December 14, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

The Life Aquatic

2017 / Canada, USA / Dir. by Guillermo del Toro / Opens in select theaters on December 8, 2017; locally on December 15, 2017

If Guillermo del Toro’s monster vs. battle-bot indulgence Pacific Rim (2013) is the film that an eight-year-old version of the director might have wanted to see, then del Toro’s latest effort, The Shape of Water, is the sort of feature that might have inflamed the imagination of his 14-year-old self. The filmmaker’s new picture has it everything a geeky adolescent with a Frankenstein fixation could want: a freakish yet misunderstood monster; a mad science laboratory; Cold War espionage; graphic nudity and sex scenes; striking gore; macabre humor; and a giddy, self-reflexive awe for the magic of cinema. Underneath these evocative genre elements, however, The Shape of Water is a swooning, star-crossed romance at heart, presented with nary a trace of ironic waggle. 

Initially, this might seem surprising. The closest that del Toro has ever come to a love story in his films is the fraught relationship between a demon and a pyrokineticist in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). Nonetheless, the director’s work has repeatedly demonstrated—up to and particularly including Crimson Peak (2015), his opulent homage to Walpole, Poe, and the Brontës—that he has the black bile of the gothic pumping in his veins. And if one scratches the surface of the gothic, one often uncovers a glint of wistful romance. Nowhere in his filmography is that more apparent than in The Shape of Water, a dark fairy tale about the irresistible, purifying power of True Love. In this instance, it just happens to be the love between a woman and a fish-man.

The film’s unlikely heroine is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a night-shift janitor at the (fictional) Occam Aerospace Research Center in early 1960s Baltimore. Elisa, who is mute, is a creature of habit. Every evening she irons her clothes, shines her shoes, and makes hard-boiled eggs for her brown-bag lunch. As the water bubbles, she masturbates in her bathtub for the exact duration of the egg timer. She’s tidy and polite, but her expressive brown eyes reveal a devil-may-care mischievousness. (Her preference for sleeping on a plush divan rather than a bed hints at a romantic side, as well.) Her best friends are Giles (Richard Jenkins), an acerbic, closeted commercial illustrator who lives across the hall, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her affable co-worker on the research facility’s cleaning crew. The scars on Elisa’s throat attest to a secret or two, but her dim loneliness and longing are all too apparent when her gaze drifts to some unseen, faraway vista.

Elisa’s routine is disrupted by the appearance of the humorless Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who arrives at the Occam Center with a curious prisoner, brought stateside in chains from the South American river where he was found. This “Asset” (Doug Jones) is an amphibious humanoid straight from the Black Lagoon, his green-brown scales strikingly adorned with stripes of azure blue. Strickland’s superiors believe that an understanding of the creature’s mysterious physiology could be valuable to the U.S. space program. Toting an electric cattle prod, the cruel Strickland would prefer to have the aggressive, razor-clawed monster dissected, but researcher Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) pleads for more time to study the Asset while it is still alive. In truth, the scientist is a Soviet spy, but his motives are complex, and Hoffstetler soon grows to question the judgment of his Kremlin masters.

Into this beastly drama wanders a beauty in the form of Elisa. Stealing intrigued glances of the Asset while he is sealed within massive metal and glass tank, she later sneaks into the laboratory to find him manacled to an inky pool covered in nutrient scum. She is quickly spellbound by the creature’s restiveness, sensitivity, and alien magnetism, to which she seems uniquely attuned. Elisa gains his trust with gifts of hard-boiled eggs, and eventually she spends numerous illicit lunch hours with him, playing records on a portable turntable and teaching him rudimentary American Sign Language.

These languid passages are where The Shape of Water is at its most self-assured and defiantly strange, impressing upon the viewer the perplexing depths of Elisa’s infatuation with the Asset, whose piscine anatomy is not remotely erotic in any conventional sense. Still, with a tilt of the head, one can discern what Elisa sees in him. For a mute woman, accustomed to men who feel obliged to fill the air with the sound of their own chatter, the Asset’s inability to articulate human languages seems like a substantial plus. He’s attentive but not clingy, and devoted but not tiresome, with just enough untamed fierceness to get a girl’s fish oil flowing, so to speak. As for the fins, spines, and whatnot, del Toro’s film accepts Emily Dickinson’s observation with an amused shrug: The heart wants what it wants—or else it does not care.

Once Elisa overhears Strickland’s plan to euthanize the Asset, however, the film's plot shifts from this woozy secret romance to a suitably paranoiac Cold War heist. Elisa devises a perilous scheme to smuggle the Asset out the Occam Center, enlisting the aid of the reluctant Giles by appealing to his compassion and romanticism. Zelda eventually tumbles to the plan after observing her co-worker’s suspicious behavior, but she too is won over by the righteousness of this bizarre prison break. Later still, the film changes gears once again into a slower, more despondent ticking-clock scenario, as Strickland searches for the escaped monster with a violent remorselessness that steadily slides into outright deranged obsession. The Colonel’s state of mind is not improved by the distressing fact that two of his fingers—neatly amputated by a swipe of the Asset’s talons and then uncertainly reattached—are gradually growing black with gangrene.

As one might expect with a del Toro picture, The Shape of Water is bolstered by a characteristically deep bench of accomplished artists and craftspeople working at the top of their game. Notable among these are composer Alexandre Desplat, whose score gracefully juggles the film’s numerous tonal changes. However, the dominant ambiance of the music is unsurprisingly a romantic one. The prevalence of flutes, harp, glockenspiel, and glass harmonica lend the score a distinct undersea character, while Desplat employs accordion and whistling to add an unexpected touch of Parisian whimsy.

The clear standouts among the crew’s contributions, however, are the one-two punch of Dan Laustsen’s cinematography and Paul D. Austerberry’s production design, which conjure a vision of a greenish, rain-slicked Baltimore that never was. As in Hellboy, the look of The Shape of Water is a rich amalgam of urban hyper-realism, institutional Brutalism, and quasi-steampunk fantasy, suggesting an unlikely marriage of Edward Hopper and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen artist Kevin O’Neill. Meanwhile, the conspicuous Kennedy-era analog technology of Shape’s government lab not only connects the story to the kitschy mid-century B pictures that del Toro reveres, but also paradoxically lends the film an air of mythic timelessness. From the vantage point of 2017, the mammoth computers of the Occam Center might as well be contraptions in the Expressionist robotics lab of Metropolis’ Rotwang.

An affectionate awareness of cinematic history has always been a vital part of del Toro’s filmography, but previously it was expressed primarily through allusions: Inferno (1980) in Cronos (1993); The Searchers (1956) in The Devil’s Backbone (2001); andThe Innocents (1961) in Crimson Peak, to name a few. With The Shape of Water, the director allows a genuine, gooey adoration for cinema’s transportive power to cut through the film’s darkness, mirroring the warmth of the story’s unconventional romance.

This is apparent not only in the film’s central conceit—a rejiggering of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) as an erotic fable—but also in glimpses of characters savoring real-world movies. At one point, Elisa and Giles watch as Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson tap-dance along a staircase in The Little Colonel (1935), with Giles marveling, “That’s so hard!” The subtext to this awestruck comment is the fact that Temple and Robinson’s performance was the first on-screen interracial dance number, a detail that resonates ironically with Giles’ privileged distaste for all the “ugly business” on the news, i.e., civil rights protests and police brutality.

Elisa and Giles also happen to live above a movie theater, where the biblical romance The Story of Ruth (1960) and the musical comedy Mardi Gras (1958) are playing—an unlikely and out-of-date double bill that Elisa is nonetheless shown to enjoy. Crucially, the theater allows for what is The Shape of Water’s most indelible image among many worthy contenders: The Asset, having slipped the confines of Elisa’s bathtub, stands staring in amazement as The Story of Ruth plays to an empty house. Del Toro presents this moment not only to show esctatic reverie of a cinematic virgin’s ‘first time’, but also for the tableau's metatextual uncanniness. It as though Black Lagoon’s Gill-Man had stumbled upon the silver screen that gave birth to him, and all he can do is gape in humbled wonder.

Broadly speaking, there’s little in The Shape of Water that hasn’t been done before. The genre components work in part because of their familiarity, and the story is ultimately peddling a stock ‘Man Is the Real Monster’ moral. No filmmaker quite does this theme like del Toro, however, and the pleasures of this feature are those of seeing something recognizable executed with luscious style, fulsome sincerity, and a half-twist of gleefully perverse weirdness. Most conspicuously, that perversity is evident in the fact that, yes, the monster unambiguously screws the girl—or, more accurately, the girl screws the monster. The Shape of Water’s intoxicating aura is attributable to the earnestness that del Toro brings to its warm-meets-cold-blooded love affair, as well as the fierce profundity of feeling that Hawkins conveys. It’s quite a trick: Elisa’s eye sparkle with such unvarnished desire and adoration at the sight of the Asset’s lanky, scaled body, one never questions the genuineness of what she feels, no matter how incomprehensible it might seem.

The fairy tale lineage of The Shape of Water is evident in its characters, who often seem more akin to archetypes than realized people. Naturally, as an older ‘confirmed bachelor’ in the 1960s, Giles is erudite, neurotic, and lily-livered. Naturally, as a working class black woman, Zelda is sassy, meddling, and perpetually fed up with these damn foolish white people. (Lamentably, Spencer is essentially portraying another minor variation on the Octavia Spencer Character; it’s long past time for casting directors to give her a chance to play against type.)

Strickland, meanwhile, is a repellant brute through and through, a clean-cut caricature of aggressive, mid-century American masculinity. He feverishly screws his obligingly horny Stepford wife (Lauren Lee Smith)—in the missionary position, naturally—without a whiff of amorousness. At one point, he is glimpsed with his nose in Norman Vincent Peale’s crypto-puritanical self-help book The Power of Positive Thinking. Feeling that he deserves a reward for his professional accomplishments, he buys himself a Cadillac, but is wary of the dealer’s recommendation of a teal paint job rather than button-down black. It’s no coincidence that film’s heroic troika—a mute Latina, a gay man, and a black woman—all represent demographics have felt the end of the proverbial cattle prod wielded by Strickland and other men of his ilk.

The main ensemble might be a tad cartoonish, but this being a del Toro film, each of these characters is regarded with a generosity that reveal the director’s sincere affection for their humanity. Despite the clear focus on Elisa, the film makes time to flesh out the lives of its supporting cast, and it’s an immense credit to del Toro’s direction and his script—co-written with Vanessa Taylor—that these subplots never feel extraneous or momentum-busting.

The film thus observers Giles’ sublimated anger over his likely homophobic dismissal from an advertising firm, and his aching crush on a slab of All-American beefcake behind the counter at a local diner. Likewise, non-trivial screen time is given to Hoffstetler’s emergent empathy for the Asset, and his creeping terror at the possibly murderous intentions of his Soviet handlers. Even the fascist Strickland is afforded a measure of consideration. Shannon and the director might portray him as unremittingly vile, but in allowing glimpses of the Colonel’s travails under the boot of his superiors’ (and society’s) expectations, they guide the viewer to an understanding of his villainy without requiring outright sympathy. Only Spencer’s Zelda receives comparatively short shrift; the third act glimpses of life with her churlish, craven husband (Bewster Fuller) hint at a subplot del Toro left unfortunately undernourished.

Like the director’s Grimm nightmare Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), the film is a densely layered fairy tale, but The Shape of Water differs from that earlier feature in small but fundamental ways. Pan’s Labyrinth is a film for adults, but it is firmly embedded in the peculiar sorcery of childhood, illustrating the bittersweet triumph of a girl’s innocence and selfless virtue over the evils of authoritarianism. Del Toro’s latest film, meanwhile, is primarily concerned with grown-up feelings and situations: lust and love, of course, but also failure, regret, rage, despair, and an explicitly adult strain of loneliness. (In a strange sense, this is del Toro’s mythical riff on Todd Haynes’ quietly subversive lesbian romance, Carol [2015].)

None of this is remotely original, thematically speaking, but what del Toro achieves with The Shape of Water—as he does in all his best features—is a crystallization of timeless themes with exhilarating emotional frankness, spacious humanism, and extravagent style. In contrast with Pacific Rim, where the visceral action-figure pleasures never compensated for the film’s shallowness and frequently irritating triteness, Water finds the director back in his enchanted groove. He elegantly assembles a genre-spanning array of tropes to serve as the bedrock for a profoundly heartfelt story, which in turn bestows those familiar elements with fresh dramatic resonance. This heady feedback loop of the old and the new is what distinguishes del Toro’s lush brand of cinematic magic from virtually every other director working in the horror, fantasy, and science fiction genres.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

December 7, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

No Exit

2017 / USA / Dir. by James Franco / Opens in select theaters on December 1, 2017; locally on December 8, 2017

James Franco is a bit of an enigma. Following his breakout in the television series Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films (2002-2007), Franco has become a ubiquitous presence as an actor: shoring up broad, bro-friendly comedies (Pineapple Express [2008], This Is the End [2013]); appearing in projects from esteemed directors like Gus Van Sant (Milk [2008]) and Danny Boyle (127 Hours [2010]); and taking roles in television series ranging from day-time soap operas (General Hospital [2009-2012]) to prestige dramas (The Deuce [2017]). Like a Nicolas Cage with more creative integrity, Franco seems game for almost any role that is offered to him, so long as he finds it stimulating. Regardless of the project, it’s the actor's eager, malleable magnetism that consistently leaves the strongest impression. He is uniquely capable of simultaneously radiating a regular-guy ease and the narcissistic fervor of an armchair philosopher-artist—even when his charisma is turned on its head to menacing effect, as in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto (2013).

However, Franco has also evolved into a prolific writer, director, and producer, one whose artistic choices often baffle observers. How is one to explain his attempt, with co-director Travis Mathews, to reconceive the production of Williams Friedkin’s exploitative gay crime thriller Cruising (1980) as the peculiar, meta-fictional Interior. Leather Bar. (2013)? Or his relentless campaign to adapt the works of American literary luminaries such as Cormac McCarthy (Child of God [2013]), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury [2014]), and John Steinbeck (In Dubious Battle [2016]), efforts that have reliably been met with critical jeers? 

The generous reading of Franco’s eccentric career as a filmmaker is that, as with his actorly choices, he is unfailingly catholic, willing to tackle any project that he feels passionate about—even when it proves tone-deaf, ill-conceived, or just plain inexplicable. To his credit, even his most questionable and pompous auteurist ventures never exhibit the sort of affected insouciance that many artists don like armor against failure. One gets the sense that Franco always wants viewers to like his work, whether he’s playing an affable stoner goofball or making an ungainly hash out of a Great American Novel.

It’s somehow fitting, then, that his new feature, The Disaster Artist, is an absurdist comedy about an enigmatic auteur—and that it emerges as Franco’s warmest, most crowd-pleasing directorial effort to date. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by actor Greg Sestero, the film chronicles the notorious production of The Room (2003), a film that has been dubbed by its ardent admirers (anti-admirers?) as The Worst Film Ever Made. (Devotees of Plan 9 from Outer Space [1959] or Troll 2 [1999] might beg to differ, but cinematic catastrophes, much like masterpieces, are highly subjective.) The Room’s awfulness proved inimitable and mesmerizing that the film eventually spawned a giddy cult following, complete with sold-out midnight screenings and Rocky Horror-style audience participation.

Crummy, bungling indie films are a dime a dozen, of course, but those films don’t boast The Room’s writer, director, and star, Tommy Wiseau, a secretive oddball distinguished by his mane of greasy black hair and mumbly, unplaceable accent. Had he been dreamed into existence by Kurt Vonnegut (or even John Waters), Wiseau would have been regarded as too outlandish. Natrually, Franco portrays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, donning a layer of prosthetics—the filmmaker claims to have survived a car accident in his youth—and uncannily recreating his bizarre cadences and pronunciations. It's obvious that Franco, while he might not feel an outright artistic kinship with Wiseau, at least understands the power of the outsider filmmaker's ambitions, frustrations, and creative compulsions.

Sestero’s book, co-written with Tom Bissell, contends that The Room’s production was exactly the sort of surreal experience that the on-screen evidence suggests. Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber’s adapted screenplay unflinchingly and hilariously conveys the set's atmosphere as a kind of absurdist hell, with Wiseau presiding as both an enthusiastic master of ceremonies and a Kubrickian tyrant. While they delight in poking fun at Wiseau’s incompetence and the cinematic abomination he spawned, the writers and Franco crucially frame The Disaster Artist not as an exercise in self-flattering scornfulness, but as a celebration of male friendship, artistic fearlessness, and the discovery of unabashed delight in the aesthetically terrible. Tellingly, Franco’s film opens with snippets of real-world comedians explaining why they adore The Room—not with an ironic sneer, but from a place of genuine affection and astonishment.

It is a testament to the unassuming success of The Disaster Artist that one need not be an enthusiast of The Room to appreciate the tragicomical arc of Franco’s feature, or its big-hearted generosity for dreamers, weirdos, and weirdo dreamers. Indeed, while some of the film’s allusions and recreations assume a line-by-line intimacy with Wiseau’s dumpster fire magnum opus—from “Hi, doggie” to “Cheep cheep cheep” to “I definitely have breast cancer”—these are ultimately ancillary pleasures. If one brushes away the meta-jokes, The Disaster Artist is an accessible, sweetly sad farce about the relationship between Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau.

Aspiring actor Sestero (James’ brother Dave Franco) is 19 years old and living with his mother in San Francisco when he first encounters fellow wannabe thespian Wiseau. The awkward Sestero suffers from petrifying stage fright, but Wiseau's alarming, go-for-broke methods makes Marlon Brando and James Dean look positively restrained. In the eyes of acting coaches and casting directors, Wiseau is not only an awful performer, but hopelessly deluded about his leading man appeal. He’s a Frankenstein type, not a Stanley Kowalski type, as an acting instructor (Bob Odenkirk) bluntly explains. The shy, self-critical Sestero is awestruck, however, by Wiseau’s audacious confidence, and before long the pair have become unlikely friends, and eventually L.A.-bound roommates. Never mind that Wiseau seems to be a couple of decades older than Sestero, or that the source of his seemingly bottomless income is a complete mystery. (He doesn’t live extravagantly, however; Franco’s Wiseau plainly craves the populist celebrity and artistic recognition of Hollywood stardom, but the opulent lifestyle seems almost incidental to him.)

The new roommates struggle to find steady acting gigs in Los Angeles, although Sestero’s fresh-faced good looks allow him to land a respected agent, as well as a girlfriend, Amber (Alison Brie). This leads to rumbles of petulant envy from Wiseau, particular when Sestero moves out of his friend’s apartment and in with said girlfriend. Distraught over this perceived treachery and his complete failure to find acting opportunities, Wiseau is eventually motivated to write his own screenplay, the hothouse meldrama The Room. He proudly presents the script to Sestero as “a real Hollywood movie”. Despite Sestero's misgivings about the screenplay, the younger actor is ultimately cajoled into the project by a (seemingly) plum co-leading role, the obligations of friendship, and Wiseau’s typically glib confidence. In short order, the pair are ramping up production at a small, rented studio, where Wiseau makes liberal use of his checkbook to ensure that his baffling vision is executed just as he desires.

What follows is a professional train wreck of legendary proportions, where Wiseau responds to every dispute—with actors and crew alike, particularly script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogen)—by doubling down on the unimpeachable correctness of his artistic choices. The director’s bizarre understanding of dramatic logic and audience expectations drags everyone involved  into a demented, enervating purgatory of delays, reshoots, and exhausting, circular arguments. These Wiseau always seems to win, given that he holds both the purse strings and the auteur trump card. The friendship between Sestero and Wiseau is put under colossal strain, their rift culminating when the former is obliged to ditch a high-profile opportunity due to the drastically over-extended shoot for The Room. There is little Florence Foster Jenkins-style coddling on Wiseau’s set: The cast and crew are forthright about their frustrations with the intolerable working conditions, the story’s rank illogic, and the director’s general ineptness. However, it’s only when the previously unfailingly loyal Sestero gives voice to these same qualms—that Wiseau has no idea what he’s doing, and his film is unremittingly awful—that the director seems truly wounded.

There is built-in happy ending of sorts, in which The Room finds a keen audience among the connoisseurs of cinematic crap, but Franco relegates this roundabout triumph to the epilogue, concluding the film’s narrative proper with the L.A. premiere of Wiseau’s misbegotten child. Franco’s version of Wiseau embraces the film’s terribleness that first night, but the actual history is undoubtedly less tidy, given that the film’s sensationally toxic reputation congealed mainly through word-of-mouth. However, Franco is less interested in accurately recreating the origin of The Room’s cult fandom than in conveying the agony and the ecstasy of the film's creation—right up to that galvanic moment when it was released into the wild and suddenly belonged to the world.

Mordantly funny and consistently winsome, The Disaster Artist is essentially two stories: one about the strange bromance between Sestero and Wiseau, which is presented as simple-minded, but still weirdly touching in its junior high neediness; and one about the punishing fever dream that was the making of The Room. Franco and the writers cleverly present the former as the key to understanding much (though not all) of the latter. They frame Wiseau’s film as the means by which the dubious auteur grappled with his and Sestero’s fraught friendship. In one of the The Disaster Artist ’s more astute scenes, the bemused cast and crew commiserate over the confounding script, posing myriad theories about who or what various characters were intended to represent in Wiseau’s fevered imagination. As various hypotheses are ventured—Does adulterous Lisa symbolize the world’s unjust cruelty to the misunderstood Wiseau?—Sestero slowly comes to an unspoken realization: Everything in The Room reflects some aspect of his and Wiseau’s relationship. He is the obscure object of Tommy’s desire.

It’s hardly the most emotionally sophisticated depiction of a male friendship, and its relatability is hindered a bit by both Wiseau’s childishness and Sestero’s inexplicable affection for the filmmaker's maddening, off-putting strangeness. However, there’s an unexpected poignancy to the relationship melodrama, one bolstered by the Franco siblings’ easy real-world rapport. It gives the cringe comedy a welcome glaze of credible pathos, even as the elder Franco does his best to potray Wiseau as an alienating, intolrerable creep. The resulting tension between humane anguish and repellent weirdness has a startling, strangely pleasing character that enlivens The Disaster Artist, scene after scene.

There’s more to Franco’s film than guy-on-guy bonding, sulking, and screaming matches, however. It’s The Disaster Artist’s untrammeled affection for the often-hellish ordeal of artistic creation that elevates the film from a droll, scuzzy Hollywood fable about ambitious losers to something more sparkling and munificent. Much like Ed Wood (1994), Tim Burton’s swooning and gleefully freakish ode to auteurism, Franco’s feature is entranced with the turbulent process by which an artistic vision becomes reality, no matter how half-baked that vision might be. The Disaster Artist is not invested in the heartfelt “family of monsters” portraiture that preoccupies Burton’s film, but Franco’s feature is more richly appreciative of the collaborative nature of filmmaking. In what might be regarded as the film's statement of ethos, one actress observes that even the worst day at a film production is better than the best day at any other job. Given that it concerns the Worst Movie of All Time, The Disaster Artist is remarkably, deeply, sloppily in love with the movies. It loves them less for their formal or thematic attributes than for their ability to unite people through the communal experiences of creation and consumption.

During the film’s climactic scene at the premiere of The Room, Franco’s Wiseau experiences his first real moment of runaway terror, as the audience descends into hysterics at the spellbinding terribleness of his film. It’s Sestero’s encouragement that hastily turns Wiseau’s distress to pride: All their blood, sweat, and tears have resulted in something that is making people unapologetically happy. Whether deliberate or not, they’ve made an enduring mark (of sorts) on the world. Franco's penchant for such sanguine reflection is consistent with The Disaster Artist's dual nature as both a cockeyed celebration of the quixotic auteur and an illustration that the artist’s intentions matter not one whit once the lights go down.

Rating: B-

 

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

November 30, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often have a ‘same-day’ limited theatrical opening and video-on-demand (VOD) launch. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market like St. Louis, online streaming is an increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Most Beautiful Island

2017 / USA / Dir. by Ana Asensio / Opening in select theaters and available on VOD on November 3, 2017

If Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo) made a feature-length film about one of the masked, naked women in Eyes Wide Shut, it might look something like Ana Asensio’s unsettling directorial debut, Most Beautiful Island. Asensio stars as Luciana, a young Spanish immigrant struggling (and failing) to keep her head above water in New York City. One day, her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) tosses her an opportunity: show up at an underground cocktail party, look beautiful for a few hours, and walk away several thousand dollars richer. Naturally, it’s too good to be true, although even the canniest viewers are unlikely to deduce the skin-crawling specifics of the trap until they become terrifyingly evident. Most Beautiful Island is neatly bifurcated into a social realism half and a psychological horror half, but Asensio deftly blends the seams with remarkably self-assured direction, a penchant for subtle genre subversion, and an eye for the minutiae of immigrant women’s experiences. Rating: B [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Bitch

2017 / USA / Dir. by Marianna Palka / Opening in select theaters and available on VOD on November 10, 2017

There’s nothing especially scary in writer-director Marianna Palka’s bizarre domestic satire Bitch, but there’s a lot that’s rancorous and discomfiting about it. Like Darren Aronofsky’s divisive, ferociously feminist mother!, Palka’s feature will provoke women to nod in recognition and men to squirm in discomfort. The director stars as depressive homemaker Jill, who one day begins acting like a dog: scrambling around naked on all fours, snuffling in her own filth, and barking viciously at her ungrateful children and negligent, philandering husband Bill (Jason Ritter). Palka milks the scenario for bitter laughs, but also allows it to play out plausibly, with psychiatric evaluations and clashes over legal guardianship. Unexpectedly, the film follows Bill’s perspective once Jill undergoes her canine devolution, permitting the seemingly hopeless jackwagon a credible redemption arc. This generosity, as well as the film’s acerbic acumen and alluring formal flourishes, elevate Bitch above its one-joke conceit. Rating: B- [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

I Remember You

2017 / Iceland / Dir. by Óskar Thór Axelsson / Opening in select theaters and available on VOD on November 10, 2017

Icelandic director Óskar Thór Axelsson’s moody I Remember You is plainly an attempt to split the difference between a Nordic noir police thriller and a Blumhouse-style ghost story. The result feels at once overstuffed and undernourished, in part due to the film’s dual, parallel storylines. The first thread involves psychiatrist Freyr’s (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) investigation into a cult-like suicide, which merges with the trail of boy who vanished decades ago, and—to his disbelief—that of his own son’s disappearance three years prior. Meanwhile, as Katrín (Anna Gunndís Guðmundsdóttir) renovates a remote farmhouse with her husband and best friend, she is bedeviled by menacing visions of a moldering, ghostly child. Naturally, these seemingly unconnected storylines eventually converge, albeit clumsily. Admittedly, I Remember You is often gratifyingly chilling and shocking; it boasts effective jump scares, prickly tension, and suitably gloomy Scandinavian atmosphere. Unfortunately, Axelsson regularly allows the narrative energy to slip away amid an unnecessary snarl of characters, subplots, and backstory. Rating: C+ [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Mayhem

2017 / USA / Dir. by Joe Lynch / Opening in select theaters and available on VOD on November 10, 2017

A gleefully profane and bloodthirsty blend of viral apocalypse thriller and 21st century economic satire, director Joe Walsh’s Mayhem is most notable for its unserious approach and for slotting Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) into the role of a sarcastic, scumbag antihero. The film’s sci-fi horror conceit—a plague that unleashes infected individuals’ most violent and debased impulses—is just an excuse to quarantine a law firm's high rise office for a gladiatorial free-for-all. Derek (Yeun), a hotshot attorney who has been unjustly canned, joins forces with pissed-off evicted homeowner Melanie (Samara Weaving) and hacks his way to the CEO’s penthouse throne. Never as clever or droll as it thinks it is, Mayhem has all the nuance of a nail gun to the face, and even at 86 minutes, it feels tediously protracted. Still, it’s divertingly bloody fun, and unapologetic in its delight at the sight of the ultra-rich getting some grisly comeuppance. Rating: C [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Amityville: The Awakening

2017 / USA / Dir. by Franck Khalfoun / Available on Google Play on October 12, 2017; expanding to other VOD platforms on November 14, 2017

The Amityville Horror series—a franchise laden with direct-to-DVD bastard offshoots—has never been particularly frightening, but it’s still demoralizing to see a listless, uninvolving pile of nothing like Amityville: The Awakening slump into the world after three years’ worth of delayed release dates. Overbearing single mother Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) moves into the notorious 'murder house' at 112 Ocean Avenue with her children, including Movie Goth teen daughter Belle (Bella Thorne) and the girl’s brain-dead fraternal twin James (Cameron Monaghan). Before long, James begins exhibiting disturbing, medically baffling signs of mental and physical activity, and Belle rightly suspects the house’s unholy influence is to blame. Director Franck Khalfoun helmed the rattling 2012 remake of Maniac (2012), but Awakening is thoroughly pointless and uninspired—not to mention irritatingly smug in its stabs at metatextual cleverness. The film’s only redeeming traits are the odd ghastly visual effect and Thorne’s leggy allure. Rating: D [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

 

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November 17, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Super Friends Last All Summer Long

2017 / USA / Dir. by Zack Snyder / Opens in wide release on November 17, 2017

The conventional wisdom is that Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman (2016), the first two entries in the wannabe “DC Extended Universe”, were critical duds partly due to their unremittingly dour tone. The grim, brooding atmosphere that worked well in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2015 - 2012) is a poor fit for stories about the Last Son of Krypton, or so the thinking goes. In truth, tone is not actually one of MoS's or BvS’s more glaring flaws. Notwithstanding the pouting of comic book fans with inflexible notions of how Superman “should” act or a Superman story “should” feel, Snyder’s conception of the material at least offered some fresh, off-kilter interpretations of iconic characters and scenarios. (Michael Shannon’s General Zod remains the DCEU’s most engrossing villain, by an enormous margin.) The films also boasted plenty of inspired design and striking images, even if such sensory pleasures were often shrouded in desaturated digital murk.

No, the most significant issue with MoS and BvS (the latter more than the former) is their general unintelligibility. Snyder’s DCEU films are feverishly ambitious and remorseless, but they are also unforgivably sloppy; chock-a-block with hazy motivations, muddled chronology, and glaringly disjointed editing. Not even Batman in his World’s Greatest Detective aspect could flowchart the theatrical cut of BvS, although it wasn’t until David Ayer’s Suicide Squad last year that filmgoers truly got a taste for how incoherent and illogical a major studio blockbuster could be.

Sadly, Warner Bros. seems to have learned some cock-eyed lessons from their early stumbles, as the solution that has plainly been applied to Justice League—Synder’s third foray into this dubious franchise—is to make it more Avengers-y. Accordingly, Marvel Studios’ crossover event helmsman Joss Whedon was enticed to team up with Chris Terrio and take a whack at the screenplay for League. (Whedon also stepped in for Snyder when the latter had to depart at the tail end of the production for family reasons.) Whedon’s fingerprints are discernable in the new film’s slathering of quips, jibes, and other super-banter, particularly the nervous, deadpan witticisms tossed off by Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash (Ezra Miller). Admittedly, Whedon’s warm-hearted snark is welcome, and Miller delivers the film’s more delicious lines with marvelous comic timing. (An anxious reference to Pet Semetary is among the film’s best wisecracks.)

However, jokiness can only do so much to support a clumsily conveyed story, particularly when the humor feels like a drizzle of icing rather than an essential component of the film’s narrative and thematic recipe. (See Guardians of the Galaxy for an example of the latter done right.) Justice League revives the storytelling problems that bedeviled Snyder’s previous DCEU outings, leaving the viewer to grope their way through confused plotting, kludgy exposition, and half-baked characterization. Avengers at least had a bench of well-developed heroes fresh from their own solo films, illustrating the advantages of Marvel’s painstakingly pre-planned approach to the blockbuster franchise. League is obliged to introduce three new “meta-humans” and a super-villains, each with their own vaguely conveyed history and character arc. As a result, everything in the film feels rushed and undernourished. Entire scenes flicker by without much clarity regarding their place in the narrative, or their relationship to the preceding or following scene. Every filmgoer will be reduced to a dazed senior citizen, whispering queries to their grandkids: "Who is that? Where is this? What’s happening?”

Unlike Suicide Squad, however, Justice League isn’t an aggressively unpleasant slog. Indeed, Snyder’s latest film is often downright fun, especially when he seizes on his performers’ raw charisma, or when a live-wire moment of stark dramatic tension cuts through the muddled storytelling. The latest baddie to threaten Earth is Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds via motion capture), a hulking, armored godling with a colossal battleaxe and an army of zombified insectoid “Parademons” at his command. Like most cinematic supervillains of late, he’s criminally bland, having no significant attributes beyond being big, strong, and mean. (However, Hinds does get to bellow one utterly delectable comic book line: “Praise to the mother of horrors!”) Ages ago, the dimension-hopping Steppenwolf was routed during his attempted conquest of Earth, and he’s itching for payback. Integral to his plan are three “Mother Boxes”—surely the silliest MacGuffin name in years—which, when brought together, will allow him to rapidly terraform the planet, incidentally wiping out all life in the process. (Wasn’t that General Zod’s exact scheme from Man of Steel? Whatever. It hardly matters.)

Standing in opposition to this apocalyptic yet somehow tedious menace are uncertain partners Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. the Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Alerted to Steppenwolf’s imminent invasion, the pair scramble to recruit others with extraordinary abilities: the lightning-fast Flash, who is still getting the hang of his powers and his hero status; self-exiled Atlantean prince Arthur Curry, a.k.a. the Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who likes booze, solitude, and the small-bore heroism of rescusing fishermen; and Victor Stone a.k.a., Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a deceased A student and star athlete resurrected via alien cybernetics by his own scientist father. Naturally, Bruce and Diana encounter some resistance when putting the team together—although not from Barry, who geeks out over the Batcave and is enthused to have some actual friends. Also naturally, the group eventually comes together to oppose Steppenwolf, learning lessons about cooperation and camraderie in the process. Yay!

The elephant in the room is Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal El, a.k.a. Superman (Henry Cavill), whose death appears to have plunged the world into a sustained outbreak of violence, bigotry, and fanaticism. (Unfortunately, Justice League barely has time to convey this intriguing plot point, yet alone to develop it into something thematically robust.) Bruce is still moping over his role in Kal-El’s demise, but there is added urgency now that a seemingly invincible interdimensional threat is bearing down on the planet. Once Bruce learns that the Mother Boxes have the power to restore life, he hatches a mad scientist's scheme to resurrect Superman, who will presumably be able to stand toe-to-toe with Steppenwolf without breaking a sweat. However, the other members of the nascent Justice League think that this is a Very Bad Idea.

Justice League’s most frustrating flaw is that it proves to be so… ordinary. A super-powered team-up of this magnitude should be spectacular, but Snyder’s efforts to rein in his penchant for outlandish sci-fi devastation results in an adventure that feels distressingly anonymous. The film’s most memorable action sequence occurs just ten minutes into the proceedings, when Diana foils an anarchic terror plot disguised as a bank robbery. Snyder fittingly cribs from Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins’ refinements to his own lavish, speed-ramping style for this scene, but elsewhere all the fisticuffs and explosions are kinetic yet entirely forgettable. (Even the Flash’s slo-mo heroics feel like weak tea compared to Quicksilver’s wittily imagined set pieces in the X-Men prequels.) Annoyingly, Aquaman isn’t given nearly enough to do. Terrio and Whedon’s screenplay regularly strands him far from the oceanic settings where his powers are best utilized. Consequently, Arthur is obliged to engage in a lot of bland jumping, punching, and trident-poking; there are no telepathically summoned great white sharks, unfortunately.

Gadot is once again the DCEU’s gleaming star in this outing, delivering the only performance that conveys authentic warmth and nobility, at least among the super-powered characters. Amy Adams, as usual, gives the thinly-written Lois Lane more heart than the part deserves. Affleck remains a fine fit for this late-model, weary Dark Knight Returns iteration of the Caped Crusader, although he seems almost sheepishly exasperated to be bossing around a band of living gods. Which may be the point: Batman makes the plans, but Wonder Woman wears the crown, at least in Kal El's absence. Gadot even allows viewers a peek at her Amazon’s more maternal side, as she offers elder stateswoman guidance to Bruce and a mentor's encouragement to Victor. Momoa is the odd man out: In the abstract, the mellow, lone wolf persona he brings to the Prince of Atlantis has potential. He's part surfer bro, part Han Solo scoundrel, and part Aragorn-style banished scion. Something about the laid-back jocularity of the character clashes with the rest of the film, however, in a way that Miller’s fretful wiseass Flash does not. Fisher’s character has the most long-term dramatic potential—a legally dead man whose Swiss army knife powers are evolving at supercomputer speeds—but the actor is given virtually nothing to do other than sulk about, mourning his existence like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s lots of room for nitpicking when it comes to Justice League’s story. Dwelling near Steppenwolf’s lair at a contaminated ex-Soviet site, a random human family serves as a clumsy stand-in for the billions of people the League wishes to protect, but there’s little about the nameless clan that invites the viewer’s interest or investment. The Atlanteans and their warrior-princess Mera (Amber Heard) appear and then vanish from the film so quickly, they don’t have time to leave much of an impression, let alone for the screenplay to adequately explain their role or Aquaman's history. There are nonsensical and aggravating plot points aplenty; the worst occurs when the League quite literally leaves the third Mother Box laying around for Steppenwolf to nick while their backs are turned. (You had one job, Cyborg.)

This sort of ham-fisted storytelling wouldn’t be so objectionable if Snyder’s new film had more personality. To make the feature more palatable to viewers who groused about the bleak bombast of the director’s earlier Superman films, Warner Bros. has ironically neutered Justice League, turning it into a disposable Avengers Lite. Gone is the grandiose "Tales to Astonish" spectacle embodied in Krypton’s wondrous design. Gone are the left-field gothic and giallo touches like blood gushing from the walls of the Wayne family mausoleum. Gone is anything so defiantly weird as Bruce’s Road Warrior vision of a barren Earth under the boot of a tyrannical Superman. Excised of any potentially alienating eccentricity, Justice League is merely a mildly entertaining and thoroughly unremarkable digital blip, its cinematic ungainliness offset only by its stars’ charms and its sporadic splashes of Saturday morning cartoon delight. (Stay for the mid-credits scene: It’s a winner.)

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

November 16, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Why Does Art Hate Me? I Never Did Anything to Art!

2017 / Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark / Dir. by Ruben Östlund / Opens in select theaters on October 27, 2017; locally on November 17, 2017

Viewers who have experienced the delectable agony of director Ruben Östlund’s international breakout Force Majeure (2014) doubtlessly have some expectations regarding the Swedish filmmaker’s new feature, The Square. Those expectations will largely be fulfilled: Like his previous film, the director’s latest work is a pitch-black satire presented completely straight, with a whiff of self-loathing detectable beneath its Scandinavian starch. Both Force Majeure and The Square are bone-dry cringe comedies about self-satisfied bourgeois men. In both films, the protagonist is swiftly and thoroughly dismantled by a volatile mixture of happenstance and their own wretched failings.

However, Östlund’s preceding film slyly employed a constrained setting—a nuclear family’s holiday at a luxury ski resort—that reflected the feature’s relatively narrow focus on patriarch Tomas’ crumpling cowardice and inadequacy. In contrast, the Palm d’Or-winning The Square veritably sprawls. Set in Stockholm, with much of its action centered on an esteemed contemporary art museum, the new film follows the travails of Christian (Claes Bang), the institution’s preening, middle-aged chief curator. His narcissistic dickishness receives a healthy share of The Square’s barbs, but the general absurdities of the art world are also subjected to profuse skewering. More broadly, the film takes aim at the grating self-regard of the politically Leftish well-to-do, and at the inanities of modern, globalized European society. The feature suffers somewhat due to this expansiveness, lacking the ruthless intensity that made Force Majeure such an enthralling experience. Nonetheless, The Square is still a superbly unpleasant delight—the comedy equivalent of a vinegar caramel or salted licorice.

With a 142-minute running time, concision is less important to the The Square than weaving a striking tapestry of ridiculous peoples, places, and situations. There is, as one might expect, quite a bit of comedy about the pretense, vapidity, and impenetrability of modern art. However, Östlund generally resists the temptation to engage in the sort of “My Kid Could Paint That” scoffing that inevitably attends popular reactions to works of abstract and conceptual art. The writer-director is more absorbed with his setting’s potential to amplify the wry comedy of the uncomfortable. Accordingly, much of the film consists of loosely connected vignettes about (or adjacent to) the museum’s day-to-day operations. Some of these incidents have plot repercussions, while others simply add thin, droll layers to the film’s dense portrait of high culture buffoonery.

In the latter category, for example, is a wordless, Tati-esque scene in which a janitorial worker attempts (unsuccessfully) to negotiate a floor buffer around an art installation consisting of neat piles of gravel. There’s no grand payoff for this, just a subsequent aside between curators about surreptitiously repairing the damage to the exhibit. The exchange reveals a bit of Christian’s craven, unscrupulous side; otherwise, it’s just funny for the sake of funny. In another relatively autonomous sequence, a moderated talk with an artist (Dominic West) is repeatedly interrupted by an audience member with Tourette syndrome. Crucially, Östlund doesn’t present the scene to mock the afflicted individual. Instead, he focuses on the embarrassed reactions of everyone else, whose progressive-minded tolerance for the disabled fidgets uncomfortably alongside the untenable distraction of yelped obscenities. (There’s also the matter of the unsubtle editorializing inherent in cutting off an artist’s vacuous ramblings with shouts of “Bullshit!”)

Much of The Square’s art-centric humor relies on these sort of ludicrous juxtapositions, and the most obvious criticism of the film is that savaging the modern art world is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Indeed, revealing the silliness of the cultural elite is practically satire on Easy Mode, and some part of Östlund clearly delights in walloping his socially conscious audience right in the stomach with an irony sledgehammer. One loses count of how many times the director slides in a pointed shot of a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk just outside the museum, contrasting the grubby reality outside the institution with the high-minded excess of events inside its galleries and offices. (The inequity is funny because it’s tragic. Or something.)

However, Östlund’s approach ultimately proves to be far more nimble and complex than initial appearances might suggest. His Stockholm is more Springfield than South Park: Equal-opportunity in its satirical ambitions but rarely snottily contemptuous. Significantly, many of the cutting-edge works of contemporary art showcased in the film are genuinely audacious and intriguing. Östlund takes pains to illustrate that their absurdity derives mostly from their ill-conceived implementation, and from the way that banal situations take on a surreal shading when they unfold in spaces where the abstract is rendered boldly tangible. Standard cringe comedy fodder like tense morning-after bickering, for example, becomes sublimely daft due to the sporadic, cacophonous thudding from some unseen installation piece. It’s not that the art is inherently preposterous; it’s that the art’s presence makes an awkward situation even more deliriously farcical.

Notwithstanding some swipes at a pair of soulless twenty-something advertising wunderkinds, the only target for which The Square has (mostly) unmitigated disdain is Christian. Middle-aged and nominally liberal, the curator is an egomaniac who uses pretension to mask his selfish gutlessness and anxious masculinity. (European black comedy has made a veritable cottage industry of taking down pricks like Christian.) A relentless womanizer who fusses over his chic wardrobe and his shock of floppy black hair, he’s the sort of insufferable phony who carefully rehearses the “unscripted” parts of his speeches.

The closest thing to a traditional plot in The Square involves the saga of Christian’s stolen smartphone and wallet, the retrieval of which escalates into a Coens-worthy fiasco riddled with unforeseen consequences. After tracking the pickpocketed phone’s location to a housing project, Christian and his IT assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) devise a drunken and colossally stupid plan to get it back, and things snowball from there. Initially, this plot is only glancingly connected to the museum vignettes, but Christian’s obsession with the phone debacle distracts him from his management duties at a key moment, leading to scandal for the institution and a subsequent political reckoning. Östlund gives both halves of the story—the museum set-pieces and Christian’s after-hours bungling—comparable weight, deftly using each one to comment on the other.

Every scene featuring Christian reveals a smidgen more of his noxious character, ensuring that when his comeuppance finally arrives, it feels richly deserved. Despite his pomposity, the man is, at bottom, a jellyfish: In one of the film’s most casually hilarious moments, he shifts his position from stalwart defender of artistic freedom to whiny finger-pointer in about five seconds, without a hint of self-awareness. The curator has more depth to his personality than did Force Majeure’s Tomas, but Christian is also the only character in The Square who is more than an unfocused collection of attributes.

The roles and relationships of the myriad assistant curators, museum directors, creative consultants, and wealthy benefactors who flit through the film are never clarified, which is arguably fitting. The Square primarily follows Christian’s viewpoint, and in his eyes the rest of the world is divisible into underlings to be bullied, superiors to be avoided, and sexual conquests to be claimed. Elizabeth Moss portrays Anne, an American arts journalist who interviews and then awkwardly hooks up with the curator, and while she is astute and sharp-tongued, the viewer never learns much about her. (Least of all why she keeps a bonobo chimpanzee in her apartment, one of Östlund’s rare instances of overreach in the pursuit of the weird.)

In Östlund’s conception, the bold aims of contemporary art don’t amount to much if a self-absorbed jackwagon with terrible judgment is serving as the cultural gatekeeper. Case in point: the titular Square, which is the lynchpin of the museum’s latest exhibition. A quadrangle of light set into the museum’s cobblestone plaza, the installation is intended as a sort of social consciousness exercise. Visitors are invited to stand within the square and ask passersby for help with anything they might need. Paradoxically, although “The Square” is the flagship of Christian’s recent efforts as curator, it’s the one work presented in the film that feels utterly toothless, a flimsy attempt to kick-start some vague movement of universal compassion. Proving that Östlund is not above self-mockery, the anodyne manifesto that accompanies the “The Square” is the same one that the director and producer Kalle Boman penned for an analogous real-world art installation in 2014.

The viewer never observes anyone using “The Square” installation for its intended purpose. However, a person asking for (or refusing) help is a relentlessly recurring motif in the film, one that extends beyond the proliferation of panhandlers in the story’s fore- and background. (Östlund, incidentally, is shrewdly evenhanded in his portrayal of the homeless, depicting them as alternately polite and obliging or tetchy and churlish, depending on the individual in question.) Christian suffers repeated reversals of fortune in which he is obliged to ask strangers for help, and the film derives some enjoyment from the spectacle of such a self-important twit being forced to beg on his knees (figuratively, at least). Elsewhere in the film, the appeals for aid are more disturbing: passive-aggressive efforts to unload disagreeable tasks; hysterical screams echoing through a crowded plaza; faint yet incessant sobs emanating from a darkened stairwell; and, in the film’s most notorious set piece, a terrified woman shrieking for help as she is assaulted by a performance artist.

In this latter scene, the artist, Oleg (Terry Notary), debuts an aggressively confrontational performance piece in which he runs amok among the museum's wealthy benefactors, mimicking a wild ape. (The scene was reportedly inspired by Russian artist Oleg Kulik, whose pieces often include performers imitating animals.) Notary is an apt choice, as his recent filmography includes simian roles such as Rocket in the Planet of the Apes features and the titular king-sized gorilla in Kong: Skull Island. The actor’s performance is both eerily exacting in its mimicry and 110% committed to the scene’s seat-squirming unpleasantness (and sexual ickiness).

Östlund essentially presents the performance as a slow-motion horror sequence, in which the hundred or so patrons in attendance at a benefit dinner are first amused at Oleg's antics; then uneasy; then distressed; then petrified. Christian attempts to cut the performance short, but the artist disregards him, pawing at people and chasing them around room while hooting maniacally. It soon becomes apparent that the situation will not end until Oleg relents (unlikely) or he is physically restrained. Östlund is dexterous here: The director manages to illustrate how daring and galvanic performance art can be, while also specifically excoriating Oleg for violating attendees’ consent and Christian for greenlighting such a disaster in the first place.

If there’s a modest humanity to be found underneath Östlund’s prim yet gleeful savaging of the art world and its denizens, it’s in the film’s acknowledgement that everyone is embroiled in a quietly miserable tug-of-war between their needs and wants on one side, and their vanity and shame on the other. Even Christian is afforded sympathy in select scenes, as when he frankly apologizes for overreacting to his young daughters’ quarreling, or when he is rather baselessly pilloried from both the political right and left during a press conference. By pulling back and revealing the witch’s brew of outrage, twaddle, and apathy that public figures are obliged to choke down with a smile, the film retroactively softens the jaw-dropping vanity of Christian’s earlier appeals to his minor celebrity. Östlund also provides historical context by observing the museum staff and benefactors as they drunkenly sneak into the adjacent Swedish royal residence. There, the even sharper wealth disparity of an earlier age is on display, underlining that the out-of-touch elite are hardly unique to the 21st century.

Much like Force Majeure, The Square starts to lose some of its already-modest narrative momentum in the film’s final stretch, as it becomes increasingly apparent that the myriad subplots have been left dangling by design. There is fallout from Christian’s mishandling of a promotional video for the exhibition, for example, but no visible repercussions from Oleg’s catastrophic and potentially actionable performance, which is never even mentioned after the fact. There’s a boldness to this deliberately unsatisfying approach, as when Christian’s tardy but earnest attempt to confess one of his misdeeds concludes with an ambiguous sputter. Although The Square presents a slightly cartoonish depiction of the art world, the film is authentic when it insists that events are not easily divisible into tidy dramatic arcs. However, in a feature where actual plot is already sharing screen time with standalone scenes of art world folly, Östlund’s determination to let Christian’s story simply trail off has the side effect of making the film’s final 15 minutes or so feel particularly listless.

Whether any given viewer will find The Square delicious or excruciating will largely depend on their attitude towards cringe comedy as a subgenre. Much like superhero features or slasher flicks, the humor of the deeply uncomfortable has its dedicated admirers, but there’s little point in trying to convince an avowed skeptic of its merits. One either gets it or one doesn’t, which is not a judgment about individuals’ sophistication (or lack thereof), but an acknowledgement that genre is a fuzzy category rather than a statement of cinematic merit. There are corkers and clunkers in every category, and much like the recent Thor: Ragnarok, Östlund’s film is the former: a terrific exemplar of its sort of thing, executed with great assurance and wit. However, if a viewer’s funny bone isn’t tickled by the prospect of self-important Swedes in tuxedos and evening gowns being tormented by a half-naked man behaving like a chimpanzee, The Square may not be for them.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

November 10, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Behold the Fire and the Wood; But Where Is the Lamb?

2017 / UK, Ireland, USA / Dir. by Yorgos Lathimos / Opens in limited release on October 20, 2017; locally on November 10, 2017

The characters in Yorgos Lathimos’ films don’t talk like normal people. In the case of the Bizarro clan in the director’s pitch-black absurdist masterpiece Doogtooth (2009), the family’s speech patterns reveal their insular enforced worldview—a Wonderland paradigm where “sea” means “chair” and housecats are ravenous monsters. The Lobster (2015) looks on as desperate singles in some alternate future go through the ridiculous rituals of romance, exhibiting the cold pragmatism and stilted unfamiliarity of visitors from another planet.

In Lathimos’ new feature, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the director’s penchant for unnervingly off-key dialog isn’t as thematically pertinent as it is in his other works. There’s not much subtext to the film’s verbal inelegance, beyond the routine observation that social interactions are detached and vacuous in the modern world. (In this, Killing bears some resemblance to David Cronenberg’s icier features, such as Crash and Cosmopolis.) However, the film’s distinctive Lathimos speech patterns—characterized by emotional blankness and perfunctory line deliveries—engender a forceful mood of skin-crawling unease. That atmosphere is an essential component of Killing, which represents the Greek filmmaker’s first plunge into full-fledged horror, albeit a fittingly arid and chilly stripe of arthouse horror.

Straightaway, the viewer is put on edge, as the camera follows along with surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) during their post-op trek down a long hospital hallway. The keening, modernist score—plainly intended to evoke Stanley Kubrick’s films—is quite sufficient to raise the viewer's hackles. However, something about the otherwise banal conversation between the two men is decidedly off. Steven inquires about Matthew's watch, under the pretense that he is looking to replace his own timepiece, but the surgeon’s words sound rehearsed, like the clipped, practiced statements of a man giving a deposition. Steven is being less than truthful with his colleague: The watch he eventually purchases is for Martin (Barry Keoghan), an adolescent boy with an initially ambiguous relationship to the surgeon.

This mild deception is not particularly salient to the plot, beyond necessitating an awkward lie when Martin later drops in on Steven at the hospital. The dishonesty is revealing, however, as it establishes that there is something vaguely embarrassing about Steven’s friendship with the boy. It’s a conclusion further reinforced by the illicit vibe of their meetings, which occur over lunch at greasy spoons and during idle walks along the waterfront. The surgeon’s manner with Martin is paternal, yet somehow self-consciously anxious, as if he were doing something questionable simply by being seen in public with the boy.

Moreover, Steven’s little white lies paint the surgeon as a man who is comfortable with self-serving deceit. Indeed, all of Steven’s interactions with his family—wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), adolescent daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and preteen son Bob (Sunny Suljic)—have a whiff of shallow performance. It’s as though their prosaic dinner table conversation about haircuts, bike safety, and choir practice were a flimsy distraction from the telltale heart thumping under the floorboards. If further evidence of Steven’s sinister eccentricity were needed, he and Anna engage in creepy sexual roleplay where she pretends to be an anesthetized patient—whom he then proceeds to rape.

Before long, it is revealed that Martin is the son of one of Steven’s former patients, a man who perished on the operating table following a car accident. During their conversations, Steven plays the part of the attentive adult, inquiring about Martin’s grades and the well-being of his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone). Martin is grateful, but also exceedingly peculiar; his flat affect and strange non-sequiturs suggesting someone who is repeating words he is overhearing on some high-frequency wavelength that only he can perceive. Eventually Steven makes the polite but ill-fated decision to invite Martin to the family’s lavish home for dinner, a meeting that ignites Kim's infatuation with the boy. The visit also triggers a disturbing escalation in Martin’s efforts to ingratiate himself to the family.

After Steven angrily rebuffs Martin’s clumsy attempt to finagle his mother and the surgeon into an adulterous relationship, Bob falls victim to a mysterious ailment, losing all mobility in his legs. The orthopedists, neurologists, and other specialists at Steven’s hospital are baffled, unable to pinpoint the reason for the boy’s paralysis, beyond the ominous catch-all, “psychosomatic illness”. Martin, however, provides the explanation, letting it spill out of him like a hastily-delivered book report. Steven’s family, the boy declares, will perish one by one: first losing their ability to walk; then unable to consume food; then bleeding from their eyes; then dying in agony. The only way to stop this horrifying sequences of events is for Steven to murder either his wife, daughter, or son, thereby sparing the other two. In Martin’s conception, this blood sacrifice may not right the wrong of his father’s death—which the boy blames on the surgeon—but “it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.”

If The Killing of a Sacred Deer had been conceived as a thriller rather than a horror feature, the plot would have likely revolved around Steven’s frantic efforts to uncover how exactly the unlikely Martin had managed to enact his Machiavellian scheme. (Obscure poison? Bio-engineered virus? Psychokinetic powers?) Crucially, Lathimos presents this monstrous scenario as an inherently insoluble puzzle. It doesn’t matter how Martin is murdering the Murphy family; Steven will never be able to stop the boy’s revenge by anthing so simple as riddling out his methods. The Murphys’ physical deterioration is simply a fact. It is unfathomable in the context of a rational, scientific universe, but there is a terrifying, implacable logic to it, like a Romani curse or an Old Testament plague.

The horror of Killing is thus the horror of watching a clockwork trap slowly ratchet closed with oiled, clicking remorselessness. Escape demands a choice so unthinkable that Steven does everything in his power to avoid having to make it. He berates his fellow doctors for their ineptitude, insisting that there must be some physiological reason that his son—and later, his daughter—is unable to walk. He becomes physically abusive with Bob, violently and repeatedly dropping the boy’s limp body on the floor, convinced that the child must be malingering. Steven eventually goes so far as to enact a scheme of bloody counter-retribution on Martin, but the boy remains maddeningly calm and reasonable through it all, his heavy-lidded eyes swollen with reptilian unfeeling. There is only one way for Steven to preserve (most of) his family, and the surgeon’s mounting desperation suggests he knows as much, deep in his bones.

The form that Martin’s revenge assumes is explicitly designed to drive a wedge between the Murphys. The children, for their part, seem to apprehend that their illness is a punishment for their father’s purported sins, and they strangely accept their doom with a placid fatalism. (In Kim’s case, there is also a slathering of exceedingly twisted romantic adoration towards Martin.) Anna, however, is indignant, first with Martin for visiting his vengeance on the blameless, and then with Steven for bringing that vengeance down on them through his senseless mistakes. “You do realize, Steven, we’re in this situation because of you?” she asks sharply.

Steven knows this only too well, of course. The marvel of Farrell’s performance lies in how he suggests a murmur of Steven’s smothering guilt from the character’s first appearance, and then amplifies it gradually with every succeeding scene. With biting clarity, he conveys man who is utterly unable to admit to fault, less out of ego than a kind of preening, lawyerly self-preservation. In this respect, Farrell’s performance recalls that of Daniel Auteuil in Caché (2005), wherein the latter actor portrays a complacent, successful man who cannot bring himself to acknowledge a terrible misdeed he once committed.

Steven would rather lash out at any other available target—Martin, his children, other doctors—than concede that he might have invited his family’s doom in some way. At one point, he obliquely throws Matthew under the bus. “A surgeon never kills a patient. An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can,” Steven declares with defensive matter-of-factness. In a moment that the film presents with pitch-black drollness, Matthew later reverses the equation, asserting that it is the surgeon who is ultimately responsible for a patient’s death. Men… It’s always someone else’s fault.

The small cast delivers an array of first-rate performances, each one unsettling in a distinct way, although Kidman’s quietly furious portrayal of Anna strays the closest to authentic humanity. (Not through any fault of the rest of the actors, of course; the uncanny, narcotic tingle of Lathimos’ mannered approach to dialog has no room for scruffy realism.) The film’s clear standout is Keoghan, however, who creates a chilling sociopathic presence without straying into the cartoonish villainy that an older, more seasoned actor could get away with. Martin is the anti-Hannibal Lecter: awkward, inarticulate, incurious, unkempt, his mouth perpetually hanging open with bovine slackness. He’s cunning, but too stupid to realize that he might not be the smartest person in the room. (In one of the film’s funniest moments, he bites Steven’s arm and then his own to illustrate his eye-for-an-eye ethos. “It’s a metaphor,” he explains, earnestly and unnecessarily, "Do you understand?") Martin intimidates in part because his shrewd resolve looks so uncanny on a kid who otherwise seems like he should be playing Xbox, smoking weed, and failing trigonometry.

Killing exhibits all of the visual and aural impeccability that has emerged as a consistent attribute of Lathimos’ films. Together, he and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who has shot four of the director’s six features, strike a balance in the film’s look between clinical, Kubrickian medium-to-wide shots and suffocating close-ups. The former employ odd angles and discombobulating compositions to heighten the film's air of sheer wrongness. Meanwhile, the latter linger uncomfortably on searching human faces and on the grotesque textures of food and bodily fluids: a crumby clump of cinnamon donut; meat sauce clinging to spaghetti; and distressing quantities of blackish, congealing blood. The film’s soundtrack—from music editor Johnnie Burn and music supervisors Sarah Giles and Nick Payne—principally relies on extant baroque, classical, and modernist orchestral pieces rather than an original score. Selections from Bach, Schubert, György Ligeti, and Sofia Gubaidulina establish a mood that alternates smoothly between funerial grandeur, prickly disquiet, and hypnotic terror.

One can discern how the film’s screenplay, co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, might have dumbed down its scenario into the arthouse version of a later Saw feature, where vile penalties are meted out in the service of mush-headed moral “lessons”.  Vitally, Killing is only proximally concerned with the grueling Sophie’s choice that Steven faces. The film is more absorbed with the pitilessly foreseeable ways that people (especially vain, entitled men) react to errors, guilt, and punishment. Much like Lathimos’ Dogtooth, the feature possesses a primeval immediacy that allows it to function as straightforward tale of terror, necessitating no further thematic embellishment. However, the same starkness in the film’s scenario—combined with the director’s discerning eye for the nightmarish absurdities of love, family, and death—allows for a rich catalog of potential allegorical readings. Martin as God, Martin as the Devil, Martin as religion, Martin as Steven’s conscience, Martin as Steven’s id: Any metaphorical path one chooses, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a harrowing experience executed with darkling precision.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

November 9, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Curiouser and Curiouser

2017 / USA / Dir. by Todd Haynes / Opens October 20, 2017; locally on November 10, 2017

Wonderstruck is vivid case study in how things can go subtly awry when there is a mismatch between a film’s source material and its director. The feature was adapted from the 2011 illustrated novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, author of the 2008 Caldecott winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The two books are conspicuously similar in terms of genre, plot, and themes. Both are fantasy-tinged period pieces about children searching for connections to their parents, and more generally about the romantic fascination with anachronistic ideas, objects, and technologies. In the case of Hugo Cabret, the primary old-fashioned obsession in question is silent filmmaking, and specifically the pioneering work of Georges Méliès. Whatever its flaws as a film, Martin Scorsese’s lavish 3D adaptation Hugo faultlessly captures the enthralled spirit of Selznick’s 2008 novel, in part due to the director’s boundless, school-boyish enthusiasm for cinematic history.

The film version of Wonderstruck, meanwhile, is helmed by Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Carol), a filmmaker of remarkable formal and storytelling prowess, but not necessarily the director who leaps to mind for a giddy, kid-friendly love letter to the bygone arts and sciences. Haynes’ films are penetrating, decidedly adult stories about intractable anxieties and longings. His 1995 masterpiece Safe is essentially a psychological horror film, in which a suburban housewife becomes consumed by her fear of a vague, chemically-induced ailment. It would be a challenge to envision a story more tonally and conceptually remote from Safe than Wonderstruck, the latter a swooning fairy tale steeped in a fondness for museums, bookstores, and silent cinema. This isn’t to say that a filmmaker should never stray outside their comfort zone. However, the perceptible dissonance between story and the director’s natural affinities is so distracting in Haynes’ latest film that it works against what is otherwise and handsome, heartening celebration of discovery.

Wonderstruck concerns a pair of restless tween seekers, separated by a span of 50 years. Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, lives in 1920s New Jersey with her father, while Ben (Oakes Fegley) resides with his aunt in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota at the tail end of the 1970s. Both children are bright, inquisitive, and preoccupied. She draws in her sketchbook and attends silent films; he collects scientific curiosities and gazes through his telescope. Both kids also have unresolved parental woes. Rose pines for her mother, glamorous movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), whose clippings she compulsively scrapbooks. However, Lillian wants as little to do with her daughter as possible. Meanwhile, Ben’s mother, Elaine (Michelle Williams), was recently killed in a car accident. The pain of this loss and the unsettled mystery of his paternity keep Ben up nights, as do nightmares of being chased by ravenous wolves.

In the 20s, Rose’s stern, distant father (James Urbaniak) has arranged for a private tutor to oversee her education, but the defiant girl is having none of it. She makes her escape and heads to New York City, with the goal visiting her mother, who is currently appearing on the Broadway stage. In the 70s, meanwhile, Ben is rendered permanently deaf by a freak lightning strike, just as he makes a discovery among his mother’s effects. The clues he uncovers point to a used bookstore in New York, prompting the hospitalized Ben to slip out and board a Manhattan-bound bus. Eventually, the two children’s stories intertwine, converging not only on the bookshop, but also on the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Queens Museum. Critically, Ben falls in with Jamie (Jaden Michael), a lonely child his age whose comprehensive knowledge of the AMNH and its secrets ultimately proves vital to unraveling the mystery of Ben’s family.

Haynes distinguishes the two storylines by presenting them in radically disparate styles. Rose’s sequences are shot on crisp black-and-white 35mm film, without dialog or traditional audio effects. In imitation of the silent films that the girl so adores—and plainly signifying the way that she mentally processes the world—the score provides the exclusive aural scaffolding for these scenes. This music not only creates an emotional backdrop for on-screen events, but also suggests sound effects and ambient noise—such as the automotive cacophony of a Manhattan intersection. Ben’s passages, meanwhile, are shot on 35mm color film, approximating the bright, grainy look of period NYC features such as The French Connection and Taxi Driver. Combined with a funk-heavy soundtrack, it’s a look that befits the ‘New York Shitty’ environs of Ben’s scenes. These are suffused with a smog-brown filthiness that contrasts with the silvery glory of Rose’s pre-crash Roaring 20’s world. (The Port Authority Bus Terminal, portrayed at its squalid nadir just prior to its North Wing opening, is prominently featured in Ben's tale as a signifier of the city’s decay.)

The film presents Rose and Ben’s parallel tales with a full awareness of and appreciation for their storybook implausibility—including the contrived, faintly fantastical way that Ben is abruptly bestowed with his co-protagonist’s disability. This isn’t to say that the affected storytelling goes down any easier; Wonderstruck is perpetually bedeviled with an unresolved discord between its grounded setting and twee narrative. However, Haynes and his collaborators are plainly cognizant of the enchanted sensibility that the material calls for, and have elected to eagerly embrace it. The real-world locales lend Wonderstruck some of the cuddly, endearing vibe of classic NYC-based kid lit such as Kay Thompson’s Eloise or Sandra Scoppettone’s Suzuki Bean. The plot weaves in real-world New York locales and history, from the former World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows to the notorious 1977 blackout. However, the story also has a bit of Grimm shading via its myriad fairy tale motifs, among them dead parents, lost children, and big bad wolves.

Whether populated by flappers or disco hustlers, Hayes’ New York is presented as a cosmopolitan wonderland. Unlike other films about kids lost in the Big Apple, Wonderstruck features no stops at the city’s most iconic landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty or Central Park. Rather, the AMNH is positioned as the cultural hub of the city, befitting a film whose young protagonists are enamored with the peculiar and the incredible. ‘Wonderstruck,’ the old book that initially draws Ben to New York, details the history of the Kunstkabinett, the cabinets of curiosities that served as the precursors to modern museums. Haynes’ film is fittingy besotted in a charming way with the notion of curation, the compulsion to sweat the geeky minutiae in the pursuit of awed delight. Wonderstruck commiserates warmly with everyone who had a childhood collection: stamps, coins, rocks, fossils, shells, flowers, butterflies, or anything else that skewed fusty and nerdy. It celebrates birdwatching, stargazing, and model-building. It lionizes the sort of square academic obsessions that consume precocious kids.

Formally, the film is downright lavish, as peerless in its evocation of 1920s and 70s America as Haynes’ Far from Heaven and Carol were in their sumptuous recreation of the 1950s. Production designer Mark Friedberg is the most conspicuous contributor in this respect, conjuring the prim vigor and shabby dissolution of the Coolidge and Carter eras, respectively, in a manner that is reliably striking without feeling fussed-over. In particular, Freidberg’s revivification of the AMNH of the early and late 20th centuries is a marvel to behold. Cinematographer Edward Lachman and composer Carter Burwell are also essential to Wonderstruck’s lush sense of time and place, providing each period with a sharply-defined visual and musical aesthetic. The contrast has a pragmatic function, marking the terrain as Affonso Gonçalves’ wonderfully agile editing flits between the ‘old past’ and ‘new past’. It’s no coincidence that Wonderstruck begins to feel noticeably sluggish once the divided structure collapses and the film lurches into a lengthy stretch of 1970s-based exposition. This breakdown in pacing is mitigated somewhat by the whimsical stop-motion animation used in this passage’s flashback inserts.

Undeniably, Wonderstruck looks and sounds like an eminently charismatic film, but there’s something strangely hollow and unsatisfying about the feature’s storytelling. Haynes’ engagement with the material feels unmistakably affected and shallow, as if the relative unsophistication of a quixotic, kid-friendly adventure were a flashy, ill-fitting suit that he regrets purchasing. The screenplay by Selznick, who adapts his own novel, fails to solve the story’s fundamental flaw; namely, that there is insufficient dramatic incident to fill a nearly two-hour feature. Wonderstruck accordingly suffers from some aimless stretches that Haynes packs with repetitive chases around the museum and ponderous conversations where the characters struggle with facts that are already well-established for the viewer. The plot is dependent on several enormous coincidences, but, given the film’s fairy tale patina, this is less vexing than the gestures that feel like strained bootstrapping. In one egregious example, Rose’s barely mentioned older brother swoops into the story to conveniently rescue her from the museum guards and a drifting plot.

Notwithstanding Wonderstruck’s unabashed affection for museums, libraries, and other sanctums of discovery, at the heart of the film’s story is a relatively banal quest to connect with vanished parents. If one eliminates all the clutter of the searches, chases, and escapes around New York, one is left with two straightforward tales of childhood angst: Rose’s longing to be near her mother, and Ben’s search for his father’s identity. Given how forcefully Wonderstruck touts the notion of museums as public storehouses of knowledge, the ultimate role of the plainly beloved AMNH is weirdly prosaic in both children’s’ stories. Rose and Ben run their hands over a massive meteorite and peer with curiosity at stuffed gazelles frozen in mid-leap, but the museum is only narrowly germane to the plot. Rose’s story loses a substantial amount of momentum once Lillian rebuffs her daughter’s appeals for attention, leaving the girl with little to do other than wander the city and eventually hide out in the museum. Ben, meanwhile, ultimately discovers that the AMNH is merely the link that brought his mother and father together. It’s a revelation that is only peripherally connected to the film’s broader themes of curating, cataloging, and preserving, and it conveys an exceedingly eccentric lesson: Visiting a museum can lead an orphan boy to his Real Family.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

November 3, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often have a ‘same-day’ limited theatrical opening and video-on-demand (VOD) launch. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for the Scary. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market like St. Louis, online streaming is an increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Super Dark Times

2017 / USA / Dir. by Kevin Phillips / Opening in select theaters on September 29, 2017; available on VOD on October 3, 2017

Not so much a straight thriller or horror feature as a haunting period drama about the evil that men do, Super Dark Times concerns two high school friends (Owen Cambell and Charlie Tahan) in 1995 upstate New York. Initially, director Kevin Phillips portrays the boys’ daily lives with a stimulating gestalt of social realism and moody impressionism, but after a horrifying accident drives a wedge between the friends, the film congeals into raw psychological horror. Mashing up Sam Raimi’s wintery noir A Simple Plan (1998) and Gus Van Sant’s post-Columbine piece Elephant (2003) and then refracting the result through Stephen King, the film functions as both a vicious small-town tragedy and as an unsettling plunge into the nastier depths of the male adolescent mind. Rating: B [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

78/52

2017 / USA / Dir. by Alexandre O Phillippe / Opening in select theaters and available on VOD on October 13, 2017

Films about films are a dicey documentary subgenre, but dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles will appreciate the awestruck geekery of 78/52, director Alexandre O. Philippe’s 91-minute doc about one of the most celebrated and analyzed passages of all time: Psycho’s shower scene. Touching on everything from editing to sound design, a procession of directors, writers, technicians, actors, and historians scrutinize every detail of the 45-second centerpiece to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Enthusiastic and insightful, Philippe’s interviewees do a marvelous job of placing Marion Crane’s fateful shower into the wider context of both the director’s work and the state of cinema generally in 1960. Psycho is so deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness, it’s revelatory to watch as the enduring brilliance of its most famous sequence is meticulously unpacked. Rating: B+ [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Creep 2

2017 / USA / Dir. by Patrick Brice / Available on VOD on October 24, 2017.

Writer-director Patrick Brice’s darkly comic found-footage indie Creep (2014) has been one of the pleasant surprises of horror cinema in the 2010s, while also serving as a near-perfect vehicle for actor Mark Duplass’ facility for off-putting awkwardness and eccentricity. Brice’s sequel revives the original’s conceit, trapping a filmmaker in a remote cabin with Duplass’ ingratiating, self-conscious serial killer Aaron. This time, however, the person behind the camera is Sara (Desiree Akhavan), a wannabe documentarian who harbors a fascination with the bizarre hinterlands of human behavior. She disarms Aaron by rising to the occasion, matching his escalating strangeness and aggression with curiosity and compassion (at least to his face). While Creep 2 is rarely outright scary, it’s a deliciously depraved and surprisingly melancholy exploration of middle-aged weariness, loneliness, and dissatisfaction. Rating: B- [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Leatherface

2017 / USA / Dir. by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury / Opening in select theaters and available via VOD on October 20, 2017

If there is one thing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) did not need, it was a prequel about the early years of mute power tool aficionado Leatherface. It’s not surprising that co-directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury deliver a dull, sloppy feature without an ounce of the original film’s nihilistic power; that was probably a foregone conclusion. What’s unexpected is how thoroughly Leatherface manages to screw up its premise. The feature fails to answer the only potentially interesting question about Massacre’s backstory—How did the Sawyer clan first descend into cannibalism?—and inexplicably positions a sociopathic Bonnie and Clyde couple as its “real” villains. The smugness of the film’s third act fake out is just the rotten cherry on a pile of misconceived crap. Rating: D- [Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Andrew Wyatt

November 2, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

And So He Strikes—Like Thunnn-der-baaalll!!!

2017 / USA / Dir. by Taika Waititi / Opens in wide release on November 3, 2017

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always had an irreverent side, going back to the feature that started the whole multi-media merchandising colossus, Iron Man (2008). As inhabited by Robert Downey Jr., war profiteer-turned-hero Tony Stark riddles friends and foes alike with volleys of disarming snark. However, Iron Man's solo features are about the pleasure of watching Downey direct his deadpan shtick at the rest of the world. The star, not the film itself, supplies the attitude. Other early MCU features played with fish out-of-water gags (Thor in 2011) and hangout tomfoolery (The Avengers in 2012), but Marvel Studios didn’t quite find a bona fide action-comedy groove until Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which turned the comic publisher’s more obscure ‘cosmic’ heroes into the Bad News Bears of a kooky space opera.

The Guardians formula—sharp comic acting, wacky characters, locker room antics, subverted expectations—has subsequently leached into other MCU films, generally to the benefit of the mega-franchise. To date, Ant-Man (2015) and this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming constituted the most noticeable instances of this ‘Guardians-ification’ phenomenon, but Thor: Ragnarok might be its most unambiguous exemplar yet. Certainly, the Thor entries are the solo films that were in deepest need of a dash of zaniness. While conceptually cartoonish, the God of Thunder’s two previous features harbored some of the self-seriousness of the high fantasy genre. Even after several films’ worth of humbling encounters, actor Chris Hemsworth’s take on Thor—who remains a bit of a hot-headed jock with a compulsion for dick-measuring—could still stand to be taken down a few pegs.

Enter New Zealand director Taika Waititi. His endearing but relatively small-bore dramedies Boy (2010) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) couldn’t be further afield from the CGI spectacle of the Marvel juggernaut. However, the Waititi joint that one can discern in Thor: Ragnarok—and likely the feature that got the part-Māori filmmaker the job—was his hit 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. The odd special effect notwithstanding, Shadows is a shaggy indie comedy at bottom, one that gleans much of its humor from turning undead fiends into needy, oblivious sad sacks. Granted, the third Thor feature is scripted by a trio of veteran superhero television and film writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost. Their screenplay is rich in genre savviness and situational silliness, but Waititi’s stamp is discernable in the way the film wittily humanizes its hero, presenting a God of Thunder who is plagued with self-doubt about his abilities, privilege, and worldview. Ragnarok might not be the auteurist MCU film the world is (still) waiting for, but it hits a sweet spot between flashy adolescent fun and engaging characterization, at least where the principal heroes are concerned.

Much like the earlier Thor solo features, Ragnarok isn’t quite so deeply embedded as other Marvel films in the sprawling MCU mythos. The plot of Waititi’s feature builds primarily on the events of Thor and Thor: The Dark World, with a dash of Bruce Banner’s arc from Age of Ultron. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes an appearance, but it’s largely just to push the hero along to his next destination—and to provide a rare occasion for the God of Thunder to look like a hopeless schlemiel. Hardcore devotees of the MCU’s arcana will be pleased that Ragnarok fills in some stray blanks, such as why Thor sat out last year’s Civil War. It turns out that the mighty hero has been plagued by dreams of Asgard’s fiery fall, and he has accordingly been zipping around the Nine Realms, attempting to head off any looming evil forces before they gather too much strength. In the film’s opening, he stymies the apocalyptic ambitions of the volcanic Surtur (Clancy Brown), king of the fire giants. However, the more insidious threat lies closer to home.

Thor’s adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is still sitting on Asgard’s throne, using magic to pose as their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor finally sees through the God of Mischief’s illusion, only to learn that Odin has gone into seclusion on Earth to live out his few remaining days. Unfortunately, the Allfather’s imminent demise will free Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who also happens to be Odin’s firstborn child and Thor and Loki's sister. (The brothers’ shock at this news, which reads as “Why are we just now hearing about this?”, seems to anticipate the audience’s reaction.) Hela, who resembles a goth-tinged femme fatale from a Heavy Metal cover, pops by the moment Odin passes on to the golden, sparkly hereafter. She summarily tosses Thor and Loki into a wormhole and seizes Asgard, all without so much as breaking a sweat. For good measure, she shatters Thor’s magic warhammer Mjolnir into smoldering bits.

Thor lands on the cosmic scrapheap planet Sakaar, where he is quickly snatched up by a drunken scavenger (Tessa Thompson) and sold into slavery. Sakaar’s oddball dictator, Jeff Goldblum (Jeff Goldblum), has a taste for gladiator games, and is perpetually seeking fresh challengers to pit against his champion. Thor’s impossible path is thusly laid out before him: survive the games, escape the planet, return to Asgard, and somehow defeat an invincible death deity who commands an army of zombies and the Tyrannosaurus-sized wolf, Fenris. Meanwhile, the exiled, all-seeing Asgardian Heimdall (Idris Elba) is waging a one-man guerilla resistance against Hela and the warrior Skurge (Karl Urban), newly appointed as the guardian of the dimensional gateway Bifrost.

Ragnarok has roughly the same plot as the first Thor feature, only with much nastier odds stacked against the God of Thunder. A powerful, malevolent despot again threatens Asgard, only this time the banished Thor hasn’t merely been separated from Mjonir: His hammer has been irrevocably destroyed. Fortunately, the screenwriters are canny enough not to replicate the first film’s arc beat for beat. Thor already proved his worthiness to wield Mjolnir two features ago, and learned some needed lessons about power, responsibility, and humility along the way. Ragnarok gives him more straightforward, physically lethal challenges to overcome, as well as tests of leadership befitting the once and future king of Asgard. Namely, Thor is obliged to play the rabble-rousing persuader, winning Sakaar’s scum and villainy over to his admittedly hopeless cause. His reluctant recruits include: Thompson’s boozing ex-battle-maiden, who fills the Han Solo antihero role; Karg (Waititi via motion-capture), an azure rock monster with a winningly mild disposition; brother Loki, who has managed to insinuate himself into Jeff Goldblum's court; and the arena champion himself, who (to the surprise of no one who has seen Ragnarok’s trailer) turns out to be Thor's long-lost fellow Avenger, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

Humor alone doesn’t sustain Ragnarok, but it’s the primary reason the film is such a rollicking good time. Over the past few years, Hemsworth has refined his take on the meathead Thunder God quite marvelously, allowing him to nimbly and credibly shift through Thor’s various modes: glowering warrior, strutting jock, and grinning goofball. The whole cast is in fine form, although Waititi’s Karg is a singular pleasure, as is Ruffalo when a shell-shocked Bruce Banner eventually re-emerges. Crucially, the film’s deadpan levity acts to minimize the monotony that attends the wearying digital mayhem of monsters, starships, and explosions. Indeed, it often lends the film the rhythm of its original comic book source material, in which strikingly rendered violence is punctuated by quips, gibes, and the odd Olympian boast. There are even some genuinely amusing meta-jokes, including a couple involving a ridiculous propaganda play staged at Loki’s behest. (The subtlest gag is nestled within the stunt casting of Matt Damon as the hammy Asgardian actor who portrays Loki. Dogma, anyone?)

The Thor films have always been indebted to the striking, fantastical Silver Age artwork of Marvel visionary Jack Kirby, but Ragnarok takes the cinematic Asgardian saga to a new level of cosmic nuttiness. Taking a cue from writer and artist Walt Simonson’s iconic run on the comic in the 1980s, production designers Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent emphasize the gaudier, weirder science fiction elements of the setting. The “Art Deco Tolkein” look that has already been established for Asgard itself is still in evidence, but elsewhere the film’s design reflects the disco kitsch of Flash Gordon (1980) and the surreal album artwork of 1970s prog rock bands like Yes and Van Der Graaf Generator. Sakaar is an especially bizarre creation, equal parts Mumbai, Rome, Studio 54, and District 9. Mark Mothersbaugh’s propulsive synth score fits the film’s visual aesthetic perfectly, with its relentless bleeping and thumping delightfully suggesting a space shooter video game.

Most of the weaknesses one expects of an MCU entry are dutifully accounted for in Ragnarok. The chaotic, CGI-drenched action sequences are eye-popping in the moment, but leave virtually no lasting impression. The screenplay is dismally reliant on the same cluster of Daddy Issues that crop up in every other Marvel film. The storytelling has the familiar elements that are now firmly entrenched as part of the studio’s house formula: three or four major locations, nebulous MacGuffins, and a villain whose ambitions never rise above destruction for its own sake. There is an obligatory epic battle in the third act, although Ragnarok subverts this MCU standby a bit by concluding with a twist on the usual apocalyptic devastation.

While Ragnarok’s story is mostly superhero boilerplate, the screenplay does subject the characters to a bit more ruin and bloodshed than one might expect. Over the course of the film, the God of Thunder is not merely enslaved, pummeled, humiliated, and stripped of his legendary weapon—he's permanently disfigured by Hela’s enchanted blades. (He's also repeatedly and painfully electrocuted by his captors, which doesn't make a lot of sense for a thunder deity.) It’s bold but dramatically sensible to reduce a celestial champion like Thor to such a vulnerable state, forever robbing him of both his defining possession and his physical flawlessness. Early in the film, Hela’s brutality is conclusively demonstrated by the offhanded way she fatally dispatches Asgard’s ‘Warriors Three’: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Zachary Levi), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). Hogun is at least afforded an opportunity to stand and fight—perhaps as compensation for his marginal role in The Dark World—but the others barely get a line in before they perish. (Fortunately, Lady Sif is nowhere to be found, so she at least is spared a similarly cruel end.)

Ultimately, the most unexpected and intriguing element that crops up in Ragnarok is its theme of forgotten imperial horror, as embodied in the bloody saga of Asgardian conquest that Odin had sought to erase from history. (Perhaps coincidentally, Waititi is the first MCU director of indigenous descent.) Beneath Asgard's enchanted frescoes of valorous deeds is a nastier narrative in which the Allfather and Hela rampaged through the cosmos, dominating entire worlds. For all her wickedness, Hela seems more clear-eyed than the heroes when she gestures to the gilded vastness of Asgard’s throne room, scoffing “Where did you think all this gold came from?” Indeed, Ragnarok partly concerns Thor’s overdue need to reckon with the formative atrocity and plunder that made his father’s kingdom possible. Finally face-to-face with this suppressed and shameful history of violent subjugation, it’s perhaps understandable that the hot-blooded deity’s reaction is one of anarchic revulsion: Burn it all down.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

October 26, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

After All It Was a Great Big World

2017 / USA / Dir. by Sean Baker / Opens in limited release on October 6, 2017; locally on October 27, 2017

The lyrics to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1976 single “American Girl” contain references to the heartache and recklessness of young adulthood, but the song could easily describe the life of Moonee, the precocious 6-year-old heroine of The Florida Project. Petty might have been singing about lost love, but “something that’s so close is still so far out reach,” describes the living situation of Moonee (one-in-a-million newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) at the Magic Castle Motel. Situated on a shabby commercial strip just outside of Walt Disney World, the motel limps along on a mixture of impoverished long-term residents and hoodwinked tourists, the latter having mistaken the Castle for an official Mickey-approved establishment. The metaphor is a brassy one—a flophouse of broken dreams squatting in the literal shadow of Disney World—but The Florida Project works so well because director Sean Baker (Tangerine) leaves the Magic Castle’s pendulous symbolism well enough alone, focusing instead on an intricate, sensitive depiction of life on society’s margins.

The Castle is certainly a vivid backdrop for such portraiture. Recently painted in startling shades of wisteria and violet, the motel is a setting seemingly plucked from one of Carl Hiaasan’s farcical Florida crime novels and then wrung of its zaniness. Baker’s vision of the Sunshine State is more attuned than Hiaasan’s to the warmth and heartbreak beneath the kitsch, and more committed to the realistic portrayal of a vagabond-ish strain of American poverty. The Castle is home to a handful of colorful characters, such as topless sunbathing senior Gloria (Sandy Kane), but most of its residents appear to be rootless, riven families: single mothers, step-parents, grandparents, cousins, and various second-hand caregivers, all of them trailing restless children. Theirs is a world of hot plate meals, broken washing machines, and fevered, small-time hustles that will (hopefully) cover the week’s rent. It’s better than living on the streets, but still a perilously unstable existence, one exacerbated by the unavoidable sight of well-heeled tourists on their way to the Happiest Place on Earth.

Fortunately, the sassy, mischievous Moonee is largely untouched by the anxiety and bitterness that looms over the Magic Castle’s adult tenants. The story of The Florida Project is not told exclusively from the girl’s viewpoint, but her unabashed gleefulness is the film’s Pole Star, the glimmering landmark that Baker steadily maintains in sight. The Castle and the surrounding strip of tacky gift shops, fast food joints, and other run-down motels aren’t merely a temporary home to Moonee. They are also an endless source of adventure and delight. Other children might grumble at the prospect of peddling knock-off perfume to tourists, or fetching stolen take-out from the waffle shack for dinner. Not Moonee, who embraces such tasks with the same enthusiasm she exhibits when manically dancing to hip hop, pouting for ‘bikini selfies’ with her mom, or cheerfully bossing around her peers.

Admittedly, the girl’s endless shenanigans at times veer into troubling behavior, including spitting on cars, starting fires, and shutting off the motel’s electricity. To Moonee, however, it’s all just good summer fun. She might be an incorrigible trouble-maker, but she doesn’t have a malicious bone in her fidgety body. Indeed, the car-spitting victim eventually comes to enjoy the girl’s bubbly company, and Moonee swiftly claims the woman’s granddaughter, Jancey (Valeria Cotto) as her new best friend. Not that Jancey has much say in the matter; Moonee is accustomed to getting her way by steamrolling everyone with her delirious energy.

Moonee also has a mouth on her, as they say, a trait she shares with her volatile mother. To the extent that The Florida Project has a plot beyond Moonee’s pleasantly aimless summer escapades in and around the motel, it is concerned with Halley’s endless, demoralizing efforts to scrape together rent money by any means necessary. Eventually, Halley’s desperation—and the enormous chip she carries on her shoulder—jeopardize her and Moonee’s already-flimsy situation, attracting the ruinous attention of the state child protection agency. Baker’s handling of this descent into familial calamity is consistently deft and believable, although he often flirts with a disagreeable strain of poor white trash miserablism. Halley is a fascinating character, but also wearying due to her mercurial behavior and her plasma-hot hostility to everyone around her. Fellow long-term Castle tenant Ashley (Mela Murder) seems to be Halley’s closest friend, but when Ashley warns her young son not to play with Moonee, an enraged Halley turns on a dime and brutally assaults the woman.

The contrast between Halley’s prickly paranoia and Moonee’s spirited openness is so sharp, Baker almost seems to be inviting uncertainty about whether they are truly mother and daughter in the biological sense. However, the film ultimately moots such suspicions through its depiction of the untrammeled joy that the pair experience in one another’s company. It’s only with Moonee that Halley’s razor-studded defenses drop, permitting a glimpse of the unconditional maternal love that swells in her heart. The little girl’s unassailably sunny demeanor seems to open the door for Halley’s six-year-old self, allowing her to savor the present moment without her usual cocktail of rage, regret, and resentment. Their mother-daughter tomfoolery isn’t exactly mature—after gleaning a few hundred bucks from a Disney ticket scam, they blow the sum on frivolous dollar store junk—but it’s preferable to the sophomoric misanthropy that Halley exhibits with everyone else.

The most conspicuous of Halley’s frenemies is the Magic Castle’s weary, weather-beaten manager Bobby (a sublime Willem Dafoe), who runs the motel with a scruffy blend of Old Testament sternness and New Testament kindness. He humorlessly enforces the Castle’s policies, harangues the neglectful residents for late rent, and struggles to keep up with maintenance problems ranging from a malfunctioning ice machine to a bedbug infestation. Bobby has a good heart, however, which invites a paternal lenience for rule-breakers and a tendency to go the extra mile for the guests. The motel is obliged to expel tenants every few weeks to prevent them from establishing permanent residency, but Bobby routinely helps Halley move her possessions to an empty room so that she can vacate the premises for 24 hours to reset the clock. When a suspicious old man unctuously chats up a group of the motel’s children, Bobby sizes him up as a pedophile and smoothly strong-arms the creep off the property. Moonee is consistently a thorn in the manager’s side, but beneath Bobby’s glower at the sight of melted ice cream on his lobby floor, one can discern his deep affection for the girl.

Moonee is the film’s spiritual center, but The Florida Project 's three protagonists each of bring a different tone to the story. Moonee’s adventures are infused with raw jubilance; Halley’s downward spiral is riddled with agony and loathing; and Bobby’s sad-sack labors blend melancholy with notes of human warmth. It’s no accident that these three characters embody three distinct phases of life. In some sense, The Florida Project is a multi-generational study in how people deal with failure and disappointment: the giddy obliviousness of childhood; the volcanic angst of young adulthood; and the more thoughtful regret and acceptance that arrive late in life. The modest miracle of the film is that these three separate registers never create any sort of tonal dissonance. Baker gracefully juggles the story’s disparate temperaments, even mingling them when narratively appropriately. When Halley takes Moonee for an illicit complimentary breakfast at a swanky hotel, for example, the anxiousness engendered by the pair’s crime is soothed by Halley’s palpable adoration as she watches her daughter delightedly wolf down waffles.

Mood notwithstanding, all this flitting between the three primary characters does result in an unfortunate narrative awkwardness that Baker is never quite able to resolve. If The Florida Project has one conspicuous flaw, it’s that the film’s generous attentiveness to Halley and Bobby’s subplots so often feel like a sheepish effort to offset the dearth of plot in Moonee’s tale. This is a silly concern, of course. Plenty of great films have explored the experience of childhood from a more languid, subjective stance where brisk pacing is less critical than the emotional contours of the story (The Red Balloon, The 400 Blows, The Spirit of the Beehive, George Washington). Moreover, there’s no reason that the absurd, Sisyphean upkeep of the Magic Castle (or the motel’s underbelly of festering scuzziness) couldn’t be conveyed through the lens of Moonee’s experience. Baker’s adept handling of the multiple tones aside, it seems like a needless structural complication to frame Halley and Bobby as de facto co-leads with a kindergartener.

Truthfully, Moonee’s sequences are sufficiently strong on their own that one is left wondering why the film doesn’t adhere exclusively to her point of view. Certainly, the formal and storytelling choices Baker makes suggest such an approach. Moonee’s scenes are generally shot close to the ground, often from a low angle, approximating the literal viewpoint of a six-year-old. Baker frequently exhibits a coyness with respect to sex and violence that suggests a child’s oblique, semi-ignorant viewpoint. It takes two or three prolonged, repeated shots of Moonee happily playing in the tub for it to become apparent that the girl is sequestered to a bubble bath whenever her mother is servicing a john. There’s a nagging sensation that Baker knew how to make a grown-up film from a kid’s viewpoint, but lost his nerve.

These are relatively small storytelling quibbles, however. They are definitively outshone by the film’s merits: the distilled joy that characterizes Moonee’s hijinks; the gaudy landscape of crumbling tourist eyesores; and the discerning portrayal of poverty that is just shy of homelessness. The Florida Project isn’t an overtly political film, but in the present age of class warfare and Trumpian callousness, there’s an understated radicalism in simply showing how people manage to get by when they don’t have a working car, bank account, or permanent address. Granted, the film isn’t timid about portraying Halley as a vicious, tramp-stamped train wreck, but Baker resists the urge to gratuitously tut-tut the character. Unlike last year’s I, Daniel Blake, which rather gallingly depicted prostitution as the Worst Thing Ever, The Florida Project doesn’t specifically excoriate Halley for turning to sex work to keep her child in food, clothes, and shelter. Rather, it indicts her for being an odious gorgon to everyone she encounters, even people who are sympatric to her tribulations.

In the end, what resonates most about The Florida Project are the details, such as the amusingly cumbersome and protracted process of moving a broken ice machine down a hallway and into an elevator. Or the enormous plaster wizard, star-spangled and gray-bearded, that grins down maniacally from the roof of a nearby gift shop. Or the delirious pleasure that Moonee and Jancey glean from a loaf of broad and jar of jelly passed out by a Christian food pantry. Indeed, the most durable and compelling aspect of The Florida Project is its portrayal of the way that children create their own happiness, constructing a fantasy kingdom from the banal features of their immediate surroundings, whatever that environment might be. For Moonee, the Magic Castle isn’t the last ditch stop on the road to foster care or outright homelessness. It’s a marvelous Adventureland, where she is at once a princess, knight, explorer, clown, and mastermind.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt