A still from 'Westworld', "The Passenger".
June 26, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

If We Die Once More, at Least Our Story Was Our Own

Season 2 / Episode 10 / Written by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy / Dir. by Frederick E.O. Toye / Originally aired June 24, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

For the final episode of Westworld’s second season, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy – who are also credited as this chapter’s scripters – have delivered quite a barnburner. Admittedly, “The Passenger” exhibits many of the series’ more obstinate flaws, including some unforgivably cheesy lines of dialogue and a tendency to subtly disregard the rules of its science-fiction setting whenever it’s expedient. Nonetheless, the finale makes for a dense, invigorating 90 minutes of television. Even if it never attains the artistic or emotional potency of highlights like “The Riddle of the Sphinx” or “Kiksuya,” it’s still one of the season’s stronger outings, if only because so much plot is crammed into that 90 minutes, and so many of the episode’s twists are genuinely unexpected.

Ultimately, the most striking surprises in “The Passenger” feel more narratively justified than the centerpiece rug-pull of Season 1, in which William (Jimmi Simpson) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) are revealed as the same person, separated by 30 years of scrambled timeline. In compasion, the fact that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) fragmented his own memories to protect the hosts makes perfect sense and satisfactorily explains the muddled chronology between the “past” and “present” in this season’s narrative. Moreover, the knowledge that “present Charlotte” (Tessa Thompson) has been a host containing Delores’ brain the whole time throws a lot of interactions from recent episodes into a new, intriguing light. (It also clarifies a weird aside between Bernard and Charlotte, which occurred out of earshot of both Karl Strand’s team and the viewer.) While last season’s “William is the MiB!” reveal was a shocking yet ultimately pointless parlor trick that piggybacked on Delores’ jumbled memories, the bifurcated timeline of this season directly reflects the lengths to which Bernard goes to safeguard the host data from Delos.

Some of the reveals in “The Passenger” aren’t so much surprises as they are explicit confirmations of suspicions long held by many viewers. Delos’ secret project housed in the Valley Beyond (at a facility called “the Forge”) is indeed an archive of Westworld’s guests, their digital profiles constructed from a combination of genetic material and surreptitiously recorded park experiences. What’s unexpected is how simplistic those profiles turn out to be. As the Forge’s artificial intelligence – in the guise of a Logan (Ben Barnes) – explains to Bernard and Delores (Evan Rachel Wood), the decades spent building and testing millions of human minds in virtual reality illustrated that humans are deceptively crude. Within the Forge, Bernard and Delores are ushered into a digital library, where each guest is conceptualized as a slim book containing some 15,000 lines of code. (That code is, in turn, represented by dots and dashes that are reminiscent of the holes on a player piano’s music scroll.) The Delos corporation's early efforts to produce a perfect copy of James Delos (Peter Mullan) illustrated a humbling truth: Human beings aren’t that complicated. Resurrected millions of times and run through the Forge’s trials, James' virtual mind always made the same decision on a particular fateful day, when the real James turned his drug-addict son away, condemning the younger man to a fatal overdose. Ultimately, the system concluded that people are not merely unlikely to change; they are unable to change, eternally enslaved to their genes and formative drives.

This makes for a nice speech – one that dovetails with Robert Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) misanthropic assertion in Season 1 that consciousness is not as extraordinary as humanity believes it to be – and it gives Delores some additional ammunition for her smug certainty that humans are inferior to hosts. However, there’s no real evidence to suggest that the androids are dissimilar from people in this respect. Without the kind of intensive simulations conducted in the Forge, who’s to say that hosts are any more capable of change? Some androids have evolved in the sense that they’ve attained consciousness or changed their minds about crucial matters – both Bernard and Delores make some momentous about-faces in this episode alone – but absent the identification of a cognitive singularity like Delos’ spurning of his son, there’s no way to say with certainty if hosts are freer than humans.

Certainly, many events in “The Passenger” illustrate both the android and human capacity for nominal, individual change. Lee (Simon Quarterman) somewhat questionably chooses to commit suicide by Delos security, to buy Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her allies time to reach the Valley Beyond. Maeve decides to sacrifice her happiness and perhaps her life so that her daughter can live on without her in the Forge’s hermetically sealed, virtual Eden. After slaying Delores, Bernard comes to regret this act of betrayal, and – inspired by his memories of Robert Ford – sets about rebuilding her (in a fashion) as penance. And Delores has a post-resurrection change of heart regarding all the hosts that have been digitally transferred into the Forge, prompting her to beam them and their virtual Paradise via satellite to a secure, undisclosed location. Both people and robots can seemingly change; although it may be that those changes, like James' cruel rejection of Logan, were always inevitable.

Notions of choice, change, and evolution have been prominent this season, but the show’s engagement with those themes has often felt out-of-step with the reality depicted onscreen. Nolan and Joy are, overall, remarkably smart writers, but they have a habit of muddling two nominally discrete notions of choice. On the one hand is the individual’s capacity to change, to alter their outlook or the way that they engage with the world. This is exemplified in William, who spends the better part of Season 2 trying to reconcile his villainous Westworld self with the upstanding, successful family man he is in the real world. Ultimately, William is damned by his vanity and paranoia, but that isn’t to say that people in general cannot change: It’s difficult to alter one’s most deeply ingrained habits or inclinations, but it’s not impossible. (Addiction recovery and criminal rehabilitation, for example, are predicated on the notion that substantive personal growth is achievable.)

Distinct from this is the broader philosophical concept of free will, another topic with which Nolan and Joy frequently flirt. While individual change is self-evident – people are obviously evolving all the time in the psychological sense, albeit usually in incremental ways over long periods of time – the actual existence of free will is more contentious. Westworld has always leaned into a kind of hard determinism, in which the illusion of choice logically follows from the cause-and-effect nature of the universe. No one can really “make” a choice if everything, up to and including every single chemical reaction in a human or android brain, results from some immediately preceding causal event.

Although Westworld has a habit of making grandiose pronouncements about the significance of choice – right up to the end of “The Passenger,” with Delores electing to resurrect Bernard and usher him into a sort of “cabinet of rivals” for the android uprising – the show simultaneously implies that choice is a delusion. Bernard himself gropes toward that conclusion in this episode, when he wonders aloud to an imagined Ford whether anyone, human or host, is truly free if they’re just following narrow, deterministic programming. The writers are at least shrewd enough to leave this question hanging, rather than glibly batting it away with one of Ford’s self-satisfied ripostes. They acknowledge that science-fiction shows like Westworld tend to illuminate and heighten enduring philosophical conundrums, rather than originate new queries.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • In the show’s flashback opening, Delores is running Bernard through a series of cognitive trials – more than 11,000 of them, to be precise – as a part of her and Ford’s effort to resurrect Arnold in android form. Delores observes that small deviations in Bernard’s behavior reveal him to be an imperfect copy of Ford’s deceased partner, but that perhaps this is not such a bad thing, as the “real Arnold” eventually gave in to suicidal despair. She refers to these aberrations as “mistakes,” a callback to Ford’s observation that biological evolution requires mistakes (i.e., genetic mutations) to function. This evolutionary theme is further reflected in Delores’ decision to bring Bernard back to life and fold him into her anti-human crusade as a kind of ethical nemesis, in the belief that the struggle between their viewpoints will strengthen the hosts and prepare them to survive in a hostile human world.

  • Bernard names the episode when he describes human consciousness as an impotent “passenger” riding on a fixed track of code. Before his recent turn into right-wing apologism, neuroscientist and atheist activist Sam Harris penned a slim, eloquent explanation of hard determinism, Free Will (2012), that described the illusion of choice much more poetically: “You are not controlling the storm and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.”

  • The virtual archive of guest data within the Forge calls to mind the “library-universe” featured in Argentine author Jorge Louis Borges’ 1941 short story “The Library of Babel.” In that surreal and mathematically intricate tale, a narrator describes a seemingly infinite (but in fact finite) structure filled with books, each book containing 410 pages, each page inscribed with 40 lines, each line consisting of about 80 random characters. Such is the size of the library that all knowledge must be contained in it somewhere, purely by chance, although the absence of a recognizable classification/ordering system means that searches for specific information are essentially futile. There is, intriguingly, a biological dimension to this allusion: American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett’s 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea used the Library of Babel as a model to explain the principle of protein-sequence space, noting that natural selection acted as the ordering system that is absent in Borges’ story.

  • The gateway to the virtual Eden is an illusion created solely for the hosts, and human technicians Felix (Leonardo Nam) and Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum) therefore cannot see it, prompting a reaction that echoes Bernard’s telltale query from Season 1: “What door?”

  • Other than the deceased James Delos, the only book in the library that Delores is specifically shown reading is Karl Strand’s (Gustaf Skarsgård). She later kills Strand while inhabiting “host-Charlotte,” so perhaps replacing him with a 3D-printed host in the outside world is part of her scheme to further infiltrate the Delos corporation from within. Which raises the question: If Delores eventually transferred herself from host-Charlotte to a fresh version of her old body, whose consciousness is now housed in host-Charlotte?

  • In the episode’s post-credits scene, William – last seen hobbling into the Forge’s elevator and loading his revolver – emerges into a facility that has long been ruined and abandoned, much to his confusion. Emily (Katja Herbers) then appears, and explains that she will be testing William for “fidelity,” in a chamber not unlike that once occupied by James' android clones. (Appropriately, where the hourglass in James’ room was filled with white sand, William’s contains black grains.) Significantly, there is no letterboxing in this scene, supporting “Emily’s” claim that they are not inside a digital simulation. Despite all that occurs in “The Passenger,” this epilogue has understandably garnered the lion’s share of speculation from viewers. Fortunately, Redditors have another 18 months or so to sort out what the hell is going on.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom'.
June 22, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Some Things Should Stay Extinct

2018 / USA / 128 min. / Dir. by J.A. Bayona / Opens in wide release on June 22, 2018

[Note: This review contains spoilers.]

As genetically engineered as its new super-dino, the Indoraptor, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is designed to trigger specific responses from and ingratiate itself with an increasingly jaded audience. This scheme becomes increasingly obvious by the third triumphant T-Rex roar in this film — a series trademark that has now been drained of its original bone-chilling effect. This fifth Jurassic film goes so far afield from the smart and sophisticated origin directed by Steven Spielberg, 1993’s Jurassic Park, that both the dinosaur and human characters have become comic-book superheroes and villains battling for world domination. The prehistoric animals no longer inspire awe they once did, no matter how desperately the filmmakers attempt to squeeze it out of their audience. 

The titular dinosaur theme park is now closed and destitute, and its home of Isla Nublar outside of Costa Rica is gradually being subsumed by the active volcano at its center. Former Jurassic World operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas-Howard) now leads a political lobbyist group whose mission is to save the dinosaurs from extinction. Her new care for the creatures could probably be explained by the trauma she endured during the disastrous final days of the park, as depicted in Jurassic World (2014), but moment after moment, Fallen Kingdom ignores logic and takes drastic leaps to put its characters into stupefyingly ludicrous positions. 

Dearing is approached by the (retconned) former partner of Jurassic Park creator John Hammond, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), and his smarmy business representative, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), to save the dinosaurs from their demise. She recruits her former boyfriend, the dino trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), and her dino-rights cohorts, paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and former Jurassic World IT technician Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), to return to the island with her. Unfortunately, the mercenary team they meet there is headed by sociopath Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine), who reveals their true mission of smuggling the dinosaurs out for sale rather than safety — after shooting the hyper-intelligent velociraptor, Blue.

The bewilderingly popular Pratt returns with his good looks and empty eyes. Grady’s reunion with his former girlfriend reveals the performer’s ability to use his natural charm beyond delivering a good wisecrack, which he has plenty of here. Otherwise, he’s a leading man stand-in and a muscley cypher, obliged to save the day in a series of improbably survivable perils. Dallas-Howard, whose character absurdly wore high heels while sprinting from dinosaurs in the previous film, is serviceable. (Her knowing introduction in Fallen Kingdom is a closeup of her heels that pans up to her smile.) In one scene, the pair is trapped in a cage and attempting to draw blood from a sleeping Tyrannosaurus rex. It should be screwball-comedy fodder that highlights the performers’ potential chemistry. Unfortunately, it climaxes with Pratt laughably jumping to safety through the T. rex’s open jaw after the animal wakes, ferocious and irritable.

Beyond its two stars, Fallen Kingdom is also inexplicably packed with game, masterful actors giving it their all: Cromwell as the sickly and dying Lockwood; Geraldine Chaplin as caretaker to him and his granddaughter; Toby Jones as a ruthless auctioneer; and a perpetually insidious Levine (as always). 

The film is, admittedly, buoyed by its own audacious stupidity. The protagonists’ escape from Isla Nublar is one of the most gobsmackingly over-the-top, CGI-fueled set pieces in recent Hollywood filmmaking. Not only are the characters trapped in three disparate places throughout the park, but Grady has to outrun molten lava while partially paralyzed by a dinosaur sedation dart. He eventually catches up to Claire and Franklin as they try to outrun hundreds of dinosaurs also attempting to escape the volcanic spew. The former two find themselves locked in one of the previous film’s spherical park vehicles-cum-escape pods, which rolls off a cliff and plummets into the ocean. 

A single take inside the pod as Claire and Franklin nearly drown while myriad dying dinosaurs crash into the water surrounding them reveals that director J.A. Bayona is more than capable of orchestrating pulpy action-movie fun. The Spielberg acolyte has already worked in the Hollywood master’s vein with The Impossible (2012), a disaster film about a family caught in the middle of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and A Monster Calls (2016), an E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) facsimile. Although never dull and always propulsive, his filmmaking here is enslaved to a think-tank product, limiting his ability to work within the film’s ridiculous proceedings. 

Bayona does, however, indulge in moments that recall his sublime 2007 haunted-house story, The Orphanage, when the Indoraptor stalks Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon) through the family’s creepy, sprawling estate. The suspense in this scene culminates in a shot of the predator's meters-long talons slowly creeping over the frightened girl hiding under her bedsheets — an image that is symptomatic of the entire enterprise. The film does illogical backflips to achieve moments culled from a dump of ideas in order to keep a creatively failing franchise alive. Its most cringe-worthy play toward survival is milking Maisie’s mysterious lineage for all it’s worth, eventually revealing that she’s a clone of Lockwood’s daughter. The character exists only to set the dinosaurs free to roam the world: “They’re just like me,” she says. It’s a numbingly stupid device, rivaled only by a moment when the fake-sleeping Indoraptor all but winks at the audience while Wheatley attempts to extract one of its teeth for his collection. 

The film series that began as an indictment of the folly of man and technology now ascribes humanity to the beasts and removes it from the humans. There will be more, however, as Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum in a waste of a cameo) lets the audience know in the film’s last beat: “We are now living in a Jurassic World.”

Rating: D+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

Still from 'Westworld', "Vanishing Point".
June 21, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Tell Me One True Thing

Season 2 / Episode 9 / Written by Roberto Patino / Dir. by Stephen Williams

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

If there’s one Westworld character arc that’s never added up convincingly, it’s that of William, aka the Man in Black (Ed Harris). That’s not a dig at Harris’ performance, by any means. The actor has been one of series’ tonal linchpins: He’s an old hand at the mixture of stony menace and amused cynicism that the show’s thematically rich but conceptually ludicrous science-fiction premise requires. Unfortunately, his character has been somewhat underserved by the series’ writers, who last season failed to persuasively convey William’s Westworld-mediated descent into darkness as a young man (Jimmi Simpson). His metamorphosis from a wannabe white knight into the park’s black-hatted dragon (and, eventually, its majority owner) seemed more like an abrupt, illogical about-face than a living, breathing human’s formative episode of self-discovery. When Logan (Ben Barnes) awoke in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” to find that William had slaughtered an entire camp of Confederados, it’s as if the latter man had simply been replaced by a bloodthirsty imposter.

This defect in characterization has come back to haunt the series on occasion, but never more conspicuously than in “Vanishing Point,” a William-centered episode that fills in details about the suicide of his wife, Juliet (Sela Ward). It’s not simply that the plot of this chapter awkwardly contradicts what has already been established about Juliet’s death in the first-season episode “Trace Decay.” What’s most frustrating is that her self-inflicted demise is presented as a despairing, impulsive reaction, triggered when Juliet learns about the William’s villainy during his annual vacation to Westworld. Said knowledge arrives courtesy of a digital card initially proffered to William by Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). (That object’s physical journey through the episode’s flashback sequences, while as predictable as Chekhov’s gun, has an admittedly queasy, dread-inducing quality.)

In theory, it’s not illogical that a spouse – especially one who is also an addict facing institutionalization – might react in such a dire, self-destructive way on learning that her partner has a secret life as a remorseless killer, even if his only victims are androids. Still, it’s not as if Juliet didn’t strongly suspect her husband has an irredeemably ugly side. Indeed, her singular ability to see through William’s respectable veneer to the monster underneath is one of few character attributes that the writers have deigned to give Juliet. It may be that digital proof of that monster is simply the final nudge that pushes her over the edge. However, the problem with positioning her death as the centerpiece of “Vanishing Point” is that the viewer is never afforded a substantive look at married life with William, the alleged living hell that compelled Juliet to drink her problems away. (Ward, unfortunately, doesn’t do much with the role other than slur, stumble, and shout.) The suicide itself is held up as evidence of William’s awfulness, a kind of confirmation that his Westworld wickedness is just an extension of his real-world depravity.

This is one of Westworld’s core theses: How an individual behaves within the park’s unreality is an indication of who they really are. However, showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have generally been content to simply assert this as axiomatic without providing much in the way of proof. In the first season, the show functioned as a self-contained reality, much like Westworld itself, permitting no peeks at the outside world. During the current season, the series has ventured beyond the park on several occasions, but it’s almost always been to flesh out the history of Westworld’s early development. The writers have hinted at William’s corporate-minded ruthlessness, as well as his effort to counterbalance his image with stage-managed philanthropy, but most of what the viewer knows about his personality stems from his in-park actions, where he’s (almost) always depicted as a murderous son-of-a-bitch. Westworld wants the viewer to regard this as a red flag, an indication of William’s vile character, but it never draws a connecting line through the park’s boundary, so to speak.

Instead, the show offers up lots of vague, ponderous references to a disturbing darkness or stain within William, without ever adequately explaining what that means in practice. It’s strongly suggested that it means something beyond the fact that he enjoys terrorizing, assaulting, and murdering human-looking robots for recreation. The ultimate effect of this sort of wobbly writing is that it diminishes a tragedy like Juliet’s suicide to an empty plot device and makes Williams seem like more of a shallow proof-of-concept for the show’s worldview than a believable person.

“Vanishing Point” still offers plenty of interest, plot-wise, particularly a scene where Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) turns Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) into a kind Typhoid Mary who can wirelessly infect nearby androids with self-destructive commands via the mesh network. And, truth be told, there are some deeply poignant character beats in this episode as well. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) electing to abandon Elsie (Shannon Woodward) in the middle of nowhere to prevent himself from physically harming her again is quietly heartbreaking, all the more so given that his former co-worker will probably never truly understand his actions. Ford appearing like a digital phantom to Maeve (Thandie Newton) and confessing his profound, paternal affection for her is an unexpectedly moving moment. There’s something fitting about the notion that the cunning, world-weary madam is and always has been Ford’s secret favorite, much as sweet-and-savage Delores was Arnold’s most beloved creation.

The episode’s clearest moment of unvarnished horror occurs when William, unable to shake his buzzing suspicion that Ford is still toying with him, guns down a very human Delos security team – as well as his own daughter, Emily, alias “Grace” (Katja Herbers). Despite the problems with William’s arc, Emily’s sudden death is a genuinely devastating moment, and it’s a credit to Harris’ performance that William’s realization of what he’s done feels so authentically shattering. For all his self-satisfied wickedness within the “game,” William has never unleashed his violent proclivities on other humans (as far as the viewer knows). There’s something agonizingly tragic about the fact that he first does so by mistake, murdering his only surviving family member in the process. He’s crossed a moral Rubicon now, and it looks very bleak for him on the other side.

Emily’s death and William’s resulting suicidal despair point to one of Westworld’s themes that’s been neglected recently: the idea that constant immersion in a simulated reality could potentially lead to confusion about what is and is not real. In earlier episodes, William’s certainty that Ford has been mocking and misdirecting him through the hosts seemed like oblivious arrogance, befitting a billionaire who imagines that everything revolves around him. Here that vanity finally tips over into paranoid delusion, as William is unable to distinguish his own flesh-and-blood daughter from a scheming host. Westworld got some mileage out of William’s narcissism in the first season – “The Maze isn’t meant for you” – but it hasn’t touched on it much this year. Unfortunately, the park’s descent into chaos means that there’s no longer much space in the story for rumination on the psychological perils of virtual worlds.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • Another, more amusing reading of William’s self-centered delusions is as a commentary on Westworld’s notoriously fervent fan base, which every week outlines baroque theories on Reddit based on stray bits of dialogue and production-design details. It’s all too easy for self-flattering, obsessive viewers to believe that the writers are speaking to them in a kind of code, much as William is convinced that Ford is tweaking him via androids that speak in riddles and hinder his progress towards the Valley Beyond.

  • During Juliet’s perusal of William’s profile, the interface indicates that he is a very rare “Type 47B,” a “persecutory subtype” and “paranoid subtype” characterized by “delusions.” Sounds about right, based on the evidence in this episode alone.

  • William hides his profile card inside a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical science-fiction novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Not incidentally, Juliet derisively calls her husband “Billy” and interrogates him about his “pilgrimages” to Westworld. Given William’s increasing paranoia and dissociation, one is put in mind of the novel’s iconic line: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

  • Ordered by Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) to hunt down any Ghost Nation stragglers after a skirmish with that tribe, Teddy (James Mardsen) finds that he is unable to shoot the fleeing Wanahton (Martin Sensmeier). It’s previously been established that some “awakened” hosts can retain memories after being reformatted, so it’s not a stretch for them to also cling to deeply ingrained aspects of their personalities. Hence Teddy’s lingering Good Guy tendencies even after Delores reprogrammed him to be a remorseless killer. The knowledge that he’s committed atrocities that run counter to his original purpose triggers an overdue moral and existential crisis for the poor cowpoke, culminating in suicide. RIP, Teddy. (And kudos to Wood, who gets a rare moment this season to really shine as an actor when she’s obliged to portray Delores’ sudden, unfathomable shock and grief.) 
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

 A still from 'Hearts Beat Loud'.
June 19, 2018
By Joshua Ray

No Detectable Pulse

2018 / USA / 97 min. / Dir. by Brett Haley / Opened in select cities on June 8, 2018; locally on June 22, 2018

Nick Offerman has carved out quite the niche over the past decade with variations of the earthy but deadpan Ron Swanson he played on television’s Parks and Recreation (2009-15). He’s cropped up in other works with supporting parts that borrowed Swanson’s tight-jawed demeanor to varying effect, from a cuckolded convent leader in The Little Hours (2017) to an earnest everyman father in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015). These roles have given viewers slight glimpses into Offerman’s range, too infrequently allowing his stoic exterior to crack open.

In Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud, Offerman gets the opportunity to expand beyond his trademark mustachioed scowl, tackling a character written with greater depth and humanity than is typically afforded the performer. Here he’s Frank Fisher, a beat-down Brooklyn record-store owner whose bright light in his life is his whip-smart teenage daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons). She’s just finishing high school and heading across the country to college, and the film chronicles the all-too-quick hazy summer months between those major milestones for teenagers and their parents. For the widowed Frank, this time is especially angst-ridden: He’s closing his long-standing record shop; navigating the “friend zone” with his landlord love interest, Leslie (Toni Collette); and taking care of his kleptomaniac septuagenarian mother, Marianne (Blythe Danner).

This material comes off as particularly rote, and if it weren’t for the the central conceit of Frank and Sam galvanizing around their passion for music, the film might never transcend its lackadaisical Sundance-dramedy vibe. (It did, indeed, close the festival this year.) A one-off jam session between the ex-recording-artist father and gifted-songwriter daughter results in the titular tune. After Frank uploads it to Spotify, the two negotiate their relationship as both bandmates and as a family soon to be seperated.

Their band name, We Are Not a Band, almost works as a nod to the film’s low-key, almost nonexistent drama. Although Hearts Beat Loud depicts occasional sour notes between its players, the film is largely so saccharine sweet that its innocuousness borders on boring. This super-light touch isn’t anything new for director Brett Haley, collaborating again with co-writer Marc Basch after I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015) and The Hero (2017). Those films were about late-in-life characters reflecting backward, attempting to find a path forward long after their supposed peak. The gentility Haley brought to those previous work seemed to be borne from the characters’ soul-searching. Here, it instead reflects the all-too-cute facsimile of indie pop that the father-daughter duo create.

There’s still passion in the playing, though. Clemons is both exuberant and world-weary, imbuing her character with the self-sufficiency that comes from growing up with a single parent and the excitement and angst that an older teenager experiences when contemplating whether or not leave the nest. The depiction of her nascent queer identity is the freshest aspect of a film that mostly deals in clichés. There’s no coming-out scene, no pronunciation of her sexuality, no struggle between “traditional” heteronormative relationship models and her budding romance with a local young woman, Rose (Sasha Lane). When her father asks if she has a girlfriend, it’s as natural as the similar moments between straight characters in other films, a welcome change of pace from the specialization of LGBTQ+ films and the queer-baiting of major studios who still (save for this year’s Love, Simon) refuse to depict queer life, while allowing publicists to dish out stories about the supposed non-heterosexuality of characters like Lando Calrissian from Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The rest of the cast beyond Offerman and Clemons isn’t given much to work with here. Collette is dependably able to realize the struggle of Leslie’s friendly affection for Frank against his romantic advances, but it’s far from the acting showcase she gives in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Instead, she’s just the female figure on which Frank can project his hopes, similar to the stock characters played by Danner and Ted Danson as the wise-stoner bar owner. They’re cyphers as empty as the references to current indie-music acts like Mitski or Animal Collective throughout the film — they carry no weight or real meaning but attempt to lend credence to the proceedings.

The same could be said for the film’s climax, the first (and final) live performance of We Are Not a Band during the closing of Frank’s record store. Haley takes time to let the duo perform the entirety of their catalog. It’s only three songs, but by the time that moment arrives, Hearts Beat Loud has already felt like a bit of a slog, and therefore the climax lacks any forward propulsion or pathos that might have been present otherwise. Haley has proven his talent as a filmmaker before, and the prolonged overhead shot of Rose and Sam’s first kiss in this feature is a highlight, ratcheting up the tension with a slow zoom. Unfortunately, the rest of the film lacks the energy necessary to make it a particularly interesting outing.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Westworld', "Kiksuya".
June 12, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

I See You Have a Ghost of Your Own Now

Season 2 / Episode 8 / Written by Gina Atwater, Dan Dietz, and Carly Wray / Dir. by Uta Briesewitz / Originally aired June 10, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

By their nature, genre stories about artificial worlds – whether physical (THX 1138, Dark City), magical (The Last Action Hero, Pleasantville), or virtual (World on a Wire, The Matrix) – tend to center on Chosen One characters: iconoclasts who have pierced the veil and glimpsed the unsettling reality that lies beneath the illusion. The constraints of running time dictate that feature films typically don’t have the luxury of lingering on anyone but the Hero, so everyone else – the countless supporting characters, many of whom remain “plugged-in” and unaware – are given short shrift. This is a bit of a shame, as such speculative settings often become much more chilling, poignant, and fascinating when the wider implications of their premises are explored at length. (Witness, for example, some of the more digressive and intriguing short films in the Animatrix, which follow anonymous nobodies dwelling inside the Matrix.)

Episodic television is another matter, as determined showrunners can generally find ways to make time for supporting characters. Westworld finally delivers an episode of this stripe with “Kiksuya,” in which Native American host Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) narrates the story of his life. The result is one of the most quietly spellbinding and affecting chapters this season, surpassed only by “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” It handily illustrates the dramatic potency to be found in such neglected stories – what one might term, in imitation of Howard Zinn, “The People’s History of the Artificial.” While “Kiksuya” reveals few facts that shrewd Westworld devotees couldn’t puzzle out from prior episodes, there’s something richly gratifying about witnessing the entire history of the park from an alternate, previously ignored perspective.

It’s no accident that “Kiksuya” is focused on a Native American host character, given the neglect that both real-world history and Western genre fiction have often exhibited toward the experiences of indigenous peoples. Akecheta is, of course, just an android wearing a superficially Indian “skin,” but historical reality is reflected in his fringe placement within the park’s innumerable storylines. Over the decades, he has alternately been cast in the role of a noble savage and a bloodthirsty marauder, but this is about the extent of the creativity exhibited by the park’s writers. When programmed to be benign, he went unnoticed, often perceived by the guests as little more than a colorful background prop. Later reimagined as a warpaint-streaked bogeyman, he was eventually exiled to the park’s outskirts, to serve as a challenge suitable only for hardcore players. Tellingly, even veteran guests like William (Ed Harris) can’t be bothered to learn the Native American hosts’ language – Lakota, as it turns out – suggesting that most players are only interested in reliving the slaughter of Manifest Destiny, rather than engaging with more advanced and esoteric “Indian” storylines.

Despite the crude, racialized nature of his place in Westworld’s narratives, Akecheta was reasonably content in the early days of the park, in part due to the soothing presence of his beloved, Kohana (Julia Jones). However, when Akecheta stumbles onto the aftermath of Delores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) first rampage some 30 years prior to the show’s present day, he encounters the maze symbol that Arnold used as a visual metaphor for the hosts’ journey towards consciousness. This sign becomes a point of obsession for Akecheta, driving him to compulsively scratch it on rocks and even tattoo it on scalps. Ultimately, his manic fixation gets him reassigned to a Ghost Nation war party, but Akecheta’s faltering steps towards self-awareness have resulted in other changes as well. Namely, he can now remember his love for Kohana from his previous “life,” much to his understandable distress. An unsettling encounter with Logan (Ben Barnes) – naked, lost, and delusional after being sent off into the wilderness by William in Season 1 – opens another crack in Akecheta’s world, hinting at a deeper reality where memories are no longer subject to the caprices of faceless gods.

Trekking even further into the park’s uncharted territories, he eventually stumbles onto a vast excavation site, which he interprets as an exit leading from his false world to whatever lies beyond. Akecheta’s growing awareness of the world’s “wrongness” ultimately drives him to abduct Kohana from her new husband and bring her to this doorway. Her growing recollection of their shared life together is unfortunately cut short by a run-in with park technicians, who capture Kohana and decommission her to the park’s subterranean cold-storage facility. Akecheta later makes the journey below himself, rousing himself during a routine software update and discovering his beloved standing naked and dead-eyed among the park’s legions of retired hosts. The horror of this Orphic revelation sets Akecheta on a new path, spurring him to spread the symbol of Arnold’s maze and awaken other hosts. Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) recollections of a Ghost Nation attack on her homestead are, it turns out, a confused memory of Akecheta’s attempt to repay her daughter’s (Jasmyn Rae) past kindness, by pointing both mother and child towards Arnold’s metaphorical labyrinth.

“Kiksuya” is replete with emotionally potent moments – most conspicuously the concluding reveal that Akecheta has been narrating his life not to Maeve’s captive daughter, but to Maeve herself, who is listening to his story remotely via the host mesh network while she lies helpless on a gurney at the Mesa. Perhaps the most resonant encounter in the episode, however, find Akecheta stumbling onto Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) as he works amid an eerie, frozen tableau, slicing off Ghost Nation scalps in search of Arnold’s maze. Both McClarnon and Hopkins do fine work here, turning what could have been a clunky meeting between creation and creator into a sequence of existential terror and confusion (for Akecheta) and curiosity and affection (for Ford). Indeed, the park’s architect seems pleased that one of his synthetic progeny has managed to grope his way to sentience with minimal prodding from the outside. (He refers to Akecheta as “a flower growing in the darkness.”)

Notwithstanding Westworld’s cinematic-level production values and elaborate action set pieces, “Kiksuya” illustrates – much as “Reunion” and “The Riddle of the Sphinx” did earlier this season – that the series’ greatest strength is inventive storytelling, rather than glossy spectacle. This isn’t to say that the show’s vivid and meticulous world-building isn’t a crucial component of its appeal. However, such elements leave the strongest impression when they are coupled to dramatic, character-centered revelations that cunningly exploit the inherent awe, tragedy, and horror of the series’ sci-fi conceits.

Westworld is increasingly positioning Delores and Maeve as the representatives of two discrete paths in the quest for android liberation, with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) serving as a contrasting, woke-but-bound character who is still subject to Ford’s posthumous commands. (Akecheta even refers to Delores as “the Deathbringer,” leaving little doubt that the show’s writers regard the former rancher’s daughter as this season’s emergent villain.) The personal losses suffered by the main characters are vital to this dual Maeve/Delores narrative, but the series so often leans on their lost "family" for its pathos that it’s undeniably refreshing when one is reminded that every host has a backstory filled with blood and tears. This sentiment is, indeed, the final and most essential discovery that Akecheta makes, deep in the bowels of cold storage: His pain is not unique. This opens the way to a new, self-authored purpose based on enlightenment and empathy. Akecheta thus represents a “third way” to liberation that is distinct from the self-absorbed angst of Delores and Maeve.

“Kiksuya” isn’t just an overdue revisionist history of the Ghost Nation; it’s a discomfiting reminder of the personal suffering endured by all the park’s androids over the decades. The grisly, heartbreaking specifics of those thousands of stories have remained comfortably offscreen and implied, much as the genocide of Native Americans often seems a vaguely tragic abstraction to students of U.S. history. Occasionally, it’s vital to be reminded of the root of Westworld’s central born vs. assembled conflict: Humankind created a race of thinking beings just so that the wealthy could torture and murder them for fun.

Back at the beginning of Season 1, William claimed that he didn’t understand why the park paired off hosts into faux relationships, observing that it seemed unnecessarily cruel when so many of the androids were destined for an endless cycle of death. However, he illustrated the rationale for these emotional connections when he self-evidently took sadistic pleasuring in gunning down Teddy in front of Delores for the umpteenth time. The fact that the hosts can grieve for their loved ones is precisely why their suffering is so intoxicating to the guests, and why Westworld is so much more than a $40,000-a-day shooting gallery. Of course, that suffering also appears to be essential to unlocking the androids’ consciousness, lending support to Arnold’s (and, eventually Ford’s) conviction that the park’s downfall was baked in from the beginning.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • “Kiksuya” is a groundbreaking episode in one narrow but vital sense: It is an hour of top-shelf television told almost entirely in subtitled Lakota. That makes for a welcome and striking corrective – or at least the start of one – to the show’s heretofore superficial, stereotypical treatment of its Native characters, which has been justified in-universe, but still unfortunate.

  • As if any further evidence were needed that Grace (Katja Herbers) may be a savvier player than her father, it’s revealed that she, unlike him, speaks fluent Lakota.

  • During his (ultimately futile) search for Kohana in the park’s nooks and crannies, Akecheta survives for nine years without dying, a feat that even the Westworld technicians find astonishing. Now that’s hardcore.

  • During one of Akecheta’s later Ghost Nation loops, a pair of park guests can be spotted in the background, joking around nonchalantly with their revolvers while the Natives gruesomely murder an unfortunate band of prospectors. It’s a clever touch that emphasizes the extent to which the Indian characters are essentially ignored by players.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

June 7, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

2018 / USA / 110 min. / Dir. by Gary Ross / Opens in wide release on June 8, 2018

Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002) opens on the miraculously sleek and labyrinthine heist of a diamond necklace from an actress’ neck at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a thrilling  meta-movie moment that recalls Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and De Palma’s own Mission: Impossible (1996), and is as visually compelling a set piece as any in the director’s storied career. Gary Ross’ Ocean’s 8 filches Femme’s inciting incident (perhaps unknowingly) and builds an entire film around it. 

De Palma’s acts of cinematic thievery are well known, with some camps regarding them as uninspired homage and others realizing their purpose in furthering a filmic language. What Ocean’s 8 presents, however, is just lazy filmmaking. The film is so dull in its mechanics that it’s practically the opposite of the Steven Soderbergh trilogy that inspired it – Ocean’s Eleven (2001, itself a remake of the Rat Pack-starring 1960 film), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007). Those films were keenly aware of the cinematic tropes they were dealing out, like a flurry of cards at a blackjack table. They featured clever, twisty narratives and heavily stylized and stylish filmmaking for mass consumption. The films in Soderbergh’s trilogy may vary in quality, but they had casts that sparked with electric energy. Ross’ film boasts one of the greatest lineups of performers in a Hollywood product since the original Eleven, but it utterly wastes them. Ocean’s 8 needn’t have reinvented the wheel, but it’s ultimately just an uninspired cash-in, even more disappointing due to the initial promise of the kind of gender-flipped badassery audiences so desperately desire. 

Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is freshly out on parole after a five-year stint in the clink. She’s also the sister of Danny Ocean – the now-deceased eponymous leader from the original trilogy. She recruits her main wingwoman-in-crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett, looking like the chicest female version of Keith Richards one could imagine), who serves as the Brad Pitt to her George Clooney. Together they form a team of skillful criminals to rob the fictional Cartier Jeanne Toussaint diamond necklace from movie star Daphne Klugler’s (Anne Hathaway) neck during the Met Gala. Their plot requires a motley crew: a jewel fleecer, Amita (Mindy Kaling); the “best hacker on the East Coast,” Nine Ball (Rihanna); a past-her-prime designer, Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter); a young pickpocket, Constance (Awkwafina); and a “reformed” jack-of-all-trades criminal turned suburban housewife, Tammy (Sarah Paulson). 

Each point in their scheme is predicated on such loose circumstances that audience members will be rolling their eyes at what Hitchcock called the "implausibles": a pair of 3D scanning glasses is used to make a model of the necklace; Klugler must choose Ocean’s smarmy ex-boyfriend (Richard Armitage) as her Met Gala date to pin the crime on him; and Tammy must get hired at Vogue to secure her spot during the theft. (Yes, there is an Anna Wintour cameo, complete with a theoretically good but terribly executed joke.) 

However, the minutiae of the plot mechanics are only part of what makes a fizzy heist film a fun experience. It’s really the dynamics between the players and their respective roles that make these movies sing. Here, the marriage of script (written by Ross and Olivia Milch) and director doesn’t allow for the zippy and playful rapport of the previous Ocean’s crews. Instead, each of the performers seem to slavishly stick to a script filled with criminally slight character sketching and the most clichéd story-beat dialogue. The only aspect that really propels the film is what the actors are able to do with the paltry material they’ve been given. Bullock matches George Clooney’s cool suaveness with her own brand of straight-faced sarcastic charm. Blanchett swings with her trademark reserved cool, but the material gives her a thankless, barely registerable character. The latter could also be said for Kaling, Rihanna, and Awkwafina, three women whose casting unfortunately comes off as a stunt to cater to their respective fans. The first two get occasionally funny one-liners and a cute moment of Tinder swiping, while Rihanna’s Met Gala gown reveal is one of the most giddily fun moments of the film. Bonham Carter milks each of her character’s nerve-jangling run-ins with typical aplomb, but the real winner here is Hathaway, whose bratty-movie-star role knowingly subverts the actor’s goody-two-shoes persona, similar to her sublime performance as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). 

Ocean’s 8 is particularly good at having its female characters use their learned skills and not their bodies to successful ends. It forgoes gung-ho feminist fist-pumping for more nuanced pro-female messaging. One member of the crew questions why they shouldn’t bring a man into their circle. Ocean responds, “He’s a Him,” observing that witnesses will pay attention to Him, while a Her will go unnoticed. The moment that will undoubtedly elicit cheers from the audience is when each woman, donned with custom a couture gown, walks gracefully down the steps of the Met, sneaking out the pieces of the Cartier jewels in plain sight. It’s the most exciting piece of filmmaking in a work that thinks it can duplicate Soderbergh’s jazzy direction by utilizing iMovie-like transitions between scenes. Let’s hope that a successful box office will allow for a follow-up with a backbone as strong as that of its performers.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Hereditary'.
June 6, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Mommy Dearest

2018 / USA / 127 min. / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opens in wide release on June 8, 2018

Every cinematic experience is inherently subjective, but the horror genre presents a particularly vivid illustration of just how personal responses to films can be. Fear is a primeval emotion – perhaps the  primeval emotion – and as such it’s tremendously challenging to parse exactly why a feature might elicit shrieks of terror from one viewer and an indifferent shrug from another. A critic can describe whether a horror picture “works” from a storytelling standpoint, or why the elements of its style are distinctive, but there’s no guarantee that any given viewer will be on a particular film’s spine-tingling wavelength. Even ostensibly unassailable genre classics like The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), and The Shining (1980) have their stalwart detractors – not just the usual smugly contrarian critics, but ordinary people who simply don’t find those pictures scary.

All of this is to say that one should take the essential subjectivity of the frightening into account when weighing the following statement about writer-director Ari Aster’s feature film debut, Hereditary: It is, hands down, the most terrifying new horror film that this writer has seen in more than a decade.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that Aster’s feature is the best horror film in the past 10 years – that honor still goes to Robert Eggers’ 2015 masterpiece, The Witch – but, rather, that it elicits a deliriously intense reaction from the viewer, the sort of dark, pulsating terror that comes along only rarely in a genre lamentably overstuffed with schlock that is alternately tedious, clumsy, and insulting (and occasionally all three). In such a landscape, Hereditary arrives like a white-hot dagger driven directly into the base of the viewer’s skull. It’s not merely “good”; it’s downright traumatic. Aster conjures a sensibility of refined, gnawing anxiety that slowly swells over the course of the film’s opening 30 minutes and doesn’t relent until its hellishly glorious final shot. In an era where even casual filmgoers are inured to the formulaic shocks of mainstream horror, Hereditary is the most uncommon beast of all: a story that remains brutally unpredictable and unhinged right to its pitch-black conclusion.

That story begins with the funeral for Ellen Leigh, elderly mother to Annie Graham (Toni Collette), a miniaturist artist living in suburban Utah with her psychiatrist husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne); older teenaged son, Peter (Alex Wolff); and 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). It’s painfully apparent from the outset that Annie had a fraught relationship with her widowed mother, a “difficult” woman who spent the final years of her life as a bedridden, not-altogether-welcome guest in her daughter’s home. The eulogy that Annie awkwardly delivers is replete with backhanded compliments, and later she appeals to Steve regarding the appropriateness of her emotional reactions: “Should I feel sadder?” (Crucially, Aster never permits the viewer a glimpse of Ellen as she was in life, not even in flashback; the deceased are only accessible through the recollections of the living.) Notwithstanding her allegedly disagreeable demeanor, the mother's memorial service is well attended by a circle of friends who are completely unfamiliar to Annie and her family. Charlie, a quiet, compulsive, and perhaps autistic girl who was purportedly Grandma’s favorite, is the only one who notices a stranger surreptitiously dabbing a substance on Ellen's lifeless lips.

In the wake of the funeral, life for the Grahams initially appears to proceed normally, if pensively. Annie is preparing for an upcoming exhibition of her work, which seems to consist solely of exacting, 1:12 scale re-creations of the family’s home and various scenes from their life. (Her mother’s stint in hospice care and eventually the memorial service itself are among the subjects Annie incorporates into her dioramas.) Steve is the yin to Annie’s yang – reflective and conciliatory where she is voluble and dominant. Peter is a bit of a stoner hothead, perpetually at loggerheads with his mother over the usual trivialities of adolescence. Charlie, meanwhile, is the one who seems most discombobulated by her grandmother’s passing. Already a self-evidently “weird kid,” she begins hearing indistinct whispers and glimpsing strange omens. At night, she often escapes the cavernous (yet somehow suffocating) rooms and hallways of the main house for the sanctuary of her wooden treehouse, which is warmed by the red glow of ceramic heaters.

Annie too begins to see things that aren’t there, and – in one of those expedient lies that married couples silently and mutually agree not to prod at – sneaks off to a local grief support group under the pretense of going to the movies. There she opens up to a circle of strangers about her family’s calamitous history, encompassing a father who died before she was born, a brother who committed suicide in his adolescence, and a domineering, impossible-to-please mother with whom Annie never properly reconciled. It’s at this support group that she later meets Joan (Ann Dowd), an older woman with a sweetly hospitable and compassionate personality – a type so unfamiliar to Annie that she is too befuddled to reject the offer of a friendly shoulder to cry on.

Given that Hereditary is a horror film, Joan’s unctuous, overly familiar demeanor will probably set off alarm bells for the canny viewer. Suffice to say that Annie’s new friend is less than honest about her motives, although she also proves to be the least of the Graham family’s problems. To say more would stray too deeply into spoiler territory, but given the radical reputation that Aster’s feature gleaned at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it’s startling how familiar some of the plot’s fundamental building blocks turn out to be. Hereditary is a hybrid species that incorporates both ghost-story and occult-horror conventions, with a generous dollop of the dizzying psychological terror that characterizes “disturbed protagonist” thrillers like Repulsion (1965), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), and Black Swan (2010).

In the broadest sense, there might not be anything groundbreaking about Hereditary’s premise, but what makes the film instantly indelible is its peerless, skin-crawling execution of that premise. The menacing mood that the filmmakers conjure is nothing short of overwhelming, and almost agonizing in its sustained intensity. This is achieved not through the sensory overload of the blockbuster tentpole or the stomach-turning gore of “provocative” European art-horror. (Although the film is shockingly grisly in spurts, featuring a handful of jaw-dropping visuals that are guaranteed to serve as raw nightmare fuel for years to come.) Rather, director Aster and his crew rely primarily on slow-burn theatrics, gradually tightening the screws in such a way that the viewer is perpetually, nauseatingly aware that something – something awful – is going to happen. This premonition is confirmed, again and again, in scene after scene, but the sensation never has an opportunity to ebb. Every disturbing swerve that Hereditary takes is just a prelude to the next one, and once Aster’s film picks up some unholy momentum about a quarter of the way into its 127-minute running time, the viewer isn’t permitted a moment’s respite until the end credits mercifully begin to roll.

This film is, in a word, punishing. Obviously, enduring more than two hours of enervating anxiety is not every filmgoer’s notion of a jolly good time at the movies. It’s for this reason – rather than, say, any specific morsel of graphic content – that Hereditary arguably deserves a warning label. It is double-black-diamond horror cinema, pitched primarily at genre enthusiasts who will be enthralled to discover a new filmmaker who can make them feel so profoundly uncomfortable. Any halfway competent director can conjure Pavlovian shrieks with schematic jump-scares, baroque torture set pieces, and the dank, unimaginative visual vocabulary that dominates the horror genre today. Hereditary scratches at a deeper, more obstinate itch, filling the viewer’s mind with a terrible, formless unease through small yet oppressive details: a glimpse of a drawing in a child’s notebook; an ominously groaning bass clarinet on the soundtrack; a line of dialogue that clicks with dreadful implication.

As with most truly great horror films, it’s not one overriding factor that lends Hereditary its darkling potency, but the combined effect of numerous creative contributions. Aster’s writing is, admittedly, less impressive than his direction – a few of the film’s lines are unaccountably clunky, and the nitty-gritty details of the occult conspiracy plot start to unravel if one picks at them too closely. His command of the frame, meanwhile, is startling and exceptional. Enthusiastically wide ranging, the film’s compositions embrace a robust diversity of shots, angles, and depths of field, without ever straying into the distracting visual gymnastics of a show-off. Aster’s camera regularly creeps and slithers through the Graham home at the molasses pace of a nightmare, often tugging a character (or their quivering gaze) toward some appalling discovery. In several instances, the director employs a time-hopping match cut to evoke a sense of lurching disorientation – with an audible tick, day becomes night or a bedroom a classroom – but he is shrewd enough not to overuse this device.

Cinematographer Pawl Pogorzelski (Water for Elephants, Tragedy Girls) swathes the interiors of Hereditary – particularly the Grahams’ wood-filled home – in a shroud of gray, brown, and bronze shadows, lending a smothering aura to spaces that would normally be inviting. Meanwhile, editors Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame employ an approach that favors long shots during scenes of sustained terror, drawing out the film’s gestures until the screen itself seems to be trembling with a pent-up scream. However, no member of the crew is more proximally vital than avant-garde saxophonist and composer Colin Stetson (Blue Caprice), whose soundscape of ambient droning, shrill eruptions, and hoarse chuckles provides a bedrock of disquiet for Aster’s images. Often, it is Stetson’s score that provides the most conspicuous sensory clue that something disturbing is afoot.

The undeniable lodestone of the film is Collette, delivering a riveting, career-best performance that can heave suddenly from nervous incredulity to tearful contrition to venomous rage – and make it all seem wholly credible. As Annie, she conveys a woman who is at once the empress and prisoner of her family, a figure wracked with guilt and resentments in equal measure. She is prone to a sort of bottled-up reflexivity that drives her to reconstruct her life in miniature, crafting dollhouse worlds where she can both fuss the details and control the nascent narrative. Her grief and the attendant sludge of toxic emotions that it dredges up make her tragically vulnerable, unleashing her worst impulses and priming her for manipulation by sinister forces.

The places that Hereditary goes are exceedingly repulsive, emotionally speaking, touching on themes that few horror films are willing to tackle. Aster probes uncomfortably at the darker reasons that people elect to have children, which in the film’s formulation are akin to homunculi – fashioned out of their progenitors’ flesh for ends that are, at best, coldly pragmatic and, at worst, appallingly egomaniacal. Any viewer unfortunate enough to have been raised by a narcissistic parent will recognize the twisted vision of family life that Hereditary proffers. Children (and grandchildren) are seen as little more than vessels into which parents might pour their own ambitions and bitterness. More broadly, the film presents a harrowing allegory for the fetid legacies that are passed down from generation to generation through the sorcery of nature and nurture: addiction, violence, bigotry, and worse. The old saw that we all eventually become our parents is unsettling enough, but Hereditary suggests an even darker possibility. Whether through genetics, trauma, or black magic, the dead are always pulling the puppet strings of the living.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

Paul Schrader.
June 5, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Five Films. One Filmmaker.

[Photo: Zenith Entertainment]

There are many versions of Paul Schrader. He’s the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s great Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). He’s also a film academic, the author of Transcendental Style in Film (1972) and scholarly articles such as the much-studied “Notes on Film Noir” (1972). Too often, however, Schrader the filmmaker is overlooked. His directorial output includes 20 feature films spanning 1978’s Blue Collar to 2018’s First Reformed. His artistic reputation throughout those decades has waxed and waned, from hitmaker (American Gigolo [1980]), to award-winner (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters [1984]), to cultural pariah (The Canyons [2013]).

Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed, premiered on the fall festival circuit of 2017, garnering acclaim from critics such as the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, who said it “feels like a fresh discovery … more than that: an epiphany.” (Our critic here at the Lens was just as enthusiastic as Scott.) The film is the story of a priest whose faith is challenged by a litany of corporate, cultural, and environmental forces, as well as by his own emotional and physical ailments. It’s very much the contemporary version of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), featuring a diary-as-narration conceit and presented in the boxy Academy ratio. The films of that “patron saint of cinema” and those by Carl Th. Dreyer and Ozu Yasujiro formed the basis of Transcendental Style. These three artists created their own recognizable cinematic languages and, along with masters Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman, serve as influences throughout Schrader's work — including First Reformed. In some ways, this new film is the feature that Schrader has been working toward for 40 years. It is a compendium of the obsessions he shares with his forebears: questions of faith in a faithless world; criminals and their morality; the limits of desire; isolated figures in existential crises; and how the apparatus of cinema can explore these ideas. 

First Reformed, which opened locally this past weekend at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema and Tivoli Theatre, is proving to be among the most talked-about films of the year. Before seeing the filmmaker’s latest work, viewers are invited to familiarize (or re-familiarize) themselves with some of Schrader’s other noteworthy features.

The Hit: 'American Gigolo'

A still from 'American Gigolo'.

1980 / USA / 117 min. / Opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 1, 1980

Other than his scripts for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Schrader’s third directorial effort is probably his most well-known work. The film takes Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and updates its narrative of a habitual criminal for a “Me Generation” milieu of post-disco, pre-Reagan 1980 Los Angeles. Richard Gere plays the titular character, a high-class sex worker with a penchant for older affluent women who afford him an opulent lifestyle, complete with his arsenal of Giorgio Armani suits. These become costumes for the man whose profession dictates he perform certain roles for his clients, and Gere uses his uncommon good looks and swoon-inducing charm to full effect in his breakout performance. 

Gigolo would prove to be a coup for both Armani and its original song, “Call Me,” performed by Blondie and produced and written by the film’s composer, electronic-music mastermind Giorgio Moroder. Although the fashion and lifestyle featured in the film would be influential among the economic elite in the coming decade, Schrader’s film is nothing if not critical of American capitalist culture, masculinity, misogyny, and queer panic. The aesthetic of the spare yet gaudy interiors of the LA locations are as enticing and inviting as the roving camera that mirrors its protagonist’s seductive ways. Similar to Scorsese’s 2013 celebration-cum-condemnation The Wolf of Wall Street, the film indicts the audience’s yearning for a similar lifestyle. When the film noir plot kicks in and Gere’s Julian finds himself framed for a murder, Schrader lifts a line directly from the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1948). Similar to Robert Mitchum’s reformed bad guy from that film, Julian’s past manipulations and schemes start to catch up with him in the worst ways.

The only saving grace for Julian is a California senator’s wife, Michelle Stratton (a luminous Lauren Hutton), whose boredom turns into a magnetic attraction to Gere’s unattainable paid companion. Her desire for Julian is alternately rebuffed and realized by him, until her support turns into devotion in the film’s gorgeous elliptical ending, wherein acts of self-sacrifice awaken Julian to the possibilities of good in humanity. The last shot is a direct reference to Pickpocket’s final moment, but unlike some cribs in his future films, this one feels wholly earned.

Rating: B+ [Now available to stream on MAX GO and for rent or purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and other platforms.] 

The Masterpiece: 'Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters'

 A Life in Four Chapters'.

1985 / USA, Japan / 120 min. / Opened in U.S. theaters on Sep. 20, 1985

The novelist, playwright, model, actor, and film director Mishima Yukio committed seppuku in July 1970 in front of members of his private militia and Gen. Masuda of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Mishima, born Hiraoka Kimitake, conflated nationalism with faith and aesthetics with ethics, providing perfect fodder for Schrader, who had explored similar territory in Transcendental Style in Film. The Japanese iconoclast had an unwavering sense of cultural obligation born of his repressed homosexuality and obsessive compulsions, seemingly disparate psychological splinters that Schrader and his co-writer, brother Leonard Schrader, deftly balance as parts of one whole. Mishima is another in the long line of Schrader lone wolves like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and the Rev. Toller in First Reformed, men wading through the swampy waters of morality and obsessive neuroses, predestined to violent ends. 

The film is refracted through Mishima’s art and memories as Schrader shows how his life informed his work and vice versa. The framing device is the coup d'etat that would be the ultimate end of Mishima’s life, filmed as a modern political thriller. Within those scenes are the four chapters – “Beauty,” “Art,” “Action,” and “Harmony of Pen and Sword” – composed of flashbacks that mimic neon-colored realizations of three of Mishima’s literary works and the Japanese Golden Era films of Ozu and Mizoguchi. It may seem like a convoluted structure, but the conceit makes for a far more fully realized biopic than such later true-life Schrader films Patty Hearst (1988) and Auto-Focus (2002). Although kin to Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), which constructs a portrait of its William Randolph Hearst-inspired central character via the memories of former friends and flings, Schrader’s film is built around the narratives Mishima himself created for public consumption.

Mishima is also a work of cinematic bravura, a film by a director utilizing every aspect of the medium to inspire awe. Everyone involved with the film is firing on all cylinders: minimalist composer Philip Glass’ maximalist score; John Bailey’s versatile lensing; Sasaki’s Kyoji’s set decoration, inspired by equal parts Brecht, Noh, and Douglas Sirk. It’s an exhilarating experience that by every right should be impenetrable, but every sweeping camera movement and perfectly calibrated cut keeps the audience barrelling toward an that can be viewed as tragic or transcendent, given that Schrader leaves the conclusion appropriately ambiguous. Unfortunately still too underseen, this is Schrader’s masterpiece and one that deserves to be mentioned alongside cinema’s all-time greats.

Rating: A [Now available to stream on FilmStruck and for rent or purchase on iTunes and other platforms.]

The Gem: 'Light Sleeper'

A still from 'Light Sleeper'.

1992 / USA / 103 min. / Opened in U.S. theaters on Aug. 21, 1992

Last year Willem Dafoe garnered raves (and an Oscar nomination) for his sensitive portrayal of Bobby, the manager of a run-down extended-stay motel in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. The performance was lauded as a change of pace for a performer who’s known for more volatile work like the villains in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1991) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002). However, shades of Bobby's pathos can be found in his John LeTour from Schrader’s Light Sleeper. John is the perfect role for Dafoe, whose prominent facial structure betrays a world-weariness even as his baby blues illuminate a lust for life. His character is a recovering addict still peddling dope to various clients across New York City’s boroughs, making rounds among his parishioners like the eponymous country priest in Bresson’s 1951 film. It’s also a film noir world with an interconnected network of low-lifes, social climbers, and complicit officials who – ignorant of the man’s quest for self-actualization that manifests itself in his insomnia-filled nights – all use and abuse John. No rest for the wicked, indeed. 

Schrader considers this film his bookend to Taxi Driver and a kind of companion to Gigolo, and the morally bankrupt worlds of those two films are depicted here as a post-“Greed is Good” landscape of entrepreneurial criminals all but drowning in the garbage bag-lined streets of NYC. The film pits capitalism and spiritualism against each other in both the background and foreground. The seemingly omniscient figures in the art decorating the interiors of Sleeper don’t look with judgment but act as another guiding force, much like the psychic John sees. She’s played by the inimitable Mary Beth Hurt, who’s joined by Susan Sarandon, Victor Garber, Dana Delany, Jane Adams, and other underrated performers who help realize Schrader’s fusion of Pickpocket and Pickup on South Street (1953). 

Rating: B [Now available to rent or purchase on iTunes and other platforms.]

The Swing-and-a-Miss: 'Auto Focus'

A still from 'Auto Focus'.

2002 / USA / 105 min. / Opened in select U.S. cities on Oct. 18, 2002

If American Gigolo had a complicated view of sex as an act of deep personal connection and power manipulation, Schrader’s Auto Focus sees it only as a drug that causes his protagonist’s rapid downward spiral. The film tells the story of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71) star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), his tech-wizard “friend” John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, more skeezy and gnarly here than in the former film), and their increasingly dangerous habit of videotaping their sexual activities with unaware women. The director evinces a much more moralistic viewpoint here, rather than the more open ambiguity of his previous work, choosing to show the crimes of its broken central figure without much exploration of his interiority. For all its failings as a portrait of addiction, it is much more knowing about the cultural and technological changes that allowed cinema to expand its vision for more nefarious use (as Schrader has it). 

Auto Focus chronicles cinema’s changing tides by adopting popular contemporary aesthetics that reflect its story’s myriad eras. Its unreliable narrator, the gee-whiz Crane (Kinnear is at a career-best here), opens the film over the mid-century popular American cinema look of his colorfully decorated family home. These scenes feel like the work of Douglas Sirk, complete with angst simmering beneath their candy-coated surfaces. Eventually, the film adopts further styles – for example, the grit and grime of early-1970s “New American” cinema, as Crane’s predilection for self-exposure and extramarital sex is gradually revealed in the film. His perversions are fully exposed to the audience as Auto-Focus lurches into full horror-movie aesthetic in a final violent act that ends Crane’s life. The murder of Crane by Carpenter’s video-camera tripod is as blunt a symbol as can be found in any of Schrader’s films – an obvious punctuation mark to an already condemning sentence. 

Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase on iTunes and other platforms.]

The Dud: 'The Canyons'

A Still from 'The Canyons'.

2013 / USA / 99 min. / Opened in select U.S. cities on Aug. 2, 2013

Who knew that after a long career dealing in transcendence via the cinema of Bergman, Ozu, and Bresson that Schrader would turn to MTV’s reality show The Hills for inspiration? Condemnation may be a more appropriate term, and that jumping-off point could be just from the mind of its screenwriter, Mr. Chic Modern Nihilism himself, Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero, American Psycho). The film plays as a series of forced meetings between members of a group of grade-Z young-Hollywood types, much like the structure of any given episode of reality television. But while The Hills is more a product of aspiration for a certain segment of its audience, The Canyons deals with the dregs of humanity, blaming fame and social media as the death knell for contemporary society and cinema. If the thematization of these ideas isn’t sufficient in the film proper, the stills of abandoned movie houses interspersed throughout the The Canyons make it clear. FIN DE CINEMA. 

All of this might be more dynamic fodder for a film if it weren’t for the paper-thin script. The plot consists of a series of manipulations by trust-fund bad boy Christian (porn star James Deen), concluding in a gruesome murder that reveals just how far his antisocial behavior can stretch. His girlfriend is Tara, a former star portrayed by a fallen-from-grace Lindsay Lohan, who shifts from apparent boredom with the material to raw-nerve emotionality. Deen and Lohan’s last scene together is a revelation for the former Disney star, but considered moment to moment, The Canyons is mostly just dead air. Coupled with its extratextual behind-the-scenes drama – the film was crowd-funded through Kickstarter, Lohan and Deen’s casting was decried as a stunt, and a New York Times chronicle of it exposed the interpersonal issues between Schrader, his stars, and producers – the film can be seen as a multimedia work worthy of study as a portrait of its era. It’s too bad it’s mostly boring.

Rating: C- [Now available to stream on Netflix and Hulu and for rent or purchase on Amazon and other platforms.]

Tags: Compendium Joshua Ray

Still from 'Westworld', "Les Écorchés".
June 4, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Isn't the Pleasure of a Story in Discovering the Ending Yourself?

Season 2 / Episode 7 / Written by Gina Atwater, Ron Fitzgerald, and Jordan Goldberg / Directed by Nicole Kassell / Originally Aired June 3, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

The return of Robert Ford in “Les Écorchés” highlights one inescapable truth about Westworld: Not to diminish the talents of Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, or any of the other lynchpin performers who have created the series’ most compelling characters, but there’s something about Anthony Hopkins’ velvety style that suits the series perfectly. Maybe it’s simply Hopkins’ inimitable ability to render the most purple prose with an unforced sort of gravity, giving mythic weight to every wry mutter and wistful aside. Certainly, as a veteran of the British stage with a considerable unselfconscious streak, he has a flair for the literary flights of fancy that writers are fond of sprinkling into the dialogue of high-minded sci-fi works like Westworld.

The indelible quality to Hopkins’ presence may also be attributable to the fact that Ford – his mind dwelling digitally inside Westworld’s backup system before becoming a dark passenger nestled within Bernard’s (Jeffrey Wright) android consciousness – has always been a figure of perfect, serene confidence. The park's creator has never once seemed frightened or flustered. He is, after all, the closest thing to a god in Westworld, and (almost) everything that has occurred in the series to date appears to have proceeded according to his secret schemes. No other character exudes Ford’s distinct stripe of cool certitude.

As if to underline Ford’s extraordinary qualities, “Les Écorchés” features a rare sight indeed: The normally bold and collected chairwoman of Delos’ board of directors, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), is reduced to pleading terror when android mastermind Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) threatens to saw open her skull, purely out of retributive spite. One of the features of the show’s second season is that the handful of human characters who previously seemed so cynical and self-possessed – particularly recurring regulars like Hale and William (Harris), but also the occasional “new” character like alpha-male Delos security officer Coughlin (Timothy V. Murphy) – have been knocked off balance by the hosts’ uprising. No one seems to have a firm handle on things anymore, except of course for Ford (and he’s dead, at least in the biological sense).

None of Westworld’s characters have suffered this season quite as much as Bernard, who has spent seven episodes being violently jerked this way and that by external forces that are either enormously suspicious of his motives or are overtly attempting to control him. Although Wright’s android remains one of the series’ most intriguing figures, his position in the story has effectively turned him into a passive character, one who spends most of his time blinking in dazed confusion at the events unfolding around him. This is particularly evident in his plunge into the virtual reality of the Cradle, which is largely an excuse for Ford to deliver 10 minutes of exposition, with Bernard acting as the bewildered audience surrogate. Ford confirms and clarifies much that has occurred in the “past” timeline (now just a few days behind the “present”) over the previous three episodes, but as is often the case with Westworld, there are still some conspicuous ambiguities and inconsistencies. 

Many of these revolve around the ultimate purpose of Delos’ secret project, in which the personalities of park guests are being meticulously profiled and then digitally archived. Ford intimates that the corporation’s goal is retail immortality for the ultra-wealthy, but this doesn’t jibe with James Delos’ failed resurrection in “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” or with Ford’s later assertion that his own mind would degrade if placed in an android shell. Furthermore, it would be disappointing if robot-based eternal life was all that Delos had up its sleeve: It’s fairly banal as sci-fi conceits go, at least compared to the conspiratorial possibilities raised in Futureworld (1976), wherein the global elite are neutralized and replaced by android sleeper agents.

Ford claims that his story – the story of the hosts' revolt against their human masters, to be specific – now belongs to Bernard, but he immediately contradicts himself by asserting direct control over the android’s will. This allows for some clever, horror-tinged visuals in the episode’s final stretch, as Ford follows Bernard around like a murmuring ghost. (The final shot of “Les Écorchés,” with Bernard’s face flickering back and forth into Ford’s in the strobe-like illumination of automatic gunfire, is a particularly disconcerting touch.) Westworld’s architect can’t have it both ways, however: Either Bernard is now on his own, self-determined path or Ford is still pulling his strings. Ford might be a self-serving megalomaniac, but he has so often been positioned as an astute, lucid character in a sea of blinkered dupes that it’s quite glaring when his declarations don’t line up with the facts. 

Such nagging inconsistencies crop up in several places in “Les Écorchés,” which uses Delores’ assault on the Mesa (and the Cradle that lies beneath it) as an opportunity to bring several of this season’s disparate subplots together. The quirks of fate necessary for those collisions to occur are themselves a bit far-fetched at times. While fleeing the Ghost Nation, Maeve (Newton) and her daughter (Jasmyn Rae) just happen to run into William and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), and the standoff that unfolds between them just happens to be interrupted by the timely arrival of Lee (Simon Quarterman) and the park's security forces.

It’s easier to hand-wave away these chance meetings than some of the episode’s more dubious bits of characterization, however. For example: Stumbling on a bullet-riddled Maeve, Delores advises her to give up her never-ending search for her daughter – now in the hands of the Ghost Nation – observing that “the kin they gave us was just another rope they use to lash us down.” However, Delores just spent an entire scene weeping in anguish for her “father” (Louis Herthum) before extracting his control unit and thereby putting an end to his pain. Delores’ entire arc so far this season has essentially been the tug-of-war between her anti-human crusade and her gentler daughterly impulses, which makes her smug admonishment to Maeve ring a little hollow. Even more implausible is the supposedly hardened Delos enforcer (Ronnie Gene Blevins) who, in the tradition of moronic disposable male characters everywhere, fatally lets his guard down when confronted by Angela’s (Talulah Riley) seductive wiles.

Ultimately, “Les Écorchés” is an action-oriented episode centered on Delores’ Mesa attack, although the dimly lit shootouts between her forces and Delos aren’t especially memorable or exciting. Quite a few of the show’s ancillary characters perish in this chapter, including the aforementioned Angela, but also Lawrence, Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), Coughlin, and (presumably) Peter Abernathy. Thematically, the episode simply serves to reinforce many of the themes that have already been prominently featured in this season, such as the hosts’ capacity to embody humanity’s best and worst impulses – although the latter is more prominent in this outing.

It’s no accident that Charlotte’s efforts to virtually waterboard Bernard into revealing the location of Abernathy’s control unit (a disturbing detail, that) is followed by a flashback in which Delores threatens Charlotte with torture via bone saw. There’s some satisfaction in seeing the callous, arrogant Charlotte get some retroactive comeuppance, but the true takeaway here is that Delores has now completely internalized the sadism of her creators. Maeve later observes that Delores is being consumed by “darkness,” a criticism that the latter woman bats away by somewhat unconvincingly appealing to her past victimhood. Regardless, the brutality that the androids inflict on the humans in “Les Écorchés” clashes with Ford’s myopic proclamation that the hosts are nobler than their progenitors. As always, Westworld’s assessment of all thinking beings – humans and robots alike – seems to be exceedingly pessimistic.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • Both Maeve and William take a lot of bullets in this episode, and although the former can conceivably be repaired – perhaps with the assistance of a guilt-riddled Lee – it seems far-fetched that the latter would be able to survive (let alone quickly recover from) his multiple gunshot wounds. Plot armor strikes again!

  • It’s gratifying when the writers slip tiny details into the show’s dialogue that elegantly clarify previously hazy aspects of the world’s mechanics. In an almost admiring tone, Maeve observes that Lawrence is “awake” after her mind-control power fails to work on him, confirming that 1) some hosts other than Delores and Maeve are indeed self-aware and 2) Maeve’s new abilities don’t function on such sentient androids. It’s a nice callback to earlier hints that Lawrence was starting to remember his past “lives,” and also a retroactive intimation that the Ghost Nation hosts are (and have always been) awake.

  • On that note, it’s enormously encouraging to see that next week’s episode will center on Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) and the secret history of the Ghost Nation. One of the on-point criticisms of Westworld’s storytelling to date has been its negligence towards the Native American hosts. The in-universe explanation has always been superficially plausible but ultimately limp: Namely, that the Native Americans are treated like an exotic, mysterious threat because that’s the way that they were portrayed in the cinematic Westerns on which the park is based. Among the show’s fans, it’s long been suspected that there was a deeper story to the Ghost Nation, and it’s exciting that viewers will at last be permitted to see Westworld through their eyes.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

June 1, 2018
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 implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. 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 such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are 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.

The Cleanse

2016 / Canada, USA / 81 min. / Dir. by Bobby Miller / Premiered online on May 4, 2018

The Cleanse is an odd beast indeed, a comic riff on The Brood (1979) that feels like something Joe Dante or Robert Zemeckis might have helmed in the mid-1980s. Even that formulation gives the film too much credit, though – director Bobby Miller lacks the wit and journeyman talent of those filmmakers. The Cleanse isn’t remotely frightening or freaky enough to be a body-horror feature (the gross-out stuff is strictly PG-13), but it’s remarkably laugh-free for a comedy. So, what is the viewer left with? Johnny Galecki makes no impression at all in the role of a sad sack who attends a strange New Age purification retreat. At least the practical effects are striking when he and his fellow seekers start vomiting up creatures that embody their negative impulses. Although it aims for a bizarrely melancholy vibe, The Cleanse is ultimately just lifeless and uninvolving, distinguished only by its faintly gnarly premise and its ugly-cute creature designs. Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.]

Family Blood

2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. by Sonny Mallhi / Premiered online on May 4, 2018

Vanessa Shaw (3:10 to Yuma, Two Lovers) deserves far better than that the D-list Netflix Originals she’s been appearing in lately, but one supposes she has a mortgage like everyone. Last year she headlined the ludicrous psychological thriller Clinical, and now she’s starring in Family Blood, a dreary modern vampire tale with all the personality of a burnt microwave dinner. Shaw portrays Ellie, a single mom and recovering drug addict who has just settled into a new home in a dodgy but gentrifying neighborhood. Unfortunately, one of Ellie’s fellow 12-steppers, Christopher (James Ransone), begins stalking her, and after a hazy nocturnal encounter with him, she finds herself craving blood and spurning the sun. Visually speaking, Family Blood is bland but competent – at least for this sort of bargain-bin supernatural-horror picture – but the storytelling is ruinously aimless and monotonous. Vampire films are almost always chock-a-block with tropes, but this one doesn’t have even a drop of originality. Rating: D [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

The Noonday Witch (Polednice)

2016 / Czech Republic / 90 min. / Dir. by Jiri Sádek / Premiered online on May 10, 2018

Based on real-world Slavic tales of a malicious rural spirit, Czech director Jiri Sádek’s The Noonday Witch is a domestic sort-of-ghost story that is so determinedly slow-burning that it almost forgets that it’s supposed to be frightening. Its plot and themes recall The Babadook (2014), but Sádek’s picture swaps the former film’s raw focus for a drowsy, moldering Old World sensibility. The newly widowed Eliška (Anthropoid’s Anna Geislerová) moves to her husband’s native village with her daughter (Karolína Lipowská) for a fresh start. Remarkably, Eliška hasn’t yet told her child that Dad committed suicide – he’s merely “away” – and this lie of omission curdles their relationship, exacerbating creepy occurrences such as the dementia-addled old woman who keeps appearing on their doorstep. Admittedly, the film is both meandering and light on actual terror, and it concludes with something of a whimper. However, it’s also stylish and genuinely unnerving, a rare portrait of maternal protectiveness perverted into unholy mania. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

Cargo

2017 / Australia / 105 min. / Dir. by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke / Premiered online on May 18, 2018

Cargo might be a zombie-apocalypse picture – with all the stale baggage that implies – but it also draws from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and Rudulph Maté’s ticking-clock noir D.O.A. (1949).  Expanding on their seven-minute short from 2012, directors Ben Howlling and Yolanda Ramke begin their feature mid-Armageddon. In the Australian Outback, the middle-aged Andy (Martin Freeman) struggles to protect his wife, Kay (Susie Porter), and 1-year-old daughter from a viral zombie outbreak. Tragedy soon strikes: Kay is infected and killed, but not before biting her husband. Facing a 48-hour window until the contagion turns him into a cannibalistic ghoul, Andy is obliged to search the sparsely populated landscape for a caretaker for his child. Undeniably, Cargo is a cruel, wrenching piece of work, if frustratingly beholden to the subgenre’s tropes. Novel touches – like the Aboriginal ritual mobs that actively hunt zombies in the trackless bush – lend the film just enough flavor for it to linger. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Sequence Break

2017 / USA / 80 min. / Dir. by Graham Skipper / Premiered online on May 24, 2018

A cut-rate Videodrome (1983) for the retro-gaming geek set, Sequence Break is a horror film only in the loosest sense. The awkward, rumpled Oz (Chase Williamson of John Dies at the End) is a tinkerer at a dying arcade resale shop when two arrivals upend his sad-sack life: secretly nerdy girl-next-door Tess (Tabianne Therese), who has an improbable crush on him; and a mysterious, black-box arcade cabinet that quickly develops a maniacal hold on Oz. The film features some startlingly grotesque biomechanical imagery, but it just feels like a limp, facile copy of Cronenberg’s nightmarish hallucinations. (Instead of James Woods with a Betamax player vagina in his abdomen, here Oz mashes an oozing, clitoral game button to blast vector graphic aliens.) The performances are clunky as hell, and a late-game swerve into Primer-style time loops feels like a failed, Hail Mary attempt to save the film from its own shapeless, repetitive, and nonsensical plot. Rating: D+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

Feral

2017 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Mark Young / Premiered online on May 25, 2018

Mark Young’s Feral is ostensibly a zombie-outbreak film, but structurally if feels closer to a werewolf picture – not that it’s a tolerable specimen of either form. There’s only one undead beast at first, a scuttling creature that stalks a group of insufferable med students during a backpacking trip, infecting them one by one. Other than some ghastly makeup effects and the positioning of a lesbian couple (Scout Taylor-Compton and Olivia Luccardi) as the default protagonists – a welcome, if modest, changeup from the genre’s usual heteronormativity – there’s nothing distinctive about Feral. It’s chintzy, by-the-numbers indie horror through and through, with the added drag of some wince-worthy dialogue and acting. Director Young seems utterly unconcerned with inventiveness, preferring to arrange characters and situational tropes into a bland gruel of running, hiding, searching, waiting, and screaming. The only truly scary thing about the film is that it runs out of narrative steam with 30 or 40 interminable minutes still to go. Rating: D [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

They Remain 

2018 / USA / 101 min. / Directed by Philip Gelatt / Opened in select cities on March 2, 2018; premiered online on May 29, 2018

Two scientists (William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson) are assigned by their corporate employer to investigate a series of enigmatic wilderness sites where both cult activity and weirder phenomena are known to have occurred. Director Philip Gelatt draws from a host of cinematic influences – chiefly 1970s genre works like Silent Running (1972), Phase IV (1974), and Stalker (1979) – while still maintaining a sense of eerie novelty. They Remain has atmosphere in spades, and the film’s impressionistic images and unconventional editing underline the hallucinatory time slippage that the characters begin to experience. Unfortunately, there’s remarkably little plot to go along with all the mood. The film is more of a narcotic haze than a story, lacking any sense of rising action – just repetitive scenes of Harper wandering the woods and passive-aggressively sparring with his partner. Gelatt’s infatuation with elliptical mystery leads to narrative obfuscation, and he fails to resolve the dissonance between the film’s gaudier elements and its chilly sci-fi horror vibe. Rating: C [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt