become a student and slowly lost touch with her family and the outside world as her circumstances, financial and social, worsened. At the time Laurrence killed her infant, (a flatly admitted fact in a movie about how few stone cold facts can be found in our world), she had been living in the flat of her callous boyfriend, a much older man with a wife and grown child, who kept her a secret from everyone he knew. He left her there alone for long stretches of time as he left town to attend to matters of his real life. He was surprised (appalled, the way Laurence puts it) to return to the flat one day and find Laurence in bed nursing an infant child; their infant child. Mental illness, the slow death of her professional dreams (she aspired to become an educated philosopher) and the total decay of her entire social support net all played some role in driving her to the terrible decision she is now standing trial for. There are no flashbacks whatsoever in Saint Omer. Instead, like our surrogate viewer Rama, we are made to bear witness to a staggering tragedy told almost entirely through the words of an adjudged, publicly demonized woman. The magic trick that turns a subdued French courtroom into a the scene of a drama rich enough for Sophocles requires only one doomed immigrant woman’s words and an audience to witness her speaking them.

Saint Omer is a film about paying attention to voices society has a habit of shutting out. Immigrants, people of color, women and specifically mothers. Like last year’s superb The Lost Daughter, Alice Diop’s stunner is a film about the complicated nature of motherhood. Both films choose to focus on people we could glibly write off as unfit mothers, but the struggles and maternal limits of these women are actually a testament and a show of empathy to anyone who has ever borne children. As Rama prepares to travel to the trial in Saint Omer, she attends a birthday luncheon for her own mother, a quiet, pained woman who does not utter a word to her successful daughter. We pick up traces of a fraught history between mother and daughter and we sense Rama’s mother struggles with a mental illness that kept her from being an ideal parent. We sense pages of painful history in her stoic, haunted expression. Rama clearly fears becoming her mother. We subtly glean that she is also about to have a child of her own. Her husband tries to assuage her anxieties. She is not doomed to retrace her mother’s steps. The woman who raised her is miserable and broken, where Rama is secure and loved. But that easy dismissal, however well-intentioned on her husband’s part, is the very kind of judgment Saint Omer resists. Rama has gone to the trial not just for research but as an attempt to understand. As Rama watches a forsaken mother bear her soul and contemplate the atrocity she has committed, she feels the life growing inside of her. And in that moment, the differences between this mother and that, this daughter and that, fall away. There is just Motherhood, a state that binds and connects countless women across space and time. We can make judgments and proclamations about unfit mothers and wronged children, but it feels too easy, especially for those who have not stood in that position. That judgment may be deserved, but Diop and her observing protagonist find no insight in it; no empathy or humanity. Judgment feels obligatory and inevitable, and also just a bit hollow and obvious. Saint Omer is not so much decrying that laying of blame as suspending it in amber. It’s setting it aside to examine more complex questions. Before we get to assignments of a guilt (a guilt the accused herself all but confesses to in the trial’s first minutes), is there a time to reflect and feel sympathy? Diop’s radically humane notion is that every mother, no matter how monstrous, is owed a scintilla of our empathy. We cannot hate them until we have at least heard them. If they must be judged, then we must witness them.

Coming out of law school, I wanted to be a Public Defender. Family members were concerned for me, unsure of why I’d put myself through such a grueling, low-paying emotional wringer just to defend the guilty. Leaving aside my belief in the rule of law and the fact that the innocent do get accused of crimes, I was moved by the idea that even those who have committed despicable acts are owed some kind of consideration. They are owed a moment of our attention before we lock them away for years or forever. It is not much but, before they are deprived of almost everything (and sometimes everything), I feel strongly they are owed a moment. A simple gesture of humanity; an attempt to hear them and understand them on some level. That notion is the thematic core of Saint Omer. It’s the reason the plain facts of this terrible infanticide are immediately laid bare and never disputed. The facts are not the point here. The question of guilt or innocence is purely decorative. The real question posed to the audience is, “Doesn’t every person deserve to have their story heard?” No matter what sin a human being commits, should they not at least be given what Rama describes to her grad students as “a moment of grace”? Saint Omer is a mesmerizing morality play where a guilty woman gets to briefly command the attention of a society that debased and degrade her when it bothered to regard her at all. It falls under the court procedural genre but its nature is profoundly spiritual. Its emotional tone is curious and probing. It cruises right pas the idea of factual innocence to contemplate deeper ideas of vice and virtue. It is about the soul and a kernel of worth and human dignity that not even the vilest murderer can have stripped away from them. It asks why we would want anyone to have these essential things stripped away from them. Saint Omer is so very much more than a courtroom drama. But also, in the way it grapples with the essential nature of criminality and redemption, it may just be the courtroom drama. It pulses under the surface with ideas about what justice is and what it should be. It grasps the value of seeking justice and it also knows how two-dimensional and unsatisfying that justice often is, even when it reaches the technically correct outcome. Asking if a person is guilty or innocent is just a fact of life, the way our world works. That said, it may be the least interesting question we can ask.

Film connoisseurs love to talk about lenses: perspectives that is, not camera glass. Whose lens are we seeing the film through? Who is telling this story? Can their perspective be trusted or they an unreliable narrator? Saint Omer is a film very interested in lenses of perception because it is a film about the nature of truth and seeing. It is a film about seeing things through the eyes of people who often go unseen themselves, in much the way that the accused Laurence talks of being tucked away from sight by her absent boyfriend. Saint Omer presents lens inside of other lenses and it is about the tricky matter of finding truth among so many subjective perspectives. While it is largely the story of a bright, misunderstood, tragically neglected young black immigrant, it is also about the brilliant black scholar watching her. Rama is the successful intellectual that Laurence so fervently aspired to be. In a way, Rama is taking a three-day hiatus from her role as professor to take what you could call a class. She is becoming the student of Laurence, a fellow black intellectual whose own dreams of academia have been cut short. And it is, of course, about a pregnant mother listening to the words of a failed mother, hoping to understand what it even is to be maternal. Rama sees a parallel to her own strained relationship with her mother in the gulf between the accused and the mother who never figured out how to be there for her. Rama’s gaze repeatedly moves over to the older black woman watching her daughter with weary, regretful eyes, and we momentarily remember there are even more lenses we could be observing this trial through. Saint Omer is a story about seeing and being seen. It is about wanting to be seen and going unseen. It is less about a specific crime than it is about the entire struggle to understand what is true. And it is richly about the hated defendant, Laurence, getting one last unexpected chance to display her unseen multitudes; her sharp insights and her philosophical depths. And, when all these lenses and conceptions of individualized truth are laid atop one another like transparencies at a lecture, you get a luminously devastating prayer to black womanhood and womankind as a whole. Saint Omer‘s refractions of female identity are so poignant, interesting and stubbornly unresolved, it deserves to be maybe the first cinematic text referenced when the subjects of feminism and intersectionality are discussed.

It’s actually difficult to sell myself on the idea that Saint Omer is only 2022’s eighth best film. I watch it and instantly recognize it as a titanic treatise on nothing less than knowledge itself. It feels like that annual masterpiece that is not only destined to rise in my rankings, but is rising at this very moment. If there are seven better films, I don’t know that any of them (not even the boldly cerebral TAR) is as self-evidently a work of genius, a thing of real challenging, scholarly beauty. It is abut the aspiration to beautify and sharpen our minds. As a means of bettering ourselves, as a means of lighting up our own worlds, even when they are impossibly dreary. While the crowds picketing outside the court see Laurence only as a loathsome monster, Rama sees an irrepressible life force. A monster, yes, but one with a striving mind and a complex heart. I think the entire top twenty of this phenomenal year is going to age like fine wine, but Saint Omer is one of the handful I can already guarantee will mature into a timeless classic. Because perception, morality, and the nature of truth and knowledge are as eternal now as they were in Hellenic Greece. This is the kind of film that is so hauntingly self-assured, so scintillating and sorrowful, I don’t believe its potency will  dim. It’s a work of art destined for the Criterion Collection and the Sight and Sound poll. As I gush about it, I have the feeling this won’t be the last time I breathlessly try to wrap my mind around it. It’s humbling to watch a film that speaks so potently to its moment while already belonging to the ages.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #10- Marcel the Shell With Shoes On

 

I happen to be very online, but I know not everyone is. So I don’t want to throw a very Twitter-coded word like “nicecore” at the top of a review and assume every reader will automatically have a clue what I mean. Urban Dictionary (it’s online) defines it as entertainment that has “a story with altruistic actions and an optimistic view on others and the world around them”. Nicecore takes the empathy and sunshiney good vibes of feel good cinema and puts them in their most thoughtful and artful form. Nicecore masterpieces aren’t simply nice, sweet films but films that marry sweetness and kindness to an auteur vision and sharp writing. They soup up lovability and empathy with a V8 engine and a roll bar. If Ebert called movies empathy machines, nicecore films are empathy drag racers. These nice films are equipped to compete with the power and cerebral thrust of the best art films out there. Wholesome guilt-free cinema without a trace of overwrought schmaltz. I’m happy to say I finally saw 1995’s nicecore world-beater, Babe, a canonized classic of decency. But if I had to assemble a Mount Rushmore of recent nicecore opuses (a Mount Nicemore, if you will), my first three are probably lookin at something like this: Paddington 2, Boyhood, It’s A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood. The fourth and final spot (let’s call it the Teddy Roosevelt spot) would then go to Dean Fleischer-Camp’s marvelously generous and compassionate partial stop-motion triumph, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. The winning 2022 gem is an impeccably realized feature length expansion of Fleischer-Camp’s (and star Jenny Slate’s) beloved series of 2010s YouTube shorts about a good-natured, soft-spoken shell who wears sneakers and offers gentle observations on being a tiny piece of calcium carbonate in a massive, hectic world. It’s not only a perfect work of adaptation, but it manages to plug a ticklish piece of 2010s pop culture into the strange, Twitter-dominated 2020s in a way that feels relevant and insightful. We all knew a Marcel movie would be nice, but its humble confidence in its own timely wisdom is what elevates it to the heights of nicecore greats. Somwhere, Farmer Hoggett is looking down at this charming little shell and nodding approvingly. That will more than do.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On takes place in our present moment, where  a recently separated man moves into an AirBnb and finds that he is not the only lifeform there. He befriends a young shell (a boy, though he is voiced by a tremendous Jenny Slate) named Marcel and his surrogate shell grandmother Nana Connie (Isabella Rosselini, splendidly moving). As in the adorably lo-fi YouTube shorts, the appeal of the film is having the sweet, dryly hilarious Marcel show us the world from a shell’s perspective. He uses a tennis ball as a car, a slice of Wonder Bread as a mattress, and MacGyvers an electric egg-beater and some rope to ingeniously knock fruit out of the backyard’s trees (the way the two shells construct rope produces one of the film’s many big laughs). While each understated observation or pearl of soft wisdom is delightful, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is blessedly much more than an excuse to make more charming Marcel vignettes. There’s an overarching story right from the beginning, which only grows more affecting and emotionally layered as its 93 minutes sail by. Marcel and Nana used to have a proper family of shells (Marcel explains that twenty is the minum number needed to form a community) before the human couple who once lived here had an acrimonious breakup. It’s thought that one of them accidentally packed most of the household’s tiny denizens into a suit case and unwittingly left with them. We enter the story with Marcel and Nana working hard to survive and stay healthy all by their lonesome, but the new presence of this human filmmaker (played more than ably by Marcel creator Dean Fleischer-Camp) has clearly been like water in the desert for them. In time, Marcel is able to regain even more connection with the world when Dean uploads his video interviews with Marcel to the Internet and the demure shell suddenly becomes an unexpected viral celebrity. Most importantly, the surprise of gaining the megaphone of Internet fame gives Marcel new ways to search for and hopefully find his family. What follows is an overwhelmingly humane, consistently funny and enchanting meditation on family, friendship, loneliness and the strange paradox of connection and alienation that is today’s Internet culture. It’s a feather-light, petite animated comedy that somehow manages to say volumes without raising its voice above a whisper.

 

The bloom on Ted Lasso‘s English rose fell off in 2023 with its misjudged final season. But nicecore fans like myself will always have that perfect, lusciously empathetic first season and that is maybe what Marcel the Shell with Shoes On most puts me in mind of. Both are the result of humble origins. Ted Lasso started as humorous interstitials played on ESPN between commercial breaks. Marcel is a little different insofar as those 2011 shorts received considerable acclaim. But its beginnings were, like its indefatigably positive protagonist, small. On some level, the feature length Marcel has all the elements that made the shorts so sweet and winning. Droll observational humor. An overflowing feeling of optimism. A giddy DIY sensibility and a glee found in inventing new uses for ordinary household objects. The full-length film keeps the recipe intact. As opposed to Guillermo del Toro’s PinocchioMarcel the Shell isn’t a radical act of adaptation but rather a faithful expansion of the shorts into a 93-minute form. The delicacy with which it turns a small, lo-fI Internet curio into a larger work of art is maybe its most impressive quality. There is no straining to make this bigger. Strain and sweat are anathema to Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Humble, understated confidence is the core of its personality. Moreover, Marcel the Shell doesn’t simply manage to stretch itself to feature length in an organic way (though it certainly succeeds there). It uses the extra time to work in the things truly great films tend to have. Ton. Emotional Intelligence. Emotional variety at that. Wonderful humor and breath-catching pathos (this won our annual Damp Face Award in an absolute rout). Rich themes. Real performances. Both Slate and Rossellini would have been inspired Oscar nominees and together they make the best argument for adding a category for Best Voice Performance in an age. In its soft, subtle way, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is one of the most astounding, assured works of adaptation I can name. It takes the seed of some charming shorts from a decade ago and nurtures them into something wonderful and flowery.

Last year, I was proud to be one of the crew critics to find room in their year-end list for Bo Burnham: Inside and to name it the first brilliant movie about the COVID lockdown experience. I can now say that it has exceptional company, even if Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is less literally about the pandemic. What it is about  on an emotional level is the loss of social connections and the anxiety over suddenly not having people physically around. The film opens with Marcel and Nana Connie already well into a period of extended isolation from other shells, and we sense some time has passed since this house’s last human occupants left in a trail of rancor and miscommunication. We meet our main characters around the time our surrogate director (stepping very naturally into his own film) is getting to know them and we pick up how relieved everyone is to finally have another soul to talk with. It is a lovely film about the wonder of bonding with someone, made deep and wise by its acute sense of how much it hurts to lose someone. It is quietly (as is its way in all aspects) about some painful things, but, like its nicecore colleague, one Paddington Bear, it walks through that pain bravely and with radiant positivity. It is a film about finding your way back to ahppiness and back to something that feels like normalcy. It is about rediscovering touch and fellowship, and it reduced me to smiley tears. It disarmed me like the hug of a loved one I hadn’t seen in far too long. In thinking about how a traumatized society tries to reconnect, it is also a great film about that double-edged sword of connection: the Internet. I recall Joseph Gordon-Levitt feeling that The Social Network was too cynical about the web, about its potential for organizing people and giving them new ways to rally together for justice. Marcel the Shell sees that potential, even expresses sincere awe for it. But it also has a sneaky wit about how it views the Internet, and it uses that wit to puncture the ego and narcissism that come along with web culture. Yes, the Internet does offer the tools to start a protest, raise money for a person in need, or help a shell find his lost community. And that’s a wonderful thing, but let’s be honest, Marcel says with justice, charity and kindness aren’t the only (or even main) things social media is used for.

Bo Burnham: Inside and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On have COVID in common, but these two sherpas through isolation, melancholy and the absurdism of the Internet could not be more different. Where Bo Burnham acts as a kind of demented carnival barker, Marcel the Shell is a saintly figure of light. There’s enough genuine sadness in Marcel to make your eyes tear up but the hilarity and eloquent kindness of the film always keep despair away. It sweetly coos into the void where Bo Burnham howled. The film never succumbs to sorrow, just lightly surfs on top of it- except it’s Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, so substitute the surfboard for a guitar pick or something. Fleischer-Camp’s Faberge triumph is unsurprisingly not just a nice film but a film (like all great nicecore films are) about the mighty power of niceness. It’s about how compassion helps lead you through a weary, fraught world. Films like these are not simply about compassion as a shield against adversity but how compassion helps us do more than just bear our hardship. They are about peacefully weaponizing kindness. Empathy allows us to keep our wits, flourish, and keep our hearts from hardening. Marcel mourns the loss of his community, but he sees the good that can come from surviving this stressful chapter. He’s picked up a self-sufficiency and self-confidence that will still be with him when happier times return. The movie’s true moment of conflict comes when Marcel starts to worry about Nana Connie and his courage and appetite for life begins to flag. His surrogate grandma corrects him. We cannot let the inevitability of loss steal our joy. We must live in the face of these hard things. Then she gently whispers, “I like you brave.” and reader, I can now confirm that even writing out the dialogue from Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is enough to turn my eyes into twinkly puddles.

Giving out the Damp Face Award each year has become my favorite tradition on the whole film calendar. For one thing, it is my way of saying how much I value  films that work your emotions from top to bottom. And, fittingly for the second COVID masterpiece, I think a film like this really knows how much bottled up tension we still have to release. It’s a movie that does everything it can to make your emotions flow; the very essence of catharsis. Some cynics might dismiss that as manipulative tear-jerking, but the idea of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On jerking or manipulating anything is laughable. It’s miraculously effortless in how it engages so many feelings without coming on too strong. With its gossamer aesthetic, it is incapable of coming on too strong. It not only expertly finds joy and humor in the everyday, but it makes all its emotional epiphanies feel interconnected. For Marcel the Shell, there is not just joy and sorrow but an entire vibrant emotional spectrum that are all part of one grand human instrument. If you still mistrust a movie that plays you like a fiddle, you probably haven’t been played this skillfully, sweetly and gorgeously in too long. There’s a feel of “how did they just do that” to this whole film. How did they make a precocious stop motion web short feel this full, not only in length but in richness? How is a lo-fi animated movie this powerful? How did they not only come up with so many ideas for a film about a good-hearted, sneaker-clad shell but knit them all together so cohesively? How is a movie this smart about web culture so unfailing empathetic; so free of any of the Internet’s trademark cynicism? How does the best all-ages film in, uh, an age also have the year’s funniest stoner joke? While Pixar (which, to give due credit, made its best film in a while in 2023) is still working to regain its elite form, a small team of animators stepped up and made a film with all the hilarity, wonder, sweetness, great acting and depth of golden age Pixar. The how of it all is fun to puzzle over but eventually does not matter. What matters is that our often sad world is full of kindness and beauty and that sometimes, when we most need it, a film like this comes along to hug us until we remember.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #9- Herr Bachmann and His Class

Maria Speths’ patient, gently entrancing documentary, Herr Bachmann and His Class, is a good three hours-plus in runtime (three hours and thirty-seven minutes to be exact), making it the longest film in my year-end list by a solid half an hour. 2022’s best documentary (with no lack of competition) is not just a solid three hours but a good three hours. A lot of discourse over the past year was the old chestnut about movies being longer than they needed to be. It’s a line of argument that gets every bit as tedious as its proponents claim two-plus hours movies to be. On the plus side, it’s an occasion to refer back to Roger Ebert’s evergreen wisdom that no good movie is long enough and no bad one is short enough. While I love watching a short masterpiece like Petite Maman or The Station Agent, some movies thrive on their great lengths. A short Lawrence of Arabia or Boyhood are absurd to contemplate. Simply put, there are very special depths of scale and emotion that can only come from sitting and marinating at length in a film’s ambience; from sitting with its characters for so long that they start to feel like close friends. The crux of the film length critiques is that a great many films don’t put their runtimes to that kind of use, and I agree with that criticism in a lot of ways. Still, as Oppenheimer demonstrated just this summer, there is nothing quite like going on a three-hour journey that justifies and utilizes every minute. That’s a special kind of elation, Now of all the subjects to justify an epic runtime, a year in the classroom of an endearingly prickly German middle-school teacher might not be the first to come to your mind. It didn’t occur to me either, until that three-hour school year neared its end and I found I had become powerfully invested in and attached to this retiring educator and his striving pupils. Three hour films are great for taking us into expansive fantasy worlds with sprawling stories.  But Speth’s documentary reminds us that three hours can also be used to take the smallest of worlds and tunnel into them, making them feel deeper, richer and more human than we thought possible.

In my review last year for the stirring rescue documentary, The Cave, I wrote about how, after the apathy and weaponized incompetence of the Trump years, there was something profoundly comforting about watching someone or some group of people tackle a job with intelligence, humility and care. In a year full of visionary cinema, Herr Bachmann and His Class is 2022’s least complicated masterwork. While it has ideas to unpack, it is mostly the simple story of some students (many of them children of Turkish and Middle Eastern immigrants) in a small German city and the softly iconoclastic, very dedicated man who spends the last year of his career teaching them. It would be impossible (and tedious) to list off everything that transpires over the course of that school year, but the vibrant quilt of Speth’s wonderful documentary makes one thing pretty clear: Herr Bachmann is really, really good at being a teacher. I don’t have any qualms about spoiling that revelation because Herr Bachmann isn’t a film about what happens in this classroom. To invoke the great Ebert one more time, this great film is about how its events happen. Along the way, we learn of the town of Stadtallendorf’s history, starting as a rural dot on Germany’s map before being built up to serve as an industrial hub in World War II. There’s both an unease and a richness to how this place, once designed to aid the Nazi war machine, now provides jobs to people the Reich would have denigrated and dehumanized. Instead, Stadtallendorf now serves as a loving, closely knit community for immigrant children to grow in, though the obstacles to non-white success stil exist in subtler ways. As I noted, the emotional engine of the film is how close we become to Herr Bachmann’s students, how much time  we are given just to share in their company. In a film that is about the beauty of education, Speth cruciall never comes close to giving the kids short shrift. Far from it, the attention and empathetic gaze Herr Bachmann and His Class pays to its young subjects is enough to make a great many worthy documentaries feel surface level by comparison. Like the great teacher she focuses on, Maria Speth respects the intelligence of her audience and values ever minute of her too-short time with them.

So much of what makes each cinema year so fun to dive into is the swirl of complex themes and ideas, but i also love Herr Bachmann and His Class for its crystal  clear simplicity. There are no intellectual hurdles to enjoying the warmth and compassion in Speth’s film. Here is a documentary that is first and foremost an ode to educators and the artistry of teaching. Whatever personal journey you may have watching the film, what lifts it and moves it lightly along is  a straightforward devotional quality. Talking heads are virtually non-existent and Speth doesn’t stop her film cold to wax intellectual on education policy or immigration or any other matter Herr Bachmann happens to touch upon. The best way she knows to pay homage to the world’s teachers is to watch one of them closely and lovingly as he practices his craft. Herr Bachmann and His Class is less an examination of education than a sweet and poetic tribute to education as an idea. To watch this funny, gruffly doting rebel of a man work miracles and form bonds is to think fondly about educators like him, all around the world. To watch this gifted teacher’s very specific methods for reaching his students is to remember that teaching is more art than science (even, I assume, when teaching science). The 65-year old Bachmann, once a less than model student in his own school days, is barely concerned with grades except in terms of what options those grades give his adolescent brood. What he focuses on more is self-esteem, communication, and a spirit of communal support. He rarely raises his voice unless he feels a student isn’t being respected or heard by their peers. He places more stock in questions than answers because questions are the best means to open his students up to each other and to their inner voices. His questions for them are not merely academic and rote, but often are probing and philosophical. He stops lessons to have them play music together. In a marvelous scene, he uses a song about two male lovers to make them confront their feelings and prejudices about queer people. His goal is not to purge their biases, but to bring them into the light. When a young lady finally reveals her discomfort over a man loving a man, he gently asks her where these strong views come from. She waits several beats and bashfully murmurs, “I don’t know.” Bachmann smiles and says, “That’s better.” Not knowing may not be the end goal of education, but Herr Bachmann and His Class keenly grasps how it can be a fine and healthy place to build something new.

This is anything but a bold connection to draw, but Herr Bachmann does give me the chance to praise one of the 2000s more undersung masterpieces. Speth’s documentary reminds me of 2008’s French feature, The Class. Not a documentary but based on its writer-star’s own experiences as a teach in the Parisian public school system, that film was also a deeply immersive and observant odyssey through a single year in the life of a classroom. And like that film, Herr Bachmann and His Class is sharply focused on the aims and cultural biases that run through education systems; who these curricula are tailored toward and who they can blindly disadvantage. Much of the emotional through line of Speth’s documentary is how a large portion of Bachmann’s class are immigrants from places like Turkey, Morocco and the Balkan states, recent strangers to a strange land. A classroom as microcosm for a country’s ethnic harmonies and tensions may seem like an easy metaphor, but under the film’s gloriously natural editing, it is also an eloquent one. The small city of Stadtallendorf was built up and enriched by exploited Turks and Eurasians, people the Nazis openly considered beneath them. This place is not just a home to these immigrants, but a legacy both proud and painful. It is a testament to the lives those students’ parents and grandparents toiled to carve out and an uneasy of the kind of nationalism and racism that still otherizes them to this day. Herr Bachmann is leery of the value of grades, which unsurprisingly favor the natural-born German speakers in his class. The aging rebel has overflowing love for all his class but his heart beams for those barely making it; the ones largely headed for secondary schools rather than the main high school. Many of them spoke effectively no German mere months ago and now they converse excitedly with him. They are not just better at a new language, but have opened up into young adults with a newfound sense that they belong here. That strengthening of dignity and personhood is Bachmann’s true mission, whether the teacher’s manual recognizes it or not. And while Bachmann cannot change the arbitrary systems these immigrant children must navigate, he strives to let them know he sees the true measure of their success. If the man had his druthers, the classroom he loves would go past just being a metaphor for empathy, cultural acceptance and solidarity across national and ethnic boundaries. Those principles would be its true raison d’etre.

Herr Bachmann and His Class is a salute to doing your job with love and intelligence. If there is one identifiable stroke of genius to Bachmann’s teaching style, it’s that he makes everything personal. He has memoires and anecdotes of all his students that he can share with them. He compliments the way one laughs. He talks with them one on one, not just after school but in the middle of classes. In private conversations and soft-spoken, encouraging asides; in warm facial expressions. He knows their families and their home lives. The German school system appears to have just as much arbitrary red tape as any other country’s, but Herr Bachmann’s approach to teaching is anything but bureaucratic. These winning three-and-a-half hours are a balm against institutional coldness, a reminder of the value of treating the young as human beings. Bachmann understands how this personalized touch improves their education, and he also knows how too much of the world treats these kids as faceless cogs and ostracizes them for their skin colors and native languages. Cruel racists first brought their ancestors here to grease the wheels of a totalitarian regime and stay out of sight. They belonged in the factories but never in Germany, and too little of that attitude has changed. Bachmann sees how hard his students have to struggle just to keep up and he lets them know he sees what they are up against. When one poor girl can barely keep her tired eyes open, he lets her go nap on his couch. Bachmann is treating them as human beings, and there is something about in that not just personal but defiantly political. He teaches with an iconoclastic spirit because he understands that showing kindness and respect to immigrants and people of color is sadly a political act in modern society. Bachmann tells a fellow teacher that he once thought about quitting this profession decades ago because he couldn’t figure out how to be himself within the system. He couldn’t square it with his rebellious individualism. Now, with retirement days in front of him, we are watching the last hurrah of a man who figured out how to thrive in this system and win. A man who now works to teach his students the same rebel spirit that saw him through when his self-doubt was deafening. He teaches them how to make their way through an unforgiving society with spirits intact. Learnt he rules, be kind to one another, make yourself at home here no matter what the bigots and bastards say, and fill your heart with the things that really matter.

There’s a concept in documentary film-making called walking with the subject. The crux is that the person doing the studying cannot help but become a part of the study, so they should just become a part of their own work. Join the subject and walk alongside them, instead of trying to pretend like you aren’t there. Charlie Kaufman would approve. Herr Bachmann does not teach from a pulpit but from the ground. He is surrounded by his class and he is an integral participant in his class. He shares his own stories, his passions and regrets, because he is inherently one of them. That seems to fundamentally inform his teaching methods. To truly help people, we must erase the distance between them and ourselves and truly become one with who we are helping. It’s maybe a radical idea in teaching. I’ve had teachers in my family and I’m close friends with teachers and I know there’s a line of thought that says to maintain a boundary of self; to not exhaust your emotional stamina. I don’t know where the truth is when it comes to not getting too involved as an educator, but Herr Bachmann and His Class shows that you can give yourself as a teacher without losing your heart or becoming jaded. And that’s a nice feeling a nice feeling to take away from one 2022’s most deeply felt pieces of work. Speth’s patience and her faith in how compelling this classroom is pays off beautifully. Each of its 217 minutes feels entirely earned. Frankly, I could have watched a miniseries of this school, but I guess good things have to end eventually. We leave the film on a bittersweet note, just as the students do. Sad to say goodbye but hearts full with the people we have met and the lessons we have learned. One student looks at the now-empty classroom and marvels at all the “good things” that were done there. A long runtime is like a classroom. It’s all about what you do with the space.

 

Top 20 Films of 2022: #11- All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

 

What is the Best Grade for Replica Watches?

Watches have always been a symbol of status, style, and functionality. For many, owning a luxury watch is a dream come true. However, the price tags attached to these timepieces can be exorbitant, making them inaccessible to most people. This is where replica watches come into play, offering an affordable alternative. But what is the best grade for replica watches? In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the various grades of replica watches and help you make an informed decision.

The Appeal of Replica Watches
Replica watches are designed to replicate the aesthetics and functions of high-end luxury watches. They have gained popularity due to their affordability and resemblance to their genuine counterparts. While some may frown upon replica watches, others appreciate them for allowing a broader audience to enjoy the beauty of fine timepieces.

Grades and Quality Standards
Understanding Replica Watch Grades
Replica watches come in several grades, each representing a different level of quality and attention to detail. Let’s delve into the various grades to understand what sets them apart.

Grade A
Grade A replica watches are the most basic and affordable. They may resemble luxury watches at a glance, but closer inspection reveals noticeable differences in craftsmanship and materials. These watches are ideal for those who want a stylish accessory without breaking the bank.

Grade AA
Grade AA watches are a step up from Grade A. They boast improved quality and attention to detail, making them closer in appearance and functionality to genuine watches. While they may not be perfect replicas, they are a decent option for those on a budget.

Grade AAA
Grade AAA watches are known for their impressive resemblance to authentic luxury watches. They are crafted with precision and often feature automatic movements. These watches are a popular choice among replica watch enthusiasts who desire a high degree of authenticity.

Grade 1:1
Grade 1:1 watches are the closest you can get to owning a genuine luxury timepiece without the hefty price tag. They are meticulously crafted to match the original in every aspect, from design to movement. This grade is the best choice for those seeking an almost identical replica watch.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Replica Watch Grade
When deciding on the best grade for a replica watch, several factors come into play. These include your budget, the level of authenticity you desire, and the purpose of the watch. If you want a stylish accessory without investing too much, Grade AA or AAA may suffice. However, for those who want a near-perfect replica, Grade 1:1 is the way to go.

While they are very different films, Poitras’ documentary could have also been titled Everything Everywhere All At Once. It is a film about connections and interconnectedness; between artistic scenes and eras, between art and life, and between the past and the present. Life experiences of years gone by echo in the present. Old friends return when we need them most, and our relationships see their meanings change and deepen as the story goes on. Life gives us material to make art and people learn that, through making art, they have been giving themselves valuable strategies for surviving. My favorite single scene in the film comes when Goldin and her PAIN colleagues organize a publicity event at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. The jaw-dropping visual conceit is to have people in the upper decks of the gallery drop down pamphlets full of chilling opioid statistics onto the museum floor, all done up to look like prescription slips. The moving image Goldin creates of hundreds of pamphlets falling down like snow from fifty feet above us is as dynamic and cinematically overwhelming as just about any sequence in 2022 cinema. Nan Goldin’s technical talent (for photographic image-making) is beyond doubt, but what strikes you is her conceptual brilliance. The ability to think of the world in pictures, movement and ideas is what true artists have. For all the Sacklers’ pretentions as art patrons, Nan Goldin lays waste to the lie that they have any actual art in their souls. Their crimes against thousands are despicable enough but Goldin is repulsed at the perversion of art the Sackler name represents. Art is an illuminating fire of righteous truth. Nan weaponizes real art to turn it back on these frauds with all  the furious indignation of a person who’s spent years staring down abusers and hypocrites. Six decades into a brilliant career, we have the joy of watching Nan Goldin fully metamorphize into an avenging super hero. Watching that blizzard of damning leaflets flutter down on a crowd of art lovers, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Goldin would probably make a hell of a filmmaker if she ever tired her hand at it. Like I say, she’s got everything she needs.

 

 

Top 20 Films of 2022: #12- Hit the Road!

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Ozempic and Blood Sugar Control
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Using Ozempic for Weight Loss
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Side Effects and Precautions
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Ozempic vs. Other Weight Loss Medications
Ozempic is just one of several weight loss medications available. It’s important to consult with your healthcare provider to determine which option is best for you. The choice may depend on your medical history, preferences, and individual goals.

 

If I could designate each film year its own piece of internet speak then 2022’s would absolutely be “get you someone who can do both.” It was a year where a vast majority of the cinema’s heights came from films with a varied skillset. A ticklish Waking Ned Devine-style Irish tourism comedy keened with despair. A Jaws-esque survival thriller was packed with ideas about exploitation and racism in the entertainment industry. A zany multiverse action film had audiences sobbing buckets and calling their mothers. The year’s box office success story was how a sequel to a ridiculous 80s action movie best known for being a homoerotic military recruitment tool managed to be a sumptuously entertaining and well-acted drama (and maybe also a homoerotic military recruitment tool). The films of 2022 contained multitudes that would have made Walt Whitman blush. TO wit, I had one of my heartiest laughs of the past film year while watching a scene suffused with loss and unspeakable longing. In a late scene from Panah Panahi’s astonishingly confident debut Hit the Road, a father lays by a campfire close to the border of Iran and Turkey. His 7-year old son lies on top of his chest and his wife sits of a ways by herself staring off in tearful silence. The family has just had to pay a wrenching farewell to someone close to them and they do not know when they will see their loved one again. The weary father lists, eyes half closed, as his motormouthed child goes on about Batman and his famous Batmobile. He asks his child how much he figures the extravagant vehicle costs and the child has an answer at the ready: six-hundred million dollars. This leads the father to propose a hypothetical anecdote about “the poor orphan Batman” and his precious car that had me literally crying with laughter. And laid over this funny exchange is also one of the most heartrending, emotionally observant scenes of 2022 with all the sensitive direction and softly twinkling music one would expect from a tragedy. Because Panahi’s masterful scene really is a slice of tragedy. It’s a tragedy and it happens to be one of the most ticklish scenes of the year. And if that sounds like a perplexing balance, the most puzzling thing of all is how perfectly harmonious the poignance and daffy humor are in the moment. It surprised me on a first viewing. On a second viewing, I realized with astonishment that this first-time Persian director had actually been holding that delicate balance between the gently gutting and the sublimely funny for the entire film. Hit the Road spends 93 perfect minutes on standing on a pinhead between a bell laugh and a choked sob. Iran’s already-vibrant cinema scene just got itself someone who can do both.

Hit the Road opens to the sounds of plaintive piano keys and the white noise whoosh of speeding cares. A car sits parked on the shoulder of an Iranian highway and its passengers, an older man and woman, their two sons (one in his twenties and one seven) are all lying still inside with eyes closed. After what feels like a minute, the small Batmobile-admiring child stirs and the other occupants all rouse from their slumber. But the hyperactively eccentric child (is there any other kind?) asks a question that might have occurred to the audience already: “Are we dead?” They are not in fact dead, but something does feel instantly woozy and off about Panah Panahi’s superb road trip dramedy. A sense of ennui and tension hangs in the air, made all the more noticeable by the fact that Hit the Road retains the breathlessly antic humor that is the road trip comedy’s stock in trade. The comedy (sometimes high energy and sometimes drolly understated) throws the spectre of unspoken sorrow into sharp relief. We gradually come to learn that, unlike most films about family car trips, this one will not feature a journey home. It will not feature one because there is no home to return to. The family has pooled all their money, sold their house and car (their soft-spoken, visibly devastated eldest child drives them in a rental) all to get their grown son to the Turkish border and to book the services of someone who can help him safely cross over. There is no talk of return and they will not be going with him. There is no talk about what comes next. The eldest is driving toward a new life and will not see his loved one again for a very long time, if ever. And the rest of his family are, as the Talking Heads say, on a road to nowhere. This looming sadness does not negate the fact that Hit the Road still has many of the warm signifiers of its genre. The family bickers comically, have some spirited hijinks, meet colorful strangers and generally bond. The tropes of the road trip comedy are all present and accounted for, but they coexist in uneasy harmony with the mournful realities and anxious uncertainties of this family’s unfortunate situation. Panahi patiently and empathetically lets rich humor and tearful pathos commingle until you no longer know if your eyes are moist from laughter or heartbreak (this was a major contender for Carnivorous Studios’ fifth annual Damp Face Award). Hit the Road takes the expression “permanent vacation” and mines it for its most unexpectedly bleak implications.

Hit the Road is an achingly lovely, humane film. Like Life and Nothing More, the late Iranian maestro’s Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece about a town recovering from a deadly earthquake, this film loves people and it believes in the average person’s desire to be good and helpful to their fellow man. Its sense of sweet humanity is so winning that it may take you some minutes to register that it is a deeply pissed off piece of work. Hit the Road is a furiously critical and deeply political work of art. It’s angry in a way that compassionate people pushed too far by abuse are angry, which sums up my experience with Persian art very succinctly. A great many Persians wish simply to dance sing and love on their own terms, but they have had to contend for decades with dogmatic rulers who demonize sexuality, oppress women and silence their greatest philosophers and artists (we’ll talk about Panah’s long-persecuted filmmaker father in a short while). Hit the Road is one of the most righteously enraged kiss-offs to a country that you will ever see, made all the more rich by how conflicted it feels about the idea of severing ties with home. It rages quietly and with the patient wisdom of a martyr. It holds onto its humanity because that is what any virtuous, unjustly trampled upon person does, but it is not satisfied with moral victories. At the end of the day, however true and rights its position is, righteousness and decency and moral virtue isn’t going to do one solitary thing to keep this poor family together or give them a future. Goodness is an intrinsically valuable thing but it does not give this family what it truly needs: answers. What comes next? Where do the people of Iran go from here? If great art raises questions rather than giving easy, pat solutions, Hit the Road is an unqualified triumph. Panah Panahi’s soulfully wronged meditation on the idea of home is one of the greatest films of the nascent 2020s and one of the most subtle and powerfully realized directorial debuts in cinema history.

While it regards its characters with an unflaggingly sympathetic grace, Hit the Road is gently but firmly critical about denial. In a smart bit of metaphor, the parents are hiding two important truths from their youngest child. They do not let on that he will be losing his brother, possibly for good. They also do not tell him that the family dog, along for the open-ended ride, is dying. The essence of Hit the Road is pure punk rock in the way it damns the hypocrisy and cruelty of Iran’s policies, particularly those armed at gays and women. The parents’ struggle to tell their child the hard truths is like a projection of their nation’s abuse and what Papnahi is asking of his fellow Iranians is a shattering of that perverted, dysfunctional cycle of lies. It is an angry punk song set to a sweetly meandering melody. It recalls the special blend of love, bruised hope and anguish that made Spike Lee’s ending to The 25th Hour so powerful. As the film stares down the road at painful change and separation, the feeling of impending loss also speaks to the beauty of connection and family. In overwhelming grief, it finds occasion to think about love and community; to offer up a smile of gratitude for the very thing that is being taken away. It presents those things with overflowing heart and humor and it saves all its bitter anger for the powerful unseen targets who deserve it. The genius of letting Hit the Road function as a funny, vibrant, emptionally satisfying road trip movie is how that calls attention back to the sorrow at the films heart. In other words, this should be an uproarious story of love and familial bonding on the road and nothing else. That’s why that simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking Batmobile monologue the father gives isn’t merely impressively multi-dimensional but essential to the film. It is Panahi’s entire thesis in miniature because this family should be able to have that laughter and joy without the heartache and loss. And they can not. They feel so close to being on the kind of vivacious, fun and life-affirming vacation that make up most road trip films, but that is a trick of the light. In reality, they might as well be light years away: from normalcy, from stability, from an empathetic government, and, before long, from their beloved child. They have miles and miles and miles to go before they can even imagine anything feeling right again. If that happy ending exists somewhere down this family’s long, bumpy road, it is not to be found in this film.

And yet, in spite of its unwavering honesty, Hit the Road does find a way to hold on to some open-ended note of hope for the future. I’ll be damned if I can describe what that hope specifically is or what it even might look like. It feels more like the kind of hope that the faithful hold for the afterlife; a vague and stubborn resolve that one day in the future will be the day that things start looking a little better. Partly, that’s a product of the film’s warmth and infectious good humor. It may partly be there to throw the sadness into sharper relief, but it also makes it hard for me to not see Panahi’s film as a work of optimism on some level. It gets back to that punk rebel sensibility that is so impervious to defeatism. The hope isn’t that this mortifying state of affairs is going to turn around, but hope for its own sake. It’s not a hope for Iran’s callous government or really a hope for anything. It’s hope because what else are you going to do? Hope, unrealistic or not, is its own intrinsic good and you hold to it because not holding onto it means losing everything. Hit the Road may carry a lot of pain and disappointment, but it carries it with a resolute heart. Its pain is also its unbowed strength; its will to persevere even when the situation seems so desire that it’s nigh impossible to determine what perseverance is even for. There is also just the matter of Panahi’s elegant, eloquent and unpretentiously literate script, so full of wry comedy and honest wisdom. It’s the kind of perfectly poetic screenplay that manages to feel both grounded and transcendent. At one moment, a farmer sees the father’s arm in a cast and asks how it happened. “I fell” the uber-dad deadpans. The farmer asks where he fell. “From grace,” the father sardonically adds. The film is full of sharp, potent lines like that. It is utterly profound and transporting in its writerly flourishes. And yet, at no point does the heady rhetoric threaten the realness of these characters. They are compelling flesh and blood people and the understated confidence of their dialogue works to increase our love for them and draw us further into their lives. The dialogue, like the humor and the gorgeous scenery, is all there to help them and help us find some small bit of peace and relief. It’s not just false hope to help bitter medicine go down, but a reminder of what makes life beautiful and worth living. Laughing and loving in the face of systemic barbarism and apathy is the most rebellious thing we can do. And, after just one feature, Panah Panahi already has enough rebel clout to make him a luminary on the subject.

Panah has stouthearted defiance in his blood. His father is the great Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who spent the last two decades being harassed, threatend, jailed and censored by his own government. In 2010, he was arrested for trying to make art that criticized the legitimacy of the Ahmdinejad regime and was sentenced to six years under house arrest and, most cruelly, a 20-year ban on making his art. Only a year later, Jafar let Iran know what he thought of their policies by making the brilliant documentary This Is Not A Film, which not only documented his house arrest but insightfully tackled the question of how one makes art under censorship. The full answer to that question can be best understood by  watching the film, but the short answer is you do it by any means necessary and without fear or reprisal. This Is Not A Film was smuggled out of Iran inside of a birthday cake and took the film world by storm. Since then, Panahi the elder has made five more acclaimed films that he was technically forbidden from making at all, including the thoughtful 2022 gem No Bears. Like Hit the Road, all of Jafar Panahi’s recent films thumb their noses at Iran’s tyranny. Panahi plays a gleefully defiant Robin Hood to his government’s craven Prince John, stealing despotic undies and running them up the flag pole. But sobering news came in mid-2022 when Jafar Panahi was thrown into a notorious prison for the crime of coming to the defense of another persecuted Persian director. There were accounts of physical abuse and with them a sinking feeling that Jafar had pushed these cruel authoritarians as far as he could. He had been living out something like his own personal Cool Hand Luke for many years now and that story, as thrillingly subversive and rebellious as it is, ends in tragedy. Maybe this time, the Iranian government would shut Jafar away for good or do something worse. After almost seven months of imprisonment, Jafar Panahi gave his government an ultimatum. He started a hunger strike and gave Iran two options: his own death or his absolute liberation from the prison. Film fans braced for a noble but gutting conclusion to this rebel story. Hit the Road takes up Jafar Panahi’s torch. It poses the question of how you create hope out of nothing at all, out of hope’s very absence. The son in the film has a late moment of peace and love in a road side chat with his mother. He talks of his admiration for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the third act of that film, an astronaut journeys into a terrifying void, but that is not the end of the story. Its enigmatic final shot suggests the possibility of, well, possibilities; of new life and something hopeful beyond the abyss. Even if he does not know what it will be, Panah Panahi stalwartly believes in love, solidarity and hope beyond Iran’s political abyss. On February 3rd of 2023, two days after beginning his hunger strike, Panah’s father was released from prison and went home to his family.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #13- All That Breathes

 

Like a great many documentary-loving cinema buffs, I’m frequently critical of the “talking head” format. That would be your standard news interview format of sitting some people down in chairs and filming their informative faces as they go on at length and impart facts to the audience. I don’t mean to lay into the entire idea of filming an interviewee talking. For one  thing, there’s always the case of an astonishing film like Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War”, where just watching a human being react, emote, think out loud and speak is the whole appeal. And even a more boundary-breaking documentary like John Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” makes brilliant use of talking heads elements to supplement its more formally dynamic parts. I come not to bury talking heads but maybe to continue my push for limiting them. For making them more spice than steak. Some of the most astonishing documentaries from the last decade have been purely experiential (“Leviathan”, “Manakamana”), eschewing interviews and explanations entirely. “Now, now,” the talking head devil’s advocate on my left shoulder cautions. “Those films were designed to be immediate and sensory. A documentary aiming to shed light on a little-known subject in an
educational way is naturally going to need more learned, professorial figures explaining things to you. The little imp has a point. And yet, the question should always be how we can make films better. And on that note, I am proud to introduce Shaunek Sen’s “All That Breathes”, a film chock full experts with factoids to unload about nature and pollution and modern-day India that nonetheless manages to inform while always feeling like a cinematic experience. It takes the building blocks of a talking head documentary and alchemizes them into visual poetry. Here is a film that absolutely could have consisted largely of its main subjects (three altruistic brothers in Delhi who run a makeshift hospital for injured birds of prey) sitting in front of a camera and telling us their story. And the miraculous thing is that they do tell us their story and they do sometimes directly address the audience. And yet, the film nevewr breaks its enchanting, wondrously visual spell. Here is the surest proof yet that, while the talking head format may always have some role to play, we’re never had less need of its conventions. The documentary is officially free to spread its wings and fly.

“All That Breathes” cues us in early that it will be as much a film about reflecting on the wonder of nature as it will be an essay on present-day threats to the natural world. Whole minutes before we first hear the voices of our lovable bird saviors, we hear the sounds of a field somewhere amid the filthy streets of the Indian city of Delhi. There is the thick rustle of scavenging rodents, the drone of hovering insects and the barking of stray dogs. Cats mewl from the alleys. Sen’s brilliant cinematographers Ben Bernhard, Ritu Das and Saumyanada narrow in on a gathering of rats in a grassy lot. The ever-present Delhi traffic is out of focus, an afterthought. We will soon meet the brothers Mohmmad Saud and Nadeem Shenzad, and their soft-spoken friend Salik Rehman. We will see the inner workings of their makeshift miracle, a soap dispenser manufactury whose true purpose is the rescue, treatment and release of black kites, gorgeous, falcon-like birds of prey that are a beloved fixture
of Delhi’s skies. High pollution levels and other environmental challenges mean that more and more of these beautiful birds are plummeting from the sky and ending up in cardboard boxes in these men’s warehouse-cum-hospital. Like Oskar Schindler with his factory, the men use their soap dispenser business only for the unrelated good it can help them afford to do. The work is painstaking and sometimes heartbreaking but their renown in the community and the room full of rehabilitated birds waiting to soar again testifies to the noble value of their Sisyphean battle against climate change. At one point, as many as 28 injured black kites await medical treatment, and if that didn’t sound insurmountable enough, one brother explains, “The baby season hasn’t even started yet.” Sometimes this little family even puts itself at peril for their good work, as when two of the brothers ford a chilly river at dusk to bring a kite back from the precipice of death. In return, the kites not only spiritually enrich Delhi’s soul (caring for one is said to earn you goodwill from the gods) but serve a vital ecolofical function for the city. As Reza tells us, a single black kite can devour and erase an astounding five to six tons of waste in the span of ten months. The story of the rescuers’ evolution from aspiring bodybuilders (their interest in musculature aided their education as veterinarians) is moving and compelling enough on its own, but Sen and his team’s sense of keen observation and poetic tone makes “All That Breathes” nothing short of spell-binding. It feels like a stunning illuminated ode to making the world better. It’s by no means a tearjerker, but a fine, life-affirming mistiness hangs over the whole thing. This informational documentary about environmental healers has its own powerful, palpably therapeutic air.

We live in a world on the brink of some potentially disastrous changes, both on a natural and a societal scale, and “All That Breathes” never sells that fact short. It would have been easy for it to become a harrowing bearing of witness to environmental disaster, occassionally leavened by sweetness and human decency. The film also never ignores the futile frustration and fatigue that besets our heroes on a daily basis. But, with all that emotional exhaustion being something of the critical point of the film, “All That Breathes” still may be on of the least jaded or defeated movies I have ever seen. Much like its fellow 2022 documentary masterpiece
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”, “All That Breathes” is a tough, clear-eyed film buoyed by the contagious satisfaction of doing small acts of good in a weary world. With all of the year’s great writerly bits of dialogue, one of the most poignant and prescient moments consists of two simple words one man repeatedly says to another in that bird hospital. “Next bird.” As we stare down wrongdoing and loss, those two words better capture the joyous tenacity of carrying on than any I can think of. Good is done one step, one person, one bird at a time, and whether your last attempt to make life nicer on this planet succeeded or failed, your next move always boils down to just keeping the good work up. “All That Breathes” doesn’t pretend that we will just fix the environmental mess in front of us. It just sees
damage has been done and knows that the only wrong course is outright inaction and despondency. That won’t help. Like the kites chipping away at Delhi’s ne er-ending mountains of garbage. It’s there in the film’s care for the little representatives of nature. The way young Reza cares for a tiny squirrel he keeps in his shirt pocket. The way the film patiently watches a family of small monkeys cross a scaffolding on its way home. The documentary finds an endlessly soothing spring of calm because it reminds us how important and virtuous love and attention to the little things can be. Call it idealistic if you will, but the film’s belief that we will only win this survival game one selfless act and one individual at a time touched me greatly. If that tack feels simplistic in the face of rampant pollution, massive greed and unchecked selfishness, I cannot be too hard on this film for that. The value of small, simple goodness is the very lifeblood of “All That Breathes”.

Sen has made a great film about the impact of climate change because it is as informative on the subject as it needs to be and the rest is pure, voluptuous visual poetry. The shots of animals trying to habitate in one of Earth’s dirtiest, most populated cities speak volumes even devoid of the beautiful, thoughtful narration that accompanies them. There is something so stirring about how this isn’t just a tale of human expansion versus wild nature, but of human nature and wild nature juxtaposed. It is the story of nature adapting to a manmade world it never could have anticipated. As presented here, there is something simultaneously awe-inspiring and profoundly disquieting in its shots of graceful kites perched atop literal skyscrapers of human rubbish, or long-legged herons wading through streets flooded with soapy run-off. The situation that the natural world must negotiate because of human action and inaction is deeply unfortunate, but seeing how nature prevails in that struggle is stirring and visually breathtaking. Climate change is the most important and impactful issue of our day, and we need more films unpacking what it all means and how we can check its effects. But I will remember “All That Breathes” when a hundred climate change documentaries have come and gone because, in addition to being rigorous and eye-opening, it is just a transcendent, beautiful piece of cinematic art. It radiates poetry and takes inspiration from its protagonists’ contagious love of their work. It succeeds through jaw-dropping shots of man’s pollution and sprawl, and it also thrills with shots that luxuriate in the beauty and endless resilience of nature. It deserves to stand as a blueprint for how you tell stories about the climate crisis in fundamentally cinematic ways. “All That Breathes” is deeply rooted in the same Earth that it is advocating for. If the message of your movie is love of nature and stewardship of our planet, the first and best idea for making sure that message resonates is showing us a new view of that planet. If your film and its subjects are driven by love for the Earth, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that your camera must make us fall in love with the Earth. This wondrous documentary also has a beautiful, detailed specificity to it. The climate crisis is vast and far from monolithic. It is happening in a hundred small, seismic ways, and these birds are just one of myriad portholes into this pressing issue. They are, in effect, the kite in the coal mine.

Visual imagination really makes all the difference in “All That Breathes”. I’ve well noted that. The overriding thesis of this whole review might as well be how the great documentaries do more than just function as information delivery systems. People need to do more than just learn and know. They need to remember, and they will remember if they are moved. I think we need to keep talking about the visual art of this film. Let me drive it home and say that “All That Breathes” has the best cinematography of 2022. In a year where Cinema went big and bold, where we plunged into sapphire fantasy oceans and leviathan jellyfish prowled the wide open skies; in a year where Steven Spielberg and Park-chan Wook made great new films; in such a year, this humane, whispered prayer of a documentary managed to give us more profoundly moving and lusciously composed shots than any other. Like another cinematography all-timer from 2022, Jerzy Skolimowski’s “EO” (which narrowly missed our top 20), Sen is subtly capturing animals in a strange way that feels utterly new to me. These shots of fauna feel intimate, confessional, almost invasive if it weren’t being done with such overflowing reverence. It somehow just sees animals in their singular, very immediate way. They are all completely themselves, which is to say, after centuries of anthropomorphism (can we admit that “March of the Penguins” is bad yet?), that animals are not us. We are us and the animals are what the animals are, and there is something poignant and environmentally wise in that truth and in that divide. The ravishing visual poetry of “All That Breathes” seems built around one humbling, powerful thesis: we have become distinct and different from the natural world and yet, we have never been above it or truly apart from it. At most, we forget that world, always at our own peril. In one ravishing shot, a group of activists protesting for Muslim tolerance gradually blurs into the background as we focus on a snail crawling along a twig in the foreground. “All That Breathes” sees a host of global struggles and it sees the space that separates them and the spiritual threads that invisibly bind them. As we fight vital battles for dignity and personhood, the natural struggle pushes forward as it has for millennia. “One shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes,” one brother says in the line that gives this film its title. Sen’s masterful filmmaking team not only lucidly paints the world of this kite rescue operation, but vividly puts it into a language of magnetic images that take in all of nature. All struggles come down to the protection of lives. And “All That Breathes” renders each life onscreen with equal, even handed empathy.

Let me try briefly to come at the film from a very self-interested angle. All That Breathes is about finding the work that really defines you. These men may operate a soap dispensary business to fund their avian hospital, but what they’re really doing is earning for themselves the right to be thought of, first and foremost, as kite veterinarians. To see themselves and to be seen by their community as the thing they love doing. It’s a notion that speaks to this avocational, if not yet vocational, critic very deeply. When the eldest brother finds the financial freedom to receive a university education in the States, he does not go to learn better manufacturing practices nor to improve his business acumen. He goes to further his art, the thing he does that actually puts a piece of himself into the world.  I am not being so bold as to suggest that me writing this glowing review of this wonderful movie is remotely as noble as what the kite rescuers are doing. But I like All That Breathes’ recognition, as the Mountain Goats’ great John Darnielle once sang, that “some things you do for money, and some you do for love, love, love.” It’s just another example of All That Breathes’ argument that the greater good is best served by what we do out of love and conviction. Maybe that’s naive but Sen is making a spiritual argument and the idea of belief in small, selfless changes feels spiritually true to his film. I’ve seen documentaries about conservation in exotic locales that mostly feel like excuses to satisfy the viewer with a nice human interest story (there was at least one such film in at least one of this Oscar’s documentary categories). But All That Breathes never feels like pat, self-satisfied progressive tourism. To me, it really does feel holy, which is just how these men see their work. It is an earnest call to conservation and a soaringly poetic ode to people doing good in the world and a most bewitchingly composed snapshot of the climate crisis. In a great film year full of rather unusual riches, just look at this empathetic little wonder. Behold: a documentary with the craft and passion to talk with more than just its head.

 

Top 20 Films of 2022: #14- Apollo 10 1/2: A Childhood Odyssey

 

I’m a little leery about calling certain films minor to a director’s filmography. For one thing, it tends to feel too relative. A minor film from Kubrick, Coen, Altman, Rohmer, the Andersons (P.T. or Wes) and others dwarfs the best films of your average director. A so-called minor Scorsese film (let’s say Hugo) still tops almost the best films Robert Redford, Stephen Daldty or Tom Hooper have ever made and nobody goes around calling Quiz Show (an extremely fine film) minor. So I don’t want to start my review calling Richard Linklater’s wonderful, effervescent Apollo 10 1/2: A Childhood Odyssey minor just because it happens to only be the eighth or ninth best film of the laconic dreamer’s sterling career. It is far too strong and personal a work to be slighted like that. But I do find it interesting, with directors who have a substantial body of freat work, to look at the films that fall somewhere below their masterpiece colleciton. I find that the films just outside of that realm often have a way of enriching the films just above them and sometimes give us a lot of fascinating insights into the directors themselves. Think of the 2022 films from James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, which may fall just outside of their most perfect opuses but also act like beautiful prisms playfully reflecting some of the ideas and themes those auteurs have spent their careers exploring. The ways films like these, and like Apollo 10 1/2, play within their directors’ filmographies is fun, rewarding and infinitely more interesting than the question of whether those films will be admitted to the elite canon of their very best work. Besides, while he has made no less than five perfect films by my count (the Before trilogy, Dazed and Confused and Boyhood, with Waking Life not far behind), I can’t imagine Richard Linklater, the good-natured stoner bro of filmdom, loses a lot of sleep over words like “perfection”. His ace in the hole has always been his meandering, ramshackle nature; the way he arrives at beautiful and deep revelations with all the unhurried nonchalance of a day drinker finding a cool tidepool at a beach party. He is a practiced expert at a very rich and warm sort of aimlessness and he has found perfect material in the halcyon glow of his own childhood in 1960’s Houston. Not unlike fellow longhorn Terrence Malick, he finds deceptively heady ideas about life in the humidly carefree atmosphere of a Space Age Texas suburb. I see Apollo 10 1/2 as The Tree of Life‘s charmingly low stakes little brother, albeit set in a place where trees of any kind are scarce to be found.

 

Richard Linklater rarely misses a chance to wax poetic on the nature of time, memory and consciousness. In his rotoscoped philosophy gem Waking Life, he appears as himself to muse about the nebulous border between dreams and death, the present moment and all the moments that have passed. A few years later, he had Ethan Hawkes’ character in Before Sunset put it succinctly: time is a lie. Maybe every moment is a dream of past, present and future all laid like transparencies on top of one another. Apollo 10 1/2 has that dreamlike quality that makes time feel slippery and illusory. Specifically, it feels like a youthful daydream. It presents itself initially as a bit of historical fantasy in which a young Linklater is asked (for the most adorably cockamamie of reasons) to secretly pilot the Apollo 11 module to the moon weeks before the real mission will be televised. But that imaginative boys adventure merely ends up being the film’s bookends. The meat of Linklater’s animated slice of autobiographical life is about the present adult Richard Linklater (given voice by three-time Linklater muse Jack Black) reminiscing about his carefree days in 1960’s Houston at the dawn of the Space Age. We learn of his father’s work for NASA (purely administrative to his children’s eternal disappointment) and what it felt like to live on the periphery of humanity’s most daring technological achievement. But what we really get the most of aren’t observations about space travel but seemingly trivial details of that time and place.  The music and movies and campy classic television shows (Dark Shadows is just as gripping to the Linklater children as updates from NASA and both jockey for screen time on the old TV set) of the day. The neighborhood faces and the rambunctious, occasionally hazardous ways adolescent Houstonians passed the time. Shot through with Linklater’s inimitable sense of childlike enthusiasm, Apollo 10 1/2 might be cinema’s greatest feature-length tangent. The transcendent art of the decade and the sprawling banality of the expanding Houston suburbs all swirl together into a bewitching, winningly observant act of remembering, which (in true Linklater fashion) becomes a meditation on what defines the times and what we choose to recall. The Linklater patriarch may grumble when his four children flip over from discussion of the Moon landing to a cheesy science fiction program, but both pieces of media were formative for the director telling this story. In the end, we reconstruct a story of the past with all the details we have and it’s no great matter if one memory is a watershed event and another one is just Herman Munster’s face. There are no minor works in the category of one’s memories. Reminiscing is not only a personal act, but a creative one as well. Memory is not bound by strict parameters of social importance. As Apollo 10 1/2‘s fictitious bookends demonstrate, it is not really even bound by strict parameters of fact and fiction.

Apollo 10 1/2: A Childhood Odyssey is doing a lot of heady philosophizing in that sweetly shambling Linklater way, but those shy about intimidatingly cerebral films will find as much to love here as those hoping to get a heady intellectual contact high. With this director, an amiable, buzzed vibe is just as important to his sensibilities as literary references and tingly thought experiments. The head and the heart are always in touch with each other in a Linklater film. He makes movies for art-loving romantics everywhere. It has also long been my feeling that he is maybe just a bit underappreciated as a visual and tonal stylist. Like his French New Wave influence Eric Rohmer, Linklater is drawn to the pleasure in words and talk, which sometimes gets him labeled as talky and downplays what a distinct and flavorful cinematic language he has honed. Long before he made Waking Life (one of his three singular animated marvels alongside Apollo and A Scanner Darkly), he hit big with the one-two punch of Slacker and Dazed and Confused, films that seemed to have one foot in bucolic Texas and one foot in some dream realm. In Apollo 10 1/2, he captures the languid sprawl of an endless Houston summer partly because he is trying to evoke the reality of his suburban origins. But the aimless, humid rhythms and heat waves of Texas also feel a lot like the haze of memory itself and the way that aesthetic fits both the terrestrial and the subconscious is about as purely Linklater as it gets. The underrated quality of Richard Linklater the visual storyteller is how he subtly captures something that feels like nostalgia’s essence; a sweet, smoky buzz like the first beer with friends on a porch as the heat starts to dissipate. What makes Apollo 10 1/2 feel so substantial, in spite of its breezy tone, is that it is positively pickled in that woozy sensibility. it has the kind of scruffy warmth that is not only characteristic of 1960’s home videos but also somehow seems to bottle up every other adorably shambolic thing Linklater ever experienced, from the soft scratch of Herb Alpert LPs to those cartoon shorts MTV aired between commercial breaks. The primordial stew that birthed his gentle but endearingly rambunctious aesthetic smells like cheap weed, french fries and gasoline. Linklater announces this is to be a film about the Moon landing and then lets every other pop culture touchstone wash over the lens. As the semicolon in the title implies, it’s as much about childhood’s inner space as it is about things floating outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

With Linklater, small details are given equal and sometimes greater importance than the weightier matters. His beautiful, impossibly romantic Before Sunrise (and its arguably even richer sequels, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) depict an organically unfolding conversation between two people who are falling in love with each other. The film finds room for philosophical musings on love, faith and death, but also plenty of time for art, beer, food and pinball. In Linklater’s oeuvre, the small grace notes of what we enjoy and do for fun are essential parts of what makes life rich and interesting. They are not less important than the big cosmic questions, nor are they more so. In Linklater’s gorgeous and goofy imagination, the cosmos and your favorite movie are all connected in one life-affirming link. This idea was given its most cohesively powerful expression in Boyhood, where major life events like graduations and birthdays were deliberately left out to make room for baseball games and digressive conversations; things that a lesser filmmaker might have left off for being inessential. The Linklater school of thought tells us that the mundane and the trivial and the purely fun experiences we have are actually the most essential in defining our lives. Most people go to school or get a first job or have major rites of passage, but those smaller specificities are what help make our lives singular. They are what make our lives our own. Apollo 10 1/2 is, above all, a superb little coda to Boyhood; a winsome exploration of how the little things stick with us and shape our stories. Linklater teasingly starts Apollo 10 1/2 with his surrogate self asked to embark on a nationally vital space mission, a Marvel-level astronaut adventure. And then he tables all of that before it can even get started so that a charmingly enthusiastic Jack Black can gush about all the cool games, music, shows and places that made up life down on 1960’s Earth. Linklater will send us off to the stars in good time (but not a long time, as one Linklater character once said) but only after he tells us about how much he loved The Twilight Zone and his favorite jazz record and the treasured Texas tradition of pouring a ladle full of hot chili into a fun-sized bag of Frito Lays. This is why Apollo 10 1/2 couldn’t possibly be minor Linklater. Minor films don’t typically have the DNA of a director’s entire personality inside them. Richard Linklater knows about films what great travel writers know about cities. You’re never going to experience as much joyous, spontaneous life if you only stick to the gift shop maps and the big tourist sites. He lovingly takes the audience around his Houston just as Slacker took us around his Austin. And that means he’d much rather take us to Houston’s adorably scruffy Disneyland simulacrum, Astro World than to the major museums and historical sites. The most enchanting sights to see are little oddities and they can only be found off the main drag and down the back alleys of Richard Linklater’s memory.

Anyone who knows me well knows that Richard Linklater is one of my favorite living filmmakers. More than a favorite, he happens to be a director who taps into some essential part of my core. I think he is objectively a genius in terms of how he writes and how he crafts his scenes but he’s also my ur-example of a director who is just completely for me. I’m an empathy-loving, pop culture-fixated intellectual humanist romantic through and through. I love a whole host of directors with a diverse array of perspectives (I think Michael Haneke’s great and am also proud to say that I don’t think like him) but if I’m being honest, I probably am Richard Linklater. He stands with the great empathetic directors like Ang Lee, the late Jonathan Demme, Greta Gerwig and, most notable, the visionary Eric Rohmer. Whatever subject he lights on, he renders it with a palpable love for people. I leave each of his films with my intellectual curiosity recharged and my appreciation of humanity restored. He’s a surprisingly ideal fit to tell the story of one of Earth’s most purely optimistic moments. He comes at it from his own charmingly low key angle. His focus on tiny details of 1960s life cohesively ties into the idea that the Moon landing itself was the result of thousands of lesser known people. Apollo 10 1/2 is Linklater’s invitation to see the Apollo 11 mission just a little differently; to zoom in and take in the little granules of cultural context surrounding it. Just as he shows us his personal experience of the culture through all the pop culture ephemera he absorbed as a kid, he makes one of the most public, well-documented moments in human civilization feel intimate. He asks us to consider people like his father, working with spreadsheets and purchase orders far from the launch pad and the flash bulbs. In a moving moment following the landing, Linklater’s father marvels that the astronauts and flight control pulled it off. His wife tenderly reminds him to include himself in the victory, saying, “We all did.” In a film whose default tone is sweetly breezy, Richard Linklater remembers to show us how moving the Apollo 11 mission was for all the many souls who contributed to it. And he follows it up with another moment that touched me to no end. When the night’s groundbreaking broadcast is done and the stations sign off (as they did back in the early days of television), the Linklaters end their unforgettable night in the same way they end every night. They turn off the set, exchange “good nights” and “I love yous” and slip of to bed. Historical milestones are a great change of pace, but there’s just something about the reliable rituals that are waiting for us each and every day.

When I heard Richard Linklater was going to make his first new animated film since the 2000s, I said to myself, “It’s about time!” It was both an exclamation of excitement and a safe prediction about the contents of the film itself. It’s almost always about time with this filmmaker. How it passes, how it lingers, how we mark it. How maybe it’s a lie but also how very real the waking dream of time feels. Apollo 10 1/2 is also a sly film about nostalgia. a word that I don’t always associate with positive connotations. A long soak in a bath of nostalgia can be bewitching and intoxicating, but it also has a pesky way of making our brains waterlogged. It can cloud the senses and distort our memory of the times we are nostalgic for. It can cause people to get too bogged down in the moments of their own coming of age to the point they become oblivious to the beauty of the present moment. I have rolled my eyes repeatedly at members of older generations who claim that they just don’t make art and pop culture the way they used to. I assure them that, if they paid more attention, they would see that they very much do. More recently, I’ve grown to watch members of my own 90s-kid generation fall prey to the same habit. And I have to remind them that the present has art to rival the time of their childhoods. As has every year between their childhoods and now. Apollo 10 1/2 quietly critiques nostalgia by noting how little the Moon landing did to alleviate the many systemic evils of that time. But at the same time, it pulls us into an irresistible nostalgic reverie so powerful that we spend a hundred minutes helplessly pulled along in its current. Linklater isn’t really a lecturer. He’s not actually out to give us a polemic on the scary grip of looking backwards. His way is just to show us the hypnotic eddy of nostalgia and to ask with his characteristic stoner bemusement, “Ain’t that something else?” It’s for us to decide how much the nostalgic free associations of Apollo 10 1/2 are fun and sugar rush pleasurable and how much this exact kind of breathless idealizing of the past presents uneasy implications about memory’s power to gloss over harder truths. Linklater? He’s just out looking for pockets of wonder and weirdness and beauty in the most unassuming places. He’s just wandering the beach at dusk in search of tidepools. And this latest little pool looks like it has a whole universe inside of it.

Carnivorous Couch 091 – RRR

Advantages of Replica Watches: A Closer Look

In a world driven by luxury and style, replica watches have gained immense popularity over the years. These finely crafted timepieces offer several advantages that make them an appealing choice for many. In this article, we will explore the numerous benefits of owning and wearing replica watches, shedding light on why they are cherished by fashion enthusiasts and watch aficionados alike.

Quality Craftsmanship at Affordable Prices
High-Quality Materials
One of the primary advantages of replica watches is the use of high-quality materials in their construction. From stainless steel cases to sapphire crystal dials, replicas aim to replicate the authentic watch’s material and build.

Precise Movement
Replica watches often feature accurate, reliable movements. They can offer automatic, mechanical, or quartz movements, ensuring that they keep time with precision.

Affordability
Budget-Friendly
Replica watches provide an economical alternative to luxury timepieces. They allow individuals to enjoy the sophistication and style of a high-end watch without breaking the bank.

A Wide Range of Choices
Replica watches offer a diverse selection of styles and brands, making it possible for anyone to find a watch that suits their taste and budget.

Unparalleled Aesthetics
Attention to Detail
Replica watches pay great attention to detail, ensuring that they closely resemble their authentic counterparts. From intricate engravings to well-crafted logos, these timepieces are designed to look just like the real thing.

Iconic Designs
Replica watches often feature iconic designs from renowned watch manufacturers. This allows wearers to showcase their fashion sense with a watch that mirrors the elegance and style of the original.

Discreet Luxury
Blend In Anywhere
One of the advantages of replica watches is that they offer the allure of luxury without drawing unwanted attention. Wearers can enjoy the finer things in life without constantly worrying about security concerns.

Versatile Choices
Replica watches come in various styles, making it easy for individuals to find a watch that suits their attire, whether it’s a formal event, a casual outing, or a sporting activity.

Exceptional Durability
Resilient Build
Many replica watches are built to withstand the test of time. They are designed to be durable, ensuring that they last for years, even with daily wear.

Low Maintenance
Replica watches require minimal maintenance, which is a significant advantage for those who want to enjoy a luxurious timepiece without the hassle of constant upkeep.

RRR

 

Top 20 Films of 2022: #17- Armageddon Time

James Gray is a director of eclectic sensibilities. So even though his latest gem is set in the 1980s and mostly makes use of golden age hip hop and Clash-style punk for its soundtrack, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me busting out a little 90’s skate punk as a jumping off point for digging into his film. I enjoy the band NOFX quite a bit, in all their goofy, major chord glory. I am particularly fond of their 23-minute opus “The Decline”, a fiery, tonally diverse suite song that calls out the evils of everything from gun violence to anti-intellectualism to draconian marijuana laws. But its central thesis critiques a certain kind of myopic selfishness that feeds on fear. It’s the kind of frightened covetousness that turns garden variety self-interest into an all-consuming blaze of egomaniacal survivalism. One which transforms “my family comes first” into “my family comes only”. The idea that we only have the resources to care for our own, regardless of the consequences of that mindset. In the song’s rousingly cynical closing act, the learned emeritus Fat Mike roars out, “Fellow members, Club We’ve Got Ours. I’d like to introduce you to our host. He’s got his. And I’ve got mine. Meet the Decline.” This sprawling punk anthem came back to me as I watched James Gray’s autobiographical account of liberal New York Jewish family negotiating and painfully compromising their principles at the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Gray’s story is one of 2022’s most intellectually rigorous and deeply disquieting films because the people it most strongly takes to task are basically decent. The powerful advocates of classism and racism are mostly tucked away in the shadows and unseen. Gray alludes to the unscrupulous and the powerful intermittently (particularly by using the 1980 Presidential election as a loose framing device), but Armageddon Time is really the story of people who want to do the right thing. It is about people who want to be seen as compassionate but find themselves tripped up by the hurdles of prejudice, opportunism, generational trauma and moral cowardice. It is a potent and dismaying look at how American society prioritizes some people while stigmatizing others, and how even the well-meaning can be separated from their morals by the strong paternal hand of that society.

It’s the autumn of 1980 in New York City and a good-hearted but headstrong young Jewish boy named Paul Graff has just begun the sixth grade. Paul dreams of being an artist but his talent gets him sent to the blackboard on the first day when he draws a (quite good) rendering of his balding teacher. He doesn’t have to suffer his punishment alone for long, however, because another student all but volunteers to be punished with him. The teacher calls out the name of a young black boy, Johnny Davis. “The name’s Bond. James Bond”, the charismatic youngster suavely replies. They win their classmates’ laughter together and lose the right to participate in gym exercises for the day. Paul walks Johnny to his bus (Johnny lives in a poor neighborhood with only his grandmother) and they chat. They talk about Johnny’s dream of being an astronaut and the upcoming class trip to the Guggenheim Museum. Paul promises to pinch a 20-dollar bill from his mother’s purse so Johnny can afford to go on the outing. Paul lives a comfortable life, though his father (Jeremy Strong, strong) labors as a working class repairman. His maternal grandparents are wealthy enough to help the family. His older brother attends a rich private school downtown. His mother (Anne Hathaway, as great as I’ve seen her in quite some time) is a driven woman with plans to run for head of the District School Board. They live in a well-kept townhouse. Paul is especially close with his British-Ukrainian grandfather on his mother’s side, Aaron (an endearing and superb Anthony Hopkins giving one of the year’s truly great supporting performances). Aaron is a noble and doting man, always giving the Graff sons gifts and encouragement. He represents the very best angels of the Graff family, but even he has a somewhat stifling sense of familial tightness. He has known scarcity and hardship and a certain greedy fearfulness vibrates just below his genteel surface. His own Ukrainian mother saw her parents murdered by anti-Semitic hooligans. That was when she moved the family away from the Ukraine to Liverpool and from there across the ocean to New York City. The Graffs have had to fight prejudice and hate to become the modestly successful American family they are and they live with the uneasy feeling that it all could be taken away from them in an instant. That is why, when Paul’s blossoming friendship with Johnny lands him a suspension (they are both caught smoking pot in the stalls), even kindly Aaron supports the decision to pull him out of public school and send him to the lofty, elite school his older brother attends. Paul is being pulled in two directions by his close bond with a nice, misunderstood black boy and by the many forces that want to groom him into the thing that Johnny will never be allowed to be: a powerful, accepted cog in society’s upper echelons. The private school does not settle the war for Paul’s soul, it only starts it. It does not conclude the matter of Paul’s affluent future as his family hopes. Instead, the whole ordeal and especially his painful separation form Johnny opens Paul’s eyes to ugly and systemically violent truths about the American Dream and which people are handpicked to take part in it. Moreover, it sets in motion a tragedy that irrevocably changes these characters and alters the destiny of the man directing this film.

James Gray is much too eclectic of an auteur to be hemmed in by the kinds of stories he tells. He’s one of the last directors you could ever pigeonhole. He has been back to the turn of the century (The Immigrant and his masterpiece The Lost City of Z), into the future (Ad Astra) and occasionally to the present (Little Odessa and Two Lovers). His films have gone to Edwardian England, the remote Amazon, the far reaches of outer space and frequently returned home to his native New York City. If there’s a germ of a consistent theme to be found in his work, I think it’s the heavy yoke of family and expectations. In Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s astronaut sets out to find a father whose approval he has always craved, while that same father has suddenly cast off a lifetime of societal expectations by going rogue. The Lost City of Z‘s Percy Fawcett starts as a social striver trying to clear his tainted family name before a chance to make good by mapping the Amazon points him down a path that is his alone. But while he loses himself in his beloved rainforest, the question that looms is whether he is doing right by his family back in England. Family and society are primal forces to either surrender to or rebel against but, no matter what, you can never entirely get away from them. Not even light years away from Earth. They are fundamental fields of gravity that govern life as James Gray sees it and all of us define ourselves, rebel and conformist alike, by how we respond to them. In Armageddon Time, Gray renders the vision of his own family with fairness and empathy but also with merciless honesty. Family can be an unflattering thing; poison and antidote in one bottle. He shows the Graffs’ fearful selfishness, their blind entitlement, their internalized racism, their years of suffering anti-Jewish bigotry now unthinkingly projected out at the next marginalized group. He captures a brutal beating at the hands of his stern, emotionally repressed father. If Avatar: The Way of Water posits that family is a fortress, Armageddon Time adds that it can be a fortress under siege with us trapped inside of it. Family can protect us but it also has the power to suffocate and drive us mad. The entire institution of family carries with it the uncomfortable notion that our empathy is already partly spoken for, that we reserve a larger portion of our kindness and care for this one group of people that shares our genes. Armageddon Time is James Gray’s gently harrowing account of learning that opportunity and dignity are not apportioned equally in America. The brilliance of Gray’s film is in how he sees family as a snapshot of that harsh societal truth in miniature.

Armageddon Time is about as insightful a film about white privilege as I have ever laid eyes on. What makes it so biting is how it sees racism and privilege as the result of both deliberate cruelty and unconscious self-obsession. I was reminded of something Brad Dourif’s doctor from Deadwood says: “I see as much misery out of them moving to justify their selves as them that set out to do harm.” A society of racial injustice and unequal opportunity is built a brick at a time by the justifications of individuals afraid for their own position; by those who fear that they only have enough capacity (of money, of time, of emotional energy) to see to themselves and their own circle. The gravitational pull of self-interest is hard to resist. Fat Mike has it right. He’s got his and I’ve got mine. The Graffs are basically well-meaning people. They do not espouse hateful rhetoric, even if they do fall right into prejudiced line the second one black boy’s existence poses some vague threat to their child’s future. There is an unspoken theme in Armageddon Time about how people act out their own past oppression against other exploited groups, passing their victimization along like a hot potato. The Graff family is vocally against Ronald Reagan but they are blithe participants in the society that is about to welcome Reaganism’s self-serving myopia with open arms. They may be registered as Democrats but they eagerly push Paul into a school and career track populated by the sons of the greedy, powerful and unprincipled. Many, this critic included, are perfectly willing to attack a system solely interested in securing prosperity and safety for a privileged handful of whites, but it takes a different sort of courage to disavow the benefits we receive from that system. To refuse what you are given and let your advantage go unused. Armageddon Time understands how hard it is for ostensibly progressive white people to refuse the money, so to speak, even when we know it has been stolen from the disadvantaged. We can critique the unjust enrichment of white over black all day long, but there is a tendency to do so in a very generalized way; a way that leaves our own selves out of the problem. The Graffs know things shouldn’t be the way they are, but they also feel they could really use any leg up that America is offering them. Even the noble and tolerant grandfather Aaron won’t say no to this arbitrary fortune. He accepts special treatment and remembers how recently the shoe was on the other foot. How not very long ago it would have been a Cossack’s boot breaking down their door. “The system is rigged and unfair,” we cry out and then discreetly drop the tainted coins into our pockets.

Armageddon Time is an intimately observed coming of age story for James Gray but it also has the foreboding of a slowly unfurling horror movie. The slasher waiting in the bushes is nothing less than the American 80s, and nobody’s ideals or best liberal intentions are safe. Gray’s wise, sober little tale has the clammy panic of a waking nightmare. The more Paul watches all of society degrade and devalue Johnny (from uncaring teachers who write him off to the police to even other black adolescents), the more incensed Paul becomes. That’s when the world starts to take on truly chilling undertones. Because he learns that all his righteous indignation, disgust and sorrow can’t give him the courage to really do anything about this injustice. The Armageddon in question is the total paralysis of human empathy and social action; the failure of our own convictions when we have to make a choice that might threaten our own interests. Meanwhile, Johnny Davis knows where his story is headed from the beginning. His resigned, worn out face tells us everything we need to know. He is heartbreakingly aware that no future has been set aside for him. When Paul worries about his teacher punishing them for ditching a field trip, Johnny chuckles knowingly and says, “Nothing’s gonna happen to you, man.” Johnny has Paul’s back with a tender ferocity. He doesn’t have a chance against this depraved system, but it hurts him to see it grind down his friend. Paul sadly finds himself tongue-tied when two rich classmates at his new school ask him if he ever went to school with blacks (but of course they don’t use the word “blacks”). The Graffs watch a Reagan interview where the incoming President warns that this generation might be the one to usher in Armageddon. His Armageddon is a rhetorical weapon, a fear cudgel that he will soon use to help herd America into a notoriously conformist chapter of its history. The true Armageddon isn’t what Reagan says it is but, in getting the American populace to buy into the idea, it does become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The real cataclysm is the wilting of the American soul in the face of manufactured fear. The compromising of Americans’ principles as more of them prioritize their financial security and make peace with the limits of their power to help the stigmatized, brutalized and neglected.  Sometimes that racist abuse takes the form of plain old neglect. When Paul is sent to the principal’s office, the principal doesn’t know what to do with him and sends him right back to class. The message is actually crueler than mere punishment. Society has repeatedly let Paul know that it doesn’t much care where he goes or what happens to him, just that there’s no real place for him. He simply doesn’t matter. I have heard and digested the criticisms of Armageddon Time as being just another exercise in white guilt. But I find James Gray’s self-immolating autobiography so clear-eyed and scorching that it avoids navel-gazing. It never feels like an act of indulgent self-flagellation or pat forgiveness. Certainly not forgiveness of any kind. It sees the human beings at the center of this story in all their dimensions, but it never lets a one of them off the hook. Under its muted, autumnal visual palette, Armageddon Time breathes a rebuking fire that consumes Gray’s loved ones and himself.

The problem Armageddon Time sees is how the future is forever being held back by the past. The way that, even if you were to assemble enough people who genuinely want to create a more equal and equitable world, they would need to sacrifice personally.  They would need to agree to break with traditions that have protected and enriched them. Real justice would require drastic change, and whoever created the system as it currently stands was cunning enough to entangle a lot of white Americans in it; to make sure that each of them has enough of a piddling token stake in the status quo that they feel they would suffer some detriment from altering it. In the way it sees the morass of self-interest and complacency as the enemy of progress, Armageddon Time reminded me of The Wire, David Simon’s revelatory show about law, crime and city politics in Baltimore. Various characters in that show envision and try to implement better, fairer ways of governing and policing. Better ways of being as a society. And the stark brick wall reality that they always butt up against is that it’s very difficult to get people to change an unjust system that they own shares in. If only half the people in that system didn’t want to be judges and higher-ups, The Wire‘s unorthodox Detective McNulty laments. “But no, everybody stays friends. Everybody gets paid. And everybody has a fucking future.” It’s just what Paul Graff’s family is doing when they place him in that private academy full of future judges, politicians and CEOs. They are buying him into that safe future that is so very beholden to the craven past. In what could have been too on the nose, the first person Paul runs into on his first day at rich school is Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump. He is there with his daughter Maryanne Trump Barry, an Assistant United States Attorney. She has come to the school’s assembly to tell this auditorium full of privileged white boys the unvarnished truth. The future has been prepared specially in advance for them. It has been paid for and gift wrapped to be given to them on a day not so far from today, in a year not so distant from 1980. It is of course expected that they will one day reciprocate for their own kind, ensuring that the right to peace and prosperity is handed down to the chosen people who will gather in this same stately hall decades from now. Armageddon Time does not actually get its title from that Reagan interview. It’s instead a reference to “Armagideon Time”, a 1970s reggae song by a black Jamaican named Willie Williams. It was later covered by a white British band  called The Clash. The song is about poverty and inequality and fighting back against systemic evils. There is not much hope in Armageddon Time outside of a small moment of symbolic victory for Paul. But there may be a nugget of hope in the lyrics of “Armagideon Time”, a reminder of what needs to be done. “A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight,” Williams sings. “Remember to kick it over.”

Top 20 Films of 2022: #15- Avatar: The Way of Water

The major reason Ratatouille‘s Anton Ego is so many critics’ favorite depiction of a critic (other than the dream of having a velvety Peter O’Toole voice) is that he shows how much we all want to love the things we take in. Beneath his imposing veneer lies the soft heart of a man who wants to be completely bowled over by a piece of art. It may not always work out that way, but no self-respecting critic wants to find a piece of art mediocre or bad. Lovers of art want to have a reason to love even more art and, even if we feel reasonably certain that a given film is going to disappoint us, we still hold to the hope that maybe it won’t. True film critics start every film hoping, praying to be surprised. And when that happens, there are precious few experiences more rejuvenating and magical. I never disliked James Cameron’s 2009 world-beater Avatar. Not by a long shot. I always though it was pretty good and I still basically feel that way. Its environmentalist message is definitely earnest and cheesy (even if pitched entirely to my viewpoint), but earnestness has never been the Cameron trait that bothers me. Obviously the visuals were and are staggering. But the visionary director’s nakedly sentimental action extravaganza never hit me with the emotional intensity of Cameron masterworks like Terminator 2: Judgement DayAliens or Titanic. It wasn’t that Avatar was dopey, because of course it was. It’s not like Cameron has ever been particularly script-focused to begin with. His plots and characters deserve a lot of praise, but he’s the furthest thing from writerly or subtle. Maybe it was just that the 2009 Avatar‘s New-Agey ideas felt too borrowed and obvious, even for someone as broad as Cameron. It was as if he had just registered for Facebook and stumbled on a cache of well-meaning but hackneyed climate change memes that he couldn’t wait to share. Avatar was far too committed and sincere for me to ever call it phoned in. It clearly came from a place of great conviction on Cameron’s part. But maybe its ham-handed message and those well-worn tropes so many made fun of it for (the comparisons to Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas) pointed toward something just a little less personal about it. Even True Lies feels more suffused with Big Jim Cameron’s heart and personality, what with its goofy divorced guy energy. I like Avatar fine in a way where I was content to never talk about it or even watch it again. Unlike so much of the movie-watching world, I did not have a pressing need to “return to Pandora”. So. all of that to say, Avatar: The Way of Water being even pretty good would have been a splendid surprise for this one-time Navi agnostic. But what I ended up getting from the second Avatar was well above and beyond anything I could have hoped for. And I could break it all down into a numerical grade and put caveats and qualifiers on my praise but, to tell you the truth, I don’t feel like it. A film as elating as this leaves a critic too satisfied for hedging or hair-splitting. After a three-hour bath in Cameron’s aquamarine wonderland, quibbling is the furthest thing from my mind. I am surprised and delighted to tell you that I unabashedly loved Avatar: The Way of Water.

 

Avatar: The Way of Water picks up some 16 years after the first one. After fending off his own military from decimating the forests of Pandora for precious metals, former paraplegic Earth Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, shaking off the stiffness of his first outing with Cameron and giving what I can happily call a tremendously good performance) is now living in domestic bliss with his Navi warrior wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, as reliably strong here as she always is) and their four children. This includes their two teenaged songs, responsible eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and their second eldest, the more impetuous and eager Loak (Britain Dalton). They also have an adopted teenage daughter named Kiri. Kiri (marvelously played with a Winona Ryder-like blend of quirky innocence and rebelliousness by 71-year James Cameron muse Sigourney Weaver) was birthed by Earth scientist Grace (played briefly by Weaver without the use of mo-cap technology), who fell into a coma after one of the first movie’s battles. Kiri’s father remains unknown, though giddy speculation runs high among her siblings. The youngest Sully child is their 7-year old daughter Tuk (Trinity Bliss, adorable). The loving Sully clan has been enjoying a relatively uneventful decade-plus. Their season in the Sun ends when Earth ships suddenly arrive in a fiery blast, carrying a new wave of Sky People, as the Navi term the Earth interlopers. Cameron cuts to a year later with Jake, Neytiri and the rest of the Navi (including the Sully sons) fighting to stop the Earth forces from encroaching into their sacred forest. They are doing quite a good job of it too, which is why the military presence on Pandora has called for an upgrade to their forces. In an effort to help neutralize chosen warrior Jake Sully, the corporate and military interests of Earth have essentially brought back the first film’s villain, Colonel Quaritch (a very strong Steven Lang), nothwithstanding the fact that he expired with two arrows through the chest at the conclusion of the first Avatar. The film repeatedly reminds us, however, that this is not actually the same Colonel Quaritch but a kind of copy containing all of his data. In other words, Quaritch’s superiors shrewdly preserved his memories on a zip drive and have uploaded them into a nine-foot tall Navi body. The new Quaritch wants a chance for revenge against the turncoat Jake and against the Navi woman who violently dispatched the human Quaritch. The Earth forces on Pandora hope this personal vendetta (and the aid of Quaritch’s elite team of Marines, also brought back to life in avatar form) will turn the tides in their favor and give them the added push they need to neutralize the Forest Navi resistance. And, in the jam-packed first thirty minutes of Cameron’s three-hour epic, Quaritch and his grunts come close to succeeding, after they catch the Sully children snooping around the site of the first film’s final battle. Jake and Neytiri arrive just in time to rescue their kids and the whole Sully family escapes by the blue skin of their teeth. But Quaritch does take one prisoner: his own 16-year old son, Spider. Spider was only two at the time the Earthlings retreated all those years ago, and was too much of an infant to travel with them. As a result, he has become close with the Navi and fashioned himself as one of them, much like Jake once did but without being placed into a Navi avatar. The Sullys have all but adopted Spider. He is particularly close with thier actual adopted child Kiri. After their close call, the Sullys know the enemy is building its strength up again and that Jake’s hunted status could put their forest loved ones in mortal danger. Over the tearful protestations of his family, the regimented and disciplined Jake pressures them to leave their home. They must mount their dragon-like Ikran (let’s be honest, they’re dragons in all but name) and fly somewhere where they can hide from their would-be captors. And so ends 2022’s most gloriously stuffed and thrilling Act One. But the real business of Avatar: The Way of Water truly begins when the Sullys reach the film’s central destination: the turquoise waters of the far-off coastal islands. The lands that are home to an entirely distinct tribe called the Metkayina.

 

As Jake and his family are reluctantly taken in by the Metkayina leaders, Tonowari (a strong Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant warrior queen Ronal (Kate Winslet, giving just enough to make me excited to see her do more in the franchise’s next entry), something miraculous happens to the film. James Cameron, the dominant elder statesman of blockbusting action, creates something that feels different and new. If you’re coming to this review from my review on The Woman King, you may recognize a trend taking shape for 2022. The streak of unique action hybrids stays alive. Cameron has created what feels like history’s first true action hangout movie, certainly for an action movie of this enormous scope and budget. While the film is packed with some of the most exciting and blisteringly inventive action setpieces this side of Mad Max: Fury Road (or 2022’s own RRR, of course) Cameron also finds room for moments of beatific calm. I love almost every minute of The Way of Water, but my eyes lit up when I realized what its transcendent second act was doing. James Cameron has created an astoundingly beautiful underwater world for us to gaze at in childlike awe, and he’ll be damned if any action movie rules are going to get in the way of us taking it in. “You’ll get to spend the whole last hour with your heart in your trachea,” he says, “But I didn’t transport us all this way to an intergalactic tropical paradise to not have any downtime.” And by taking it all in, I mean really stopping to look at it and see how the characters themselves (especially starry-eyed budding naturalist Kiri) are moved by it. The first Avatar had lovely scenery but Cameron’s superior-on-every-level sequel goes further to give the natural beauty an emotional connection.  It’s a small, perfectly judged decision. There’s an old cineaste’s proverb that says a great film teaches you how to watch it in its first moments. Cameron’s Metkayina villagers teach us how to watch the film roughly an hour in when they teach the Sully children how to hold their breath for longer underwater. “You must slow down your heartbeat,” the tribe leaders’ daughter Tsireya tells Loak. And the same applies to us. Exhilarating and brilliantly blocked scenes of combat and survival are coming soon in Avatar‘s glorious third act, but Cameron also wants his devoted, action-loving viewers to tune into the joys of his slow scenes. Not only because they are fantastic, but because those moments of serenity are going to make those deliriously smart action scenes leap off the screen more vividly when they arrive. The enraptured smiles on Kriki and Tuk’s faces should match our own and we should feel just as blown away by the film’s meditative wonder as by how kinetic it is.  “Your heart is fast,” Tsireya softly admonishes her new pupils. When you allow yourself to experience both the film’s transcendent, gently euphoric lulls and its breathlessly paced, emotionally charged action highs in the way Cameron wants you to, the full experience of Avatar: The Way of Water becomes almost impossibly rich: fun, silly, sincere, empathetic, tense and heart-swelling. James Cameron put my heart and all my brain’s pleasure receptors in a delightful centrifuge and whirled them around until they surrendered to the sheer majestic glee.

 

Avatar: The Way of Water is also maybe the most thematically potent film James Cameron has made since Terminator 2: Judgement Day some thirty years ago. Like its predecessor, this Avatar is very much about respect for nature and environmental stewardship. Cameron is once again unembarrassed to bare his whole conservationist heart (and, unlike Adam McKay, he has nothing to be embarrassed about). In this film, Earth’s goal is no longer mining for precious metals but turning Pandora into a full-scale replacement Earth. Environmentalism is the core message but the film’s strongest theme is actually the power and complexity of the family unit. “Family is a fortress,” Jake Sully tells his loved ones. It may not outwardly seem like the most complex organizing idea for a film (then again, it is the major theme of Cameron’s two game-changing masterpieces, T2 and Aliens). The weaker Fast & Furious films are a reminder that having a character say the word “family” a lot does not automatically turn your action movie into interesting cinema. But Cameron threads the idea of family through his lushly heartfelt movie with disarming conviction. And with so much to love about the visuals, lovable characters (even agro-heel Quaritch gets a fresh new coat of humanism this time around), patient sense of tone and smart action directing, Cameron’s unfussy use of the family theme becomes one more beautiful, enriching element. It does something I did not expect after the first Avatar. It makes thee big goofy blue alien film feel genuinely sumptuous and even, dare I say, sophisticated. Maybe sophistication isn’t something you need from a blockbuster actioner like this, but it sent my appreciation through the roof and out past the Earth’s atmosphere. As in Titanic (with its themes of classism), Cameron is using theme in a very practical way. The pattern of families and duty to one’s own and how fathers and their children build trust is not deployed for any lofty cerebral purpose but simply to add depth to its characters and its plot stakes.  It’s the way Cameron connects that theme very plainly and directly to every one of these characters, from the Sullys to Quaritch and Spider. It’s even tied to the space whales (I do apologize for taking so long to mention that there are kick-ass, hyper-intelligent whales in this beautiful gem). This is theme done in the unpretentious, no-bullshit James Cameron house style and I was unprepared for just how masterfully it would work on me.

Avatar: The Way of Water can also sit proudly with recent masterpieces like Once Upon A Time In HollywoodThe Fabelmans and The Irishman as films that are in conversation with their director’s soul and body of work. Just as surely as Martin Scorsese is drawn to crime and faith or Quentin Tarantino loves old B-movie theaters, James Cameron loves water. The old joke in the early Aughts was that he loved the sea so damned much we might just lose him to underwater documentaries forever. Water features heavily in Titanic and The Abyss, but even T2 introduces a villain who can essentially liquefy himself. It is that undulating watery power that makes the T1000 so terrifying (okay, he’s also indecently fast) and it is also only through melting that he can eventually be defeated. There’s a sort of impassive quality to water that can be both sword and shield and I think Cameron finds something beautiful and humbling about that. It is both karmic and frighteningly impartial. In Titanic, human greed may take sides but the icy waters of the North Atlantic do not. “Oh sure,” James Cameron might say to all my high-minded theorizing. “That’s partly it. But it also just looks incredible.” And he would be absolutely right on the money (he lives on the money). The third act of Avatar: The Way of Water, involving hostages and a giant whaling vessel, is astonishing and innovative and it is where James Cameron lets the titular H2O of his film fully out of its cage. It is where Cameron’s irresistibly rousing watery id rushes through every nook and cranny of his meticulously designed film. And, for as much as I adore the decision to have a meditative and peaceful second act, this technically more traditional action finale is what makes me fall completely in love with the film. A massive, action-heavy third act may seem more been-there-done-that, but James Cameron action finales are never standard and are never ever phoned in. What makes the film soar from start to finish is its unabashed emotionalism and I cannot name an action finale this side of RRR that feels more tied into emotion and character. I want to go watch that last hour again, this very instant. I hollered, laughed, and felt water welling up behind my eyes. Whatever remaining tolerance I had for the flat, dingy sky battles of so many modern action movies has been entirely rinsed out of my system. James Cameron has flushed them all down the drain in a whitewater torrent of tears and serotonin.

If I haven’t emphasized it properly, James Cameron has also made a very well-acted film here. The first Avatar didn’t attract too many performance hosannas outside of Zoe Saldana’s potent ferocity as Neytiri, but The Way of Water is filled with strong, fully dimensional acting. Sam Worthington’s work as Jake Sully is an extremely pleasant surprise. He has improved dramatically since his agreeably wooden work in the first Avatar (I think the more ensemble-y nature of Way of Water is good for his intermittently frustrating but generally sympathetic character). Saldana continues to be the franchise’s reliable heavyweight, a powder keg of feeling who can lend subtlety to big moments. The Sully sons are completely solid at worst, even if the eldest does verge on being an afterthought. Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet lend gravitas to their Metkayina leaders. I think character actors’ character actor Steven Lang is doing superlative work as the film’s heavy, finding notes of humor, introspection and even self-doubt in the cocksure force of nature that is Quaritch. It’s also just nice to see that character get more to do than bark, seethe and glower. On second viewing, I have firmly decided that I actually like dread-headed white teenager Spider, the film’s most polarizing character for reasons that require no further explanation. But if I have to give out best in show, it absolutely belongs to septuagenarian and longtime Cameron collaborator Sigourney Weaver, whose wonderfully soulful work as the moony teenager Kiri is like some great Winona Ryder character discovered decades later. Cameron and Weaver broke boundaries back in 1988 when her commandingly brilliant work in Aliens became the first action performance ever nominated for an acting Oscar. And here they both are three decades later, still standing at the cutting edge of what action cinema can be. That two titans of the genre are here in this banner year with one of the very best films of the year is fitting and refreshing, if not the least bit surprising. If they do not have the literal best action film of 2022, that’s of no great concern. They are 2022’s action keynote speakers all the same.