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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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‘Richard Jewell’ is Both For and Against Character Assassination

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Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell (Warner Bros.)

With Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood does two things at once: tell a compelling story of something that was all over the news about 25 years ago, and seek to make an incendiary political point meant to play to very specific modern-day resentments. Let’s just say the former objective is much more defensible than the latter. 

The film tells the story of a security guard (Paul Walter Hauser) in the Atlanta area who was working in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics when a bomb went off in the park. Jewell was first treated as a hero who rescued people during the bombing, but was later considered a suspect in the bombing by the FBI and named as such in the media. But Jewell, it turned out, was innocent, with domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph confessing to the crime years later. 

As depicted in Eastwood’s film, Richard Jewell bears more than a passing resemblance to Shawn Eckhardt, the character Hauser played two years ago in I, Tonya — a real-life creature of a sensational mid-’90s true crime case who hadn’t done much with his life, but has aspirations of something greater. In Jewell’s case, it’s thwarted dreams of becoming a cop, which haven’t kept him from worshiping and idealizing law enforcement. He’s also depicted as a man so simple-minded that he keeps doing things that made him look super-guilty, even though he isn’t.

Richard Jewell reporters

Richard Jewell takes us into how exactly the man came to be accused. The FBI, in the person of agent Jon Hamm, applied its vaunted profiling tactics — the ones you’ve seen lionized on such shows as Criminal Minds and Mindhunter — to the case, and came up with the wrong guy. 

Filmmaking-wise, what we have here is similar to most other late-period Eastwood films, and the pacing and storytelling aren’t the problem. The sequence right before the bombing, in particular, is especially harrowing and suspenseful.

While in the works for many years (Jonah Hill was at one point set to star as Jewell, and remains a producer), Richard Jewell itself was produced and completed uncommonly quickly, with production beginning in June, just six months before its release. Nevertheless, it creates a reasonable approximation of 1996 — The Macarena included! — and while seemingly the majority of studio movies these days are shot in Georgia, this one at least is actually set there.

The problem, however, is another decision the film makes. We see Hamm’s FBI agent leaking the existence of the investigation to media, specifically reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), after what’s essentially a seduction on her part. This is the film’s biggest misstep, which is in fact an act of pure character assassination against Scruggs, a real-life journalist (deceased) who is accused of horrible ethical breaches that she almost certainly never committed, including offering to sleep with sources in exchange for information. Beyond that, the character is played by Wilde as something resembling a cartoon witch. There are a lot of unique characters who exist in newsrooms, but this character isn’t one of them.

And despite what you may have read, the Richard Jewell makes the FBI look even worse than the media. It also shows Jewell, who spent his whole life wanting to be a cop, defending and making excuses for these unscrupulous agents who are falsely accusing him. The script also doesn’t really get the dynamic that takes place between media and the police/FBI quite right; in 95 percent of high-profile crime stories, the only major source is law enforcement, and media outlets just go with whatever the cops tell them. 

What the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did was report — accurately, at the time — that the FBI was looking at Jewell as a suspect. Yes, they should have done more due diligence, but they also didn’t make things up. Had Scruggs behaved the way she did in the film in real life, that would be worthy of condemnation. But she didn’t. 

Furthermore, yes, what happened to Richard Jewell was pretty terrible. But on the other hand, he was never arrested, he never did a day in jail or prison, and was cleared after about three months. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but…other wrongfully accused people have gone away for years and decades. Multiple movies this year, including Brian Banks and Just Mercy, have told the stories of such cases. 

Hauser is very good, and getting to be expert at this sort of role, although the performance ends with him delivering a long, articulate speech in which Jewell turns into essentially a different person.  Sam Rockwell, on something of a roll with Jojo Rabbit and Fosse/Verdon, is just fine as his lawyer. There’s also a performance by Kathy Bates, as Jewell’s mother, that’s been getting inexplicable praise — it’s more a regional affectation than a great performance. 

While Eastwood — the Obama invisible chair speech notwithstanding — is far from a down-the-line right-winger, the timing of this particular release is somewhat cynical. It’s clearly pitched right now in a way to exploit discontent with media misconduct and “fake news,” while also directly in line with that weird cultural tic in which cops are seen as beyond reproach, while the FBI is evil. 

Richard Jewell isn’t bad as a character study, but its agenda is a whole other story. 

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‘Apollo 11’ Leads the Best Documentaries of 2019

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Best Documentaries of 2019

2019 was a generally strong year for documentaries, with many of the best ones sharing one or more of several elements: a focus on music, a resonance with the current moment, and the word “Apollo” in the title.

The Year’s Best Documentaries

Best Documentaries 2019

1. Apollo 11. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, this documentary made masterful use of archival footage — much of it on 70mm film long not available to the public — to tell the story of the Apollo 11 mission on its 50th anniversary. It’s one of those films that’s nerve-wracking, even as everyone watching knows exactly how it all happened. The film opened in theaters, then showed on CNN, and then returned to theaters this month. 

Best Documentaries 2019

2. The Kingmaker. The Queen of Versailles director Lauren Greenfield takes another look at the ridiculously wealthy, this time catching up with Imelda Marcos, the 90-year-old former first lady of The Philippines. For its first half hour, the film hints that it’s going to be a soft-focused look at a newsmaker of the past, before it takes a sudden turn into showing its subject as a monster who looted her own people of billions and was almost certainly complicit in horrific war crimes. The film played in theaters this fall and will debut on Showtime in early 2020. 

Best Documentaries 2019

3. Love, Antosha. The life of the beloved late actor Anton Yelchin, which ended in a freak accident in 2017, is celebrated with home movie footage, clips of his movies, and interviews with a star-studded array of his co-stars. It’s a sweet remembrance of a talent gone far too soon — while also telling the story, through both letters and interviews, of his relationship with the loving Russian immigrant parents he left behind. Now streaming from on-demand providers. 

Best Documentaries 2019

4. City of Joel. Director Jesse Sweet’s film is an astonishing work of anthropological filmmaking, as he looks at the tension and land disputes between a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who arrived in an upstate New York town, and their secular neighbors. The film, which played the Jewish film festival circuit and is now available on demand, is uncommonly evenhanded, letting both sides of the dispute have their say. 

Best Documentaries 2019

5. David Crosby: Remember My Name. There were many very strong music documentaries this year, but this film, directed by A.J. Eaton and produced and narrated by Cameron Crowe, was the best of them all. Crosby, knowing he’s in poor health and unlikely to live many more years, is uncommonly candid about his regrets, especially his many feuds with his famous musical collaborators. Now available on demand, it’s also the best film Crowe has been associated with in almost two decades.

Best Documentaries 2019

6. Cold Case Hammarskjöld. Mads Brügger’s documentary starts off by looking at the mysterious 1961 plane crash death of U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, and then goes off in all sorts of crazy directions, including a supposed plot by South Africa’s apartheid government in the 1980s to infect people with AIDS. Not everything asserted here is true (most likely), but it’s all wildly intriguing. Now available on demand. 

Best Documentaries 2019

7. The Apollo. The year’s “other” Apollo documentary takes a look back at the history of Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, a mecca of African-American culture for nearly a century. The film looks at how the theater has waxed and waned in importance over the years, while using a staged reading of Ta’Nehesi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” as a framing device. This one played at festivals and then debuted on HBO; it’s currently available on HBO’s streaming platform. 

Best Documentaries 2019

8. Horror Noire. Director Xavier Burgin’s documentary takes a look at the history of black horror films, using 2017’s Get Out as an inflection point to look back on decades of African-American representation — as well as ugly tropes — in the horror genre. The film had some big-screen showings before streaming on Shudder. 

Best Documentaries 2019
Tell Me Who I Am CR: Netflix

9. Tell Me Who I Am. Director Ed Perkins’ documentary about a pair of twins, and the family secrets one must tell the other, is very creepy and unsettling, but still essential. It debuted on Netflix, where it’s a perfect fit, and is still streaming there now. 

Best Documentaries 2019
** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITONS, MAY 29-30 ** FILE – In this June 29, 1986 file photo, Diego Maradona of Argentina, is lifted up as he holds the World Cup trophy after Argentina defeated West Germany 3-2 in the World Cup soccer final in the Atzeca Stadium, in Mexico City. (Ap Photo/Carlo Fumagalli, File)

10. Diego Maradona. This look at the 1980s soccer star, directed by Amy filmmaker Asif Kapadia, makes masterful use of archival footage to depict the rise of this one-of-a-kind athlete. The doc, which played on HBO this fall and is still streaming there now, is a must for the many Americans who have gotten into soccer for the first time in the last decade, and are unfamiliar with the stars and stories of the past. 

****

Honorable mention: Black Mother, The Human Factor, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, Carmine Street Guitars, Mike Wallace is Here, Varda by Agnes, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Screwball, American Factory, Homecoming: A Film by Beyonce,

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‘Uncut Gems’ Sends Adam Sandler Through the Ringer

The Safdie Brothers have crafted a hectic, abrasive crime thriller that revels in its misery.

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Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo has crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by a perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness.

Evading debt collectors throughout New York City, Howard (Sandler) runs a jewelry shop in the Diamond District where he sells to many high-profile celebrities. When a new opal arrives at his shop from Ethiopia, he can’t help but show it off to Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett (who stars as himself in a fun role that never feels out-of-place), who becomes obsessed with the rock and borrows it with the hope of eventually convincing Howard to let him buy it. Of course, Howard has other plans, as the rock is allegedly worth a million dollars if sold at an auction in which he has already purchased a spot. When Garnett doesn’t return the stone, everything starts going horribly awry in Howard’s life as he juggles a failing marriage, his Jewish family ties, and keeping the loan sharks at bay.

Right out of the gate, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) hits the ground hard with a score that carries the cosmic and reverberating effects of the titular uncut gems. When Garnett stares into the opal, he sees exactly what Howard tells him he’s supposed to see: the universe. In that, Lopatin provides a sonic scape so expansive and yet violently singular in its aesthetic that it provides much of Uncut Gems with a mystical aura. Drenched in gritty camerawork that gets up close to show the blemishes of everyone, there’s no denying the film’s mean and potent intensity.

Where Uncut Gems often stumbles is in its narrative threads. While the Garnett storyline weaves in and out, providing a lot of fun as well as hectic tension, it’s a piece of stunt casting that works, while also highlighting one that very clearly doesn’t involve R&B singer The Weekend. Why he is in the movie is baffling, other than perhaps because he evokes a further sense that Howard is in a very upscale world — something we already know by his clientele, multiple properties, and the wealth he actually wears. The Weekend ends up as a weird diversion that can take viewers out of the experience, even if his presence does lead to a further escalation in problems for Howard.

That all being said, Uncut Gems also brings Adam Sandler back into the fold as an actor who can do more than the drivel he has churned out over the decades. More evocative of his performance in Punch-Drunk Love than The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler gives a comedic and sympathetic performance to a character for whom everything suddenly goes wrong. Living a manic, fast-paced lifestyle, Howard is impatient, aggressive, and greedy, but Sandler makes it possible to get on board with his plight at least partially (there is no way to be on his side completely). His vices are many, but the performance keeps him down to Earth even when it feels like everything is flying off the hinges.

There will likely be many that can’t get past how dirty this movie feels, as it treats many criminal activities as both simply the way things are and the way they always will be. Beyond that, however, the Safdie Brothers provide a nuanced look at Jewish culture, utilizing one of Hollywood’s most prolific Jewish actors, and treat it is as matter-of-fact. Uncut Gems is a frenetic crime film from a Jewish perspective and delivers on its promise of being a wild ride with a phenomenal Sandler performance. Just don’t expect there to be much hope present, as the Safdies revel in the misery as much as humanly possible, only using hope as a torture device to make the anguish all the more painful.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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