The Zone of Interest


Jonathan Glazer's Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest is an odd feat: a frequently bravura accomplishment that refuses to be in any way satisfying. From one scene to the next, I was floored by the writer/director's rigorous control; his technical acumen and that of his collaborators; his disinterest in avenues audiences traditionally demand when engulfing themselves in Holocaust-related works. Yet despite being consistently riveted, I rarely felt anything at this exploration of, in historian/author Hannah Arendt's phrasing, “the banality of evil,” and I'm not sure we're meant to. As a piece of filmmaking, The Zone of Interest is almost inarguably admirable. It's also, to my mind, distractingly emotionless, and awfully redundant, and not half as powerful as you want it to be. Or so I thought.

I had the most unusual experience with Glazer's latest this past weekend; not in terms of seeing the German-language release, but in recounting it. During a Chicagoland visit with my parents, my sister-in-law revealed that she also saw The Zone of Interest days earlier, adding that she, too, found this five-time Oscar nominee unexpectedly underwhelming. Yet as we reminisced on individual scenes and moments while detailing the film – and expressing our disappointment – to my mom, we found ourselves in an unanticipated position, because we both kept referencing memorably affecting facets: the hideous discovery of human remains in a lazy river; the teasing guilt in characters who would seem beyond such a human instinct; a mother's unspoken awareness of the horrors her adult daughter has opted to ignore. After about 10 minutes of conversation, with my sister-in-law and I expounding on the merits of this experience we claimed to have had no feelings for, I essentially asked her, “Holy shit … do we actually like the movie?” She wasn't sure. I'm not, either. All I do know is that I now have to watch The Zone of Interest again – and maybe again and again. It may be too massive for only one viewing. As I've learned, it certainly appears too massive for one viewing without a dialogue afterward. (Area cinephiles can currently catch the Oscars' Best International Feature Film front-runner at Davenport venue The Last Picture House, where your spirited post-screening conversation can be enjoyed with accompanying spirits.)

Christian Friedel in The Zone of Interest

With Glazer, as I understand, employing Martin Amis' 2014 novel as a springboard rather than adapting it outright, this Zone of Interest focuses specifically on the Höss family: husband Rudolf (Christian Friedel), wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and, to a far lesser extent, their five children, one of whom is merely an infant. It's roughly 1943, with Hitler's master plan in full force, and the Höss clan lives in bucolic splendor in a two-story house in Nazi-occupied Poland with a gorgeous backyard complete with swimming pool and a variety of flower and vegetable gardens. The family picnics at the nearby river; they host friendly soirées; they live lives of abject comfort and privilege. They also live within a stone's throw of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the detention houses and guard towers for which can be glimpsed just over the backyard wall. Rudolf himself (a real-life figure somewhat fictionalized by Glazer) is a high-ranking SS officer praised by Hitler for his capable handling of the camp, and eventually tasked to be in charge of transporting hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz for extermination. This promotion requires that Rudolf and his family move. Hedwig, blissfully content in their surroundings, doesn't want to.

This is what could fairly be summarized as The Zone of Interest's “plot.” But it's not at all what Glazer's film is about. That would be everything the director doesn't allow us to see: the not-so-faraway shrieks and gunfire and routine annihilation of human life taking place within Auschwitz, just outside the Höss' heavily secured walls. All throughout the film's 100-plus minutes, seemingly benign scenes of familial delight and discord are accompanied (in Tarn Willers' and Johnnie Burn's brilliant, meticulous sound design) by nightmarishly audible cruelty and oppression. Glazer's camera doesn't need to take us into the camp, because the sound is already doing the job more than effectively. And on a first viewing, Glazer's rather diabolical approach – wanting us to experience the suffering without actively witnessing it – led to something approaching boredom.

For the first 20-or-so minutes, you're aware that what you visually witness doesn't align with what you don't – unimaginable background suffering routinely ignored by the chipper German clan in that relatively spacious (though, as shot, intensely suffocating) home. But as The Zone of Interest progressed, I began wondering, “Is this it? Does Glazer have anything more to give us than a feature-length example of 'good Germans' of WWII choosing not to see and hear what's going on around them?” With the dramatic stakes for Rudolf and Hedwig so fundamentally meaningless, and the gifted Friedel and Anatomy of a Fall Oscar nominee Hüller so relatively muted in their emotional parameters, Glazer's film suggested a boatload of technical mastery at the service of a profoundly one-dimensional idea. Not an unimportant one, to be sure. But one whose point was gleaned near the start, and then continually hammered home, for another hour and change.

Sandra Hüller in The Zone of Interest

On a technical level, everything in evidence in masterful: the sound, cinematographer Lukasz Żal's camerawork, Paul Watts' stunningly sharp editing; the production and costume design … . Even the reliably unsettling Mica Levi score that my sister-in-law hated but that I found bracing and mesmerizing, even when I wasn't sure why it was being used so abrasively. With Levi's music cues sounding not unlike what should accompany a tony horror flick with, say, Ari Aster at the helm, the film opens with the score pounding at us in two full minutes of blackness, and later, a pastiche of floral closeups leads to the screen wholly bathed in blood red while the composer fully shreds your nerves for, I'll admit, no apparent purpose.

I may not have “got it,” necessarily, but I genuinely loved Levi's score, and even remained seated through every last second of Glazer's end credits to not miss a note. Still, all the behind-the-scenes talent in the world rarely matters much if there's nothing to grasp on an emotional level. And The Zone of Interest (again, on viewing one) kept dissuading any kind of emotional investment. Even the visual motifs that were kind of amazing – principally scenes of an unnamed Pole, shot in disturbing black-and-white infrared, leaving hidden apples for inmates of the camp – didn't make me care about either the girl or the prisoners who was aiding. All I cared about, in the moment, was, “How did Glazer and his team do that?!”

And yet, this film I “enjoyed” perhaps less than any other 2024 Best Picture nominee is biting my insides in ways that several others aren't. It's too early to predict whether I'll eventually love it the way I do Glazer's three other features: 2001's Sexy Beast, 2004's wildly underrated Birth, and 2014's Under the Skin, which is just as stylistically ambitious as his fourth outing but boasts ravishing emotional undercurrents. That said, I can't get newly viewed background shots of crematorium fires out of my mind. Or the terrified scurrying of the Höss-family staff who may or may not be Jews “recruited” from the camps. Or Hedwig admonishing a maid by coolly reminding her how quickly Rudolf could have her burned to ashes. Or, somehow even worse, Hedwig closing her bedroom door to admire herself in the mirror in an “inherited” coat, later also “borrowing” the woman's lipstick. Or Rudolf's dry heaves as he contemplates his appointed life mission. Or, avoiding spoilers, the late-film leap in chronology that directly addresses how the willful blinders of our past are reflected in our present – a pre-credits epilogue that maybe even addresses our own (initial) tedium with Glazer's approach. As of this writing, I'm disappointed with The Zone of Interest. I can't wait to see it again.

Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard in Argylle


Beginning with its trailer, which I'm fairly certain preceded every single movie I attended over the last eight months, what immediately annoyed me about director Matthew Vaughn's comedic spy thriller Argylle was the cat. A chubby, theoretically cute tabby employed for reaction shots and a purportedly hilarious slapstick escape, this feline was so obviously a computer-generated facsimile that nothing about its presence inspired either amusement or “Aw-w-w-w!”; it looked like a phony, cartoonish calling card for what felt unmistakably like a phony, cartoonish movie. (As someone who strongly disliked Kick-Ass and all three releases in the Kingsman trilogy, seeing Vaughn's name showcased in the preview wasn't promising news so much as a direct threat.)

Having now seen the film in full, though, I'm totally confused, because even when being cuddled by lead Bryce Dallas Howard, that flat-faced creature still looks like CGI. Reportedly, it isn't (always), and the kitty named Chip is actually a flesh-and-blood being belonging to Vaughn's daughter. But there's a weirdly heightened fuzziness about the cat's face that never makes the animal appear remotely realistic even when it's not in mortal peril. And that makes Chip and his screen alter ego Alfie the perfect mascots for Argylle, which is so staggeringly unbelievable from scene to scene that nothing – not even the fate of an innocent pet – feels remotely at stake. Worse still, until close to the very end, almost nothing about the film is remotely fun.

A simplified synopsis of Vaughn's latest would state that Howard plays Elly Conway, the milquetoast author of a wildly successful spy-novel series who becomes embroiled with genuine spy operations when her books appear to be getting too close to the truth of real-world shenanigans. Because you've no doubt seen the same trailer I have more times than you can count, and because revealing screenwriter Jason Fuchs' narrative in detail would set off a migraine, a simplified synopsis is all you're gonna get. Better to stick with what that first preview also gives us, which is, no particular order: Sam Rockwell as an apparently helpful covert assassin; Bryan Cranston as the head of some sort of nefarious organization; Henry Cavill with a flat-top that makes the former Man of Steel look like Frankenstein's monster; John Cena in a Hawaiian shirt; Dua Lipa in a form-hugging gold dress; Catherine O'Hara as Elly's mom; and Samuel L. Jackson … I guess because he was in Vaughn's original Kingsman. (The trailer's blink-and-you'll-miss-the-Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose also shows up for reasons passing understanding.) Suffice it to say, however, that nothing that happens in Argylle is quite what it appears. It's about ten times stupider.

John Cena and Henry Cavill in Argylle

As much as I generally detest the self-satisfied showboating of Matthew Vaughn's exhausting, unfunny, juvenile entertainments, with their pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey approach to matching kicky pop tunes with violent action set pieces, I did smile on a couple of occasions. Although the sequence goes on forever and is easily the film's most ridiculous, the segment in which Elly and Rockwell's Aidan blast their adversaries to smithereens through colored smoke bombs as if in a sweeps episode of Dancing with the Stars was mildly kinetic and agreeably silly. (Nice to see that Rockwell's superb dance training evidenced by Fosse/Verdon hasn't gone completely to waste.) And while the “ice-skating on an oil spill” set piece lasts for a similar eternity and is horribly visualized besides – this Apple release emerging as perhaps the cheapest-looking $200-million “blockbuster” I've ever endured – there's a welcome giggle at its prelude when a gun-toting goon slips on the slick. It's the only instant in the movie that feels truly spontaneous, and I'd like to believe that Buster Keaton would've appreciated the bit.

Yet despite Howard and Rockwell more-or-less preserving their dignity throughout this resolutely senseless, maddeningly over-plotted embarrassment, the same can't be said of their co-stars, nearly all of whom come off as vaguely unprepared at best and actively misguided at worst. (Is Vaughn the only person left who finds that ambulatory block of wood Henry Cavill the least bit charming?) Meanwhile, as much as I appreciate directors for the mere act of trying, Vaughn keeps messing up moments that, with stronger presentation, might've actually been something special, such as the train melee in which Rockwell and Cavill keep swapping identities with every blink of Elly's eye. It's a solid idea on paper, but while I don't have an answer for how this scene should've been cut, there has to be a way that wouldn't so strongly resemble a hastily edited seizure. Vaughn's fans evidently adore the filmmaker for his perseverance in going over the top. But saddled with a PG-13 rating that feels like an invisible straightjacket, Argylle doesn't deliver the lunatic visual highs that would've given the scripted ones context. At the end of the day, the only sane participant on the premises appears to be Samuel L. Jackson, who spends nearly all of his screen time spouting exposition he clearly doesn't buy, drinking European wine, and watching a basketball game on TV. That makes the actor instantly smarter than anyone else in view. Including that darmed cat.

Leah McKendrick in Scrambled


Maybe especially for someone who tries to catch as many debuting releases as possible, there are few thrills in moviegoing more exciting than encountering a previously unknown (to you) triple-threat writer/director/star who absolutely knocks your socks off. I'm delighted to say that, this past weekend, I enjoyed that experience while viewing Scrambled, the raunchy, riotous, honest, surreptitiously moving tale of a 34-year-old eternal bridesmaid and her plan to freeze her eggs even though she's not sure she'll ever want kids. Its creative force is Leah McKendrick, who apparently appeared in the 2016 Mila Kunis hit Bad Moms, but whose résumé I'm otherwise completely unfamiliar with. Following this extraordinarily confident indie, however, I'll gladly line up for whatever the multi-hyphenate delivers next, given that McKendrick is even more successful with her film's dramatic angles than its comedic ones – and she's awfully successful with the comedic ones.

With Scrambled inspired by the filmmaker's real-word experiences, McKendrick's cinematic alter ego is Nellie Robinson, who has always considered herself the life of the party – the brash, single, reliably hilarious ally to all her girlfriends who, with the new marriage of her bestie (a wonderful Ego Nwodim), is now the only unwed and childless woman she knows. After a tough-love convo with a 40-something acquaintance – and the love is literally tough, as this woman (a genius-level-funny June Diana Raphael) slaps the crap out of Nellie for her unpreparedness – McKendrick's aging party girl decides to freeze her eggs for future potential purpose. But the path toward planning for future motherhood is hardly a smooth one. For one thing, while prepping for the medical procedure, she has to give up drinks and drugs and sex, none of which will come easy. For another, the process is exorbitantly expensive, meaning she'll have to borrow $8,000 that she's in no position to repay from her douchey brother Jesse (Andrew Santino). And because her uncomprehending dad (character-actor treasure Clancy Brown) can't understand why she won't just get pregnant the usual way, presumably with the long-term beau whom Nellie broke up with months earlier, he's planted seeds of doubts in his daughter's mind, causing her to scroll through old texts to see if any of the guys she loved and left might be up for being her baby daddy. This, remember, despite Nellie not necessarily wanting kids.

Leah McKendrick in Scrambled

In other words, to borrow the title of Amy Schumer's 2015 comedy, Nellie is a trainwreck, and for at least half of McKendrick's zippy 97-minute charmer, it's a kick watching the debris fly. The humor is occasionally too broadly scaled – McKendrick spends a lot of time making exaggerated facial expressions – and, in the parade of drink dates or hookups Nellie endures, the activity is awkwardly, recognizably blithe in the manner of Sex & the City. Still, there are out-loud laughs aplenty (Nellie and Jesse have evidently been honing their bitchy, hostile rapport since childhood), and McKendrick's witheringly sarcastic asides are like shivs dipped in cyanide – the right tools for the job.

That's why it's such a welcome development when the film's serious-minded side comes into view, and despite the predictable inclusion of mournful acoustic ballads on the soundtrack, the film's “Just kidding!” approach morphs into something sadder, more trenchant, and more worldly. McKendrick is a terrific comic performer. But her scenes in which she tackles Nellie's predicament with genuine feeling and the threat of true grown-up consequences are gorgeously rendered, written and acted with obvious empathy for all those who, prior to middle age, already fear that their best years are behind them. It's title is Scrambled, and in a heartening surprise, all of its eggs aren't in the same basket.

The Greatest Night in Pop


Probably like a lot of folks who consider the 1980s their formative years – I'm in that rarefied group who spent all of his teens and celebrated his 21st birthday in that decade – I've felt no recent desire to return to “We Are the World.” You remember the song, right? That 1985 power ballad by the one-night-only super-group USA for Africa whose recording raised millions to fight poverty and hunger and had the side benefit of being a top-40 mainstay and winning a bunch of Grammys? Sure, we all loved it back in our hands-across-America heyday, despite having no earthly clue why Dan Aykroyd was there. I'd suggest, though, that nearly 40 years of cultural cynicism has worn our appreciation of that plangent tune, with its über-catchy melody and remedial lyrics, down to a nub.

Consequently, I was less shocked than dumbfounded to find myself getting misty-eyed at director Bao Nguyen's recently streaming Netflix documentary The Greatest Night in Pop, which combines present-day interviews with '85 footage to provide a possibly definitive take on the song's creation. Artistically, in terms of its intensely specific genre, the film isn't the triumph that D.A. Pennebaker's Original Cast Album: Company is. Yet few docs could ever hope to be. And for a self-professed child of the '80s? This thing is freaking magical.

Because much of the included information was previously presented (particularly in the song's long-form video back in the day), you may not necessarily learn a lot about this astounding group effort that took place directly after the 1985 American Music Awards and included artists – such as present-day interviewee Bruce Springsteen (!) – who didn't attend that year's AMAs. Yet mega-stars such as The Boss elected to show up anyway due to the cause and star wattage of songwriters Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, producer Quincy Jones, and sublime creative asset Stevie Wonder. With Richie, though, serving as Nguyen's interviewed host for the 95-minute nostalgia onslaught to follow, even the material you may be familiar with is given vibrant immediacy and historic resonance. The stuff you haven't previously seen, meanwhile, is gloriously nuts.

The Greatest Night in Pop

Personally, I relished the specifics of the recording-room scenario that lasted from roughly 11 p.m. to 8 the next morning, as when one of Nguyen's behind-the-scenes talking heads revealed the room to be smelling “pretty ripe” not long into the recording session. (Celebrities! They stink just like the rest of us!) Yet while I'm going to inevitably omit dozens upon dozens of fascinating anecdotes, there are so very many recounted – and filmed! – juicy tidbits on display here that the experience is practically overwhelming. Springsteen looking impossibly young and singing like a gravel-throated god one night after completing his Born in the U.S.A. tour. Wonder helping a clearly nervous and intimidated Bob Dylan find his voice by offering a perfect imitation of Dylan. Al Jarreau (sadly no longer alive to defend himself) being accused of being “a little over-the-top in the alcohol section.” Cyndi Lauper, who is newly interviewed, coming off like a lot of work back in '85. Huey Lewis, another present-day raconteur, admitting to being a nervous wreck before nailing his solo line. (In the footage, Huey looks like a nervous wreck, too.)

And so much else! Waylon Jennings walking out of the studio when asked to sing in Swahili. (He should've stuck around – Wonder's Swahili suggestion was quickly nixed.) Sheila E., newly interviewed and deprived of a “We Are the World” solo, revealing that she was likely only invited for her access to the non-attending Prince. The beautiful humility, particularly under the circumstances, of Diana Ross. Steve Perry killing it on his solo, leading to Bruce raving that the Journey vocalist is “up in that Sam Cooke territory.” (Daryl Hall, in the unfortunate position of following Perry, also knocks it out of the park. As we hear Jones admit post-recording, “Those white boys really brought it!) I adored every nanosecond of The Greatest Night in Pop, and will forever remember the written directive posted, for all 40-plus superstars to see, above the door to their studio: “Leave your egos at the door.” For potential viewers of this doc as initially leery as I was, I'll extend similar advice : “Leave your snark at the door.” You'll have a helluva time.

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