From ’70s mob thrillers to docs that stretch their genre definitions, AFI Fest closes with some elegant entries.
(This dispatch is part of our coverage of AFI Fest 2020.)
Now that AFI Fest is over and done with, we see the end of 2020’s festival season. It’s been a whirlwind, with the COVID-19 pandemic both shutting down festivals and theaters and paradoxically giving critics more screener access than they know what to do with. What’s more, with all of us working at home, it’s hard to juggle the day jobs we need to survive such a low-paying industry (pledge to our Patreon!) with the dedicated time we could normally take to really dive into a festival. That being said, AFI Fest still had quite a few charming curios to discover in its closing days.
First up is the fest’s opening night presentation (which I finally saw thanks to an encore presentation on closing night), Julia Hart‘s I’m Your Woman, a sizzling ’70s mob drama about Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), a mob wife forced to go on the run after her husband makes a move on his business partner. With only a bag of money, an old friend of her husband’s (Arinzé Kene‘s Cal) as a protector, and the weeks-old baby her husband stole for her the day before, Jean must find a way to not only survive but learn to exist on her own in a world she’d long ignored out of convenience.
Much like their previous feature, the criminally-underseen Fast Color, Hart and co-writer/producer Jordan Horowitz loves to dabble in small, delicate character studies about families that must be broken and reforged in the wake of tragedy and violence. That sentiment is alive and well here, putting a refreshingly period-appropriate focus (the Gordon Willis-like cinematography of Bryce Fortner is especially delicious) to the kind of character other mob movies of its ilk would shift to the sidelines. Hart stages some impressive sequences here riddled with suspense — from a nightclub shootout captured in one take with hundreds of extras (the camera honed on Jean’s frightened point of view) to a midnight car chase that burns slow, but hot in its tension.
Brosnahan’s impressive enough on her own, dialing back the wide-eyed timing of Mrs. Maisel to the exhausted, bleary-eyed resolve of a woman climbing out of the violent world she let herself ignore far too long. But in the film’s second half, when she forges a complicated friendship with Cal’s wife (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and her family, Hart’s dead-on approach takes on new heartfelt layers. It’s a film about the stresses of motherhood, about the ways men’s cycles of violence affect those around them, and the need for grace in a weary world. Moments of tender peace collide with bursts of chaos — but after all, isn’t that motherhood in a nutshell?
I’m Your Woman meanders a bit, but in those long, hazy stretches of road are some wonderful moments of pathos well-suited to Hart’s already-impressive filmography. It’s funny; bits of this reminded me of David Lowery’s impeccable ’70s pastiche The Old Man and the Gun, who, like fellow auteur Hart, had just finished a big Disney film prior to that (for him, Pete’s Dragon; for her, Stargirl). Lord only knows what Hart’s Green Knight will be, but I can’t wait to see it.
I’m Your Woman Trailer:
With all the car chases and stolen babies, let’s slow down a bit and eavesdrop on a nice, long chat with two of cinema’s most influential filmmakers. Hopper/Welles, a recently-unearthed conversation between Orson Welles (credited as director) and Dennis Hopper, feels exactly like you’d imagine that would go: fascinating and solipsistic in equal measure, interesting to fans of the two but gradually tiring as the night went on. Captured in November 1970 while Hopper was on set filming a cameo in another posthumously-completed Welles film (the ambitious The Other Side of the Wind), Hopper/Welles is as straightforward as its name implies. Wind‘s producer Filip Jam Rymsza and editor Bob Murawski compiled outtakes of the two chatting over a long afternoon into one long, 129-minute conversation about everything from art to film to politics to sex.
The results are charming and interesting for fans of the two filmmakers, though it occasionally lapses into the kind of obnoxious film-bro chat you’d expect of two men with far too high opinions of themselves. But their dynamic is infectious to watch, especially as Welles’ camera never strays far from Hopper’s grinning, bearded face, lit by the fireplace they’re sitting by (we never see Welles, only hear his booming baritone echo from off screen).
Watching it, you get the sense of two men at different points of their career: Welles, old and washed-up, is on the other side of his prime, while the young, virile Hopper is fresh off the success of counterculture hit Easy Rider. Really, the conversation takes more of the shape of an interview, a bitter, acerbic Welles pressing Hopper on his leftist politics, the freewheeling nature of his filmmaking, and which famous figure he’d rather play in a movie (“You’d rather play Hamlet than Jesus? God you are an actor!” Welles balks).
Welles delights in needling Hopper, trying to provoke reactions, while Hopper expertly evades the bait with a pull of his cigarette and a sardonic grin. Here, we get to see the contrast between two men on opposite ends of a dying Hollywood, and how they react to the chaos and uncertainty of the decade they’re living in: Welles with frustrated cynicism, Hopper with resigned bemusement.
As a film, its appeal is more as a curio than a piece of genuine insight; at two-plus hours, it could have been trimmed down a bit, but then we’d miss the meandering rhythms of a conversation between two people who changed the face of cinema in their time. Still, this is one I think you can safely throw on in the background and tune in as needed – you still get the charm of the pair’s intriguing tete-a-tete, without feeling trapped with them, stuck in the same circular conversation for an afternoon.
Yorgos Lanthimos has long had the market cornered for the Greek Weird Wave — droll, deadpan social satires about a society on the brink of collapse, and the slack-jawed denizens who’ll let it happen. This time, Christos Nikou (who worked with Lanthimos on Dogtooth) is here with his own debut, Apples, which treads similarly bleak territory. A plague has hit Greece — not COVID, thank God, but one that systematically erases the memories of those who catch it.
This happens to Aris (Aris Servetalis), a middle-aged man who’s scooped up by a new government recovery program that seeks to help this new population of amnesiacs start their lives over again. He’s given an apartment, a Polaroid, and instructional tapes that assign him daily tasks that mimic the everyday rhythms of life (go to a strip club, have a meet-cute, engage in a one-night stand) — it’s flat-pack life, with some assembly required.
Fittingly for a Lanthimos-inspired joint, Apples is bone-dry in its presentation, desaturated 4:3 photography hemming Aris into the confining production design and utilitarian outfits of its world. Obviously, there’s a lot here about how our identities are shaped by our memories — if we lose those, are we effectively new people? — which come out in droll, absurd setpieces for Aris to get lost in.
Sometimes, the approach is a little too obvious (he wanders a Halloween party in a spacesuit, get it? Because he feels like he’s an alien among other people!), and Nikou’s exploration of these themes feels intermittently plodding. But there’s a lot of potential in his jaundiced, probing eye, especially as he lands the occasional moment of grace as Aris strikes up a relationship with fellow amnesiac Anna (Sofia Georgovassili). Even in its methodical lows, there’s plenty in Apples to ruminate over, and that’s the mark of an intriguing debut.
Now for something with a little more emotion — Heidi Ewing‘s I Carry You With Me, a heartfelt mixture of documentary and narrative filmmaking that ekes out the kind of tragic emotional truths that could only appear outside of fiction. The tale of Iván Garcia and Gerardo Zabaleta, a real couple who live in New York City as undocumented immigrants and restaurateurs, the film cuts between documentary footage of the real Iván and a fictionalized retelling of his life prior to crossing the border from Mexico to build a better life (his younger selves played by Yael Tadeo as a child and Armando Espitia as a young man).
Ewing, director of many successful documentaries from Detopia to the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp, brings a similarly intimate sensibility to both sides of the narrative coin here. That’s important, too, given Carry‘s dual concerns about immigration and the dangers of queer life.
Ewing shows us the way these factors linger with Iván through three different points of his life — his queerness is shamed by his father as a child, and his budding romance with Gerardo causes tension with his mother and wife, which leads him to make the dangerous crossing to America to seek a better life. And in present-day New York City, his successful life as a chef clashes with the precariousness of his citizenship status, and the fact that he can never return home to see the people he left behind.
While the numerous flashbacks and intercutting can sometimes confuse the narrative (Gerardo’s side of the story is shown too, though the tale certainly feels like it belongs more to Iván), Ewing shows a tremendous command of tone and emotion with her delicate scripting and direction. The first flutterings of Iván and Gerardo’s love are captured through flirtatious laser-pointers at a club, and Iván’s border crossing with an ailing friend is certainly harrowing. Jay Wadley‘s score, an atmospheric mix of harmonica and synth, flows between the eras with appropriate longing. Warts and all, it remains a sumptuous, emotionally complicated work, and one that opponents of gay marriage and immigration rights should take a long, hard look at.