A still from 'Damsel'.
July 7, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Two Woke Westerns

It’s common for film writers to note that the Western has waxed and waned in popularity over the course of cinema’s history. While that may be true, the genre contains such a breadth of ideas and archetypes that its malleability allows for it to be remixed and reimagined countless times. Between the premiere of supreme master John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962 and the Italian debut of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, modernity had shifted into the post-modern, and the Western moved from the one truly American genre to an international affair about American myth-making. 

Leone’s dazzling condemnation of American capitalism and violence, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), would be the next evolution, and only a year later audiences would experience the visceral and gory explosion of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. The ultimate revisionist, Robert Altman, would completely dismantle the genre in 1971 with his McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a funny and elegiac masterpiece about the inextricable link between corporatization and dehumanization. It’s hard to pinpoint a great Western since these films that isn’t engaged in genre deconstruction: Clint Eastwood’s more traditional-feeling Unforgiven (1992) explored the trauma of violence, and the contemporary-set No Country for Old Men (2007) and Hell or High Water (2016) used the aspects of the genre to reflect morality in a modern world.

The Zellner Brothers’ new feature Damsel and Spaghetti Western maestro Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 film The Great Silence — which was recently restored and theatrically re-released — make for interesting markers in the development of the genre. They’re also two films with remarkably strong thematic resonance, subverting audience expectations to reveal the hypocrisies sewn deeply into the fabric of the Western. 


2018 / United States / 113 min. / Dir. by David and Nathan Zellner / Opened in select cities June 22 2018; locally on July 6, 2018

Damsel’s opening moments prepare the viewer for the film's bifurcated and deceptive structure. A preacher (underrated national treasure Robert Forster) waits for a stagecoach, waxing poetic to a man about the impossibility of self-actualization, before he strips himself of his religious garb and heads into the barren desert, asking God to take him away. His destitute final parishioner, a newly sober man who wants to go West to “start fresh,” dons the preacher’s clothing and carries his ragged Bible — half of the pages have been used for rolling papers — and becomes Parson Henry (David Zellner, who co-wrote and directed the film with his brother, Nathan). 

Characters in Damsel are constantly assuming roles dictated by American traditions of exceptionalism and masculinity, while also dangerously projecting those ideals onto others. The male protagonist of the film, Sam (Robert Pattinson), finds Henry back off the wagon, passed out after a bender. Sam hires him, ostensibly to perform the nuptials for him and his love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). Eventually, however, he manipulates Henry into the scheme he’s had all along: rescuing Penelope from a kidnapping. By the time that plan comes to fruition, the film violently shifts its focus to the survival of Penelope and Henry, revealing that its first half was built on a scaffolding of tropes and trickery. 

It’s a risky gambit that Damsel mostly pulls off. Pattinson’s bumbling, one-sighted charm becomes murderous delusion in the pivot scene, shifting the viewer's sympathy from him to Wasikowska’s character. The actress is one of the few performers working today who is capable of moving through hysterical grief, righteous anger, and even-keeled badass within moments. The whiplash that Penelope is subjected to is also inflicted on the audience, in that Damsel plays its oft-hilarious deadpan comedy while maintaining its existential threads. (The film’s mascot is an ownerless Shetland pony that the characters awkwardly string along through their travels). 

Some scenes, like the one in which Henry sits in awe of a Native American who dispels the white man’s racist and foolish stereotypes, belabor the film’s ideas beyond the breaking point. However, the accumulation of the men who attempt to white-knight Penelope to freedom begins to feel like a comic nightmare straight out of a Buñuel film by the film’s end. Damsel retains both the off-kilter tone and visual wit of the Zellner Brothers’ previous feature Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), often resembling a Coen Brothers film as directed by Wes Anderson. For some, it will be a frustrating journey. For more adventurous viewers, it will be a pilgrimage worth making.

Rating: B-

The Great Silence

1968 / Italy, France / 105 min. / Dir. by Sergio Corbucci / Opened in Italy on Dec. 7, 1968

Before Quentin Tarantino borrowed the eponymous character’s name from Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) for his Antebellum Western Django Unchained (2013), the Italian director’s work was largely unseen stateside, only celebrated by those with B-movie predilections. He’s been overshadowed by Sergio Leone, the man who made Clint Eastwood a movie star and has become a prominent figure of study in and outside of the Spaghetti Western genre he helped popularize. The Great Silence has been touring the States in a new 4K restoration, inviting critics and general audiences alike to reassess Corbucci as more than a Leone cohort.

The film’s striking visuals are nestled somewhere between the Cinemascope grandeur of Leone and the shaggy, blown-out beauty of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The Great Silence also anticipates the latter film’s final wintry moments, taking place in a snowy Utah landscape. The whiteout conditions allow for the human drama of the film to be focused in the foreground as it deals out Western tropes: the moral, solitary “fastest gun in the West” and the immoral bounty hunters who oppose him. The use of a telephoto lens also permit the film to dig deeper into its complicated layers, as in a shot that begins on a closeup of a man and his lover hiding in a barn and slowly pulls back to reveal the forces that are searching for them. 

Graceful camera dollies also highlight emotional and power shifts between the characters, as in the showdown featuring the film’s two leads. Verbose and diabolical bounty hunter Tigrero (German New Wave star Klaus Kinski) develops a desire to play cat-and-mouse with Silence (French New Wave star Jean-Louis Trintignant), a figure who resembles the stoic Man with No Name of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. However, Silence’s past, like everything in The Great Silence, is shaded with greater consequence than it initially appears to be — as when, in flashback, the traumatic slaughter of his family is completed with Silence’s own throat being cut, muting him for life. 

By the film’s end, it’s revealed that the title could refer to both its protagonist and the conflation of America’s capitalistic economic structure with its violent, genocidal history. The feature takes great strides to upend the traditional Western plot to reveal a cynical core condemning the myth-making of the genre as a kind of historical erasure. The Great Silence is as much a reflection of the United States’ original sins as it is a product of its original 1968 release date. Fifty years later, it remains a poignant and pertinent exposé of American values. 

Rating: B+ (Now available to rent or purchase digitally via Amazon, and to own on Blu-ray and DVD from Film Movement Classics.)

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Leave No Trace'.
July 3, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Home Is Where the Heart Is

2018 / USA / 109 min. / Dir. by Debra Granik / Opened in select cities on June 29, 2018; locally on July 6, 2018

Writer-director Debra Granik’s incisive and affecting new drama, Leave No Trace, begins within the hushed, verdant cathedral of Portland, Ore.’s Forest Park, one of the largest urban forest reserves in America. Among the towering, second-growth conifers and damp ferns, a family of two ekes out a low-impact existence, subsisting (to the greatest extent possible) on the fruits of their environment. Father Will (Ben Foster) shows his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) how to feather a twig with a pocketknife – improving its utility as a fire starter – and how to slow-cook wild mushrooms in a crude solar stove made of aluminum foil. These are not weekend diversions for Will and Tom: They are living within the park illegally, as off-the-grid as a pair of people can be while still residing in the city limits of a major municipality. Such is Will’s resolve to remain undiscovered that he instructs Tom how to cover her footprints as they traverse the thickets, and stages mock hide-and-seek drills where they practice concealing themselves from others.

The reason that father and daughter have adopted this “voluntarily unhoused” lifestyle is never fully elaborated on. However, that ambiguity never scans as coyness on the part of Granik’s powerfully reserved screenplay, which was co-written with her frequent collaborator Anne Rosellini and adapted from a 2010 novel by Peter Rock. Will is a Marine veteran who is plainly afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and stray details late in the film indicate that his unit has suffered from an unusually high rate of suicide. Otherwise, Granik and Rosellini present Will’s mental health issues as amorphous. At the same time, however, Will's demons are depicted as utterly overwhelming. He has no desire to re-enter society, and has organized his existence around the twin pillars – manias, one might say – of isolation from others and protectiveness towards his daughter.

At the day-to-day level, however, Will can be ruthlessly pragmatic, and he is not above exploiting the outside world when necessary. When Tom complains of growing hunger, the pair make a foray into the city – a semi-regular occurrence, it is implied – so that Will can obtain prescription medications from the Veterans Administration. He then hocks these pills to other squatters in the park, and uses the cash to procure a modest load of non-perishable groceries. It’s a risky gambit, but the real threat to the family’s isolation is more banal, as it turns out. A trail jogger glimpses Tom one day and then alerts the park rangers, who in turn use dogs to chase her and her father down through the dense undergrowth. Will and Tom are captured and immediately separated, beginning a bureaucratic ordeal as they are hustled through the state’s family services agency.

The film’s opening 25 minutes or so are crucial for establishing Will and Tom’s devoted relationship and the rustic, faintly paranoid specifics of their daily activities. Leave No Trace is not truly the story of their life within the park, however, but the tale of what happens afterwards, as the pair undergo a series of fumbling, ultimately futile attempts to reintegrate into civilization. Tom, for her part, slowly warms to the outside world. Not its comforts, exactly – she is far too much her father’s daughter for that – but its sense of stability and community. She finds solace in the rural settings that they migrate through, taking fresh-eyed pleasure in the mundane details of a simple but connected life: a 4-H rabbit club for teenagers; ribbon-twirling praise dancers at a country church; an RV-park beekeeper who instructs Tom on how to safely handle the hives.

Will, however, finds that he is unable to change, or even to accept freely-offered charity and conviviality from others. His world is bifurcated into two groups: He and Tom on one side, and the untrustworthy remainder of the world on the other. (He speaks contemptuously of “their house, their clothes, their food, their work”; “their” being everyone who is not Will and Tom.) Granik’s feature is, at bottom, a tragedy. Will is simply too mentally scarred to resolve the conflict that gradually and inexorably arises between his compulsion to separate himself from society and his desire to ensure his daughter’s well-being. For years, his understanding of the latter revolved around physical safety and basic education, but once forcibly removed from the park, Tom develops an emotional need for community that Will is unable to satisfy.

The bond between father and daughter eventually begins to fray. Tom’s intense love and gratefulness is such that she never flings accusations of selfishness at her father, even as they sneak out of their umpteenth makeshift home to once again hit the road. She recognizes that his obsession with a nomadic, alienated existence, however unreasonable it might seem, is not rooted in ego, but in trauma. (Will quits a job at a Christmas tree farm because the sound of the helicopters lifting harvested trees is simply too much for his fevered mind to bear.) Eventually, even Tom's tolerance reaches its limit, her affection for her father notwithstanding: “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”

It’s been eight years since Granik made an Oscar-nominated splash (and a star out of Jennifer Lawrence) with her last narrative feature, Winter’s Bone. While Leave No Trace exists within a similar indie drama space – one focused on neglected people living on the hardscrabble margins of America – Granik’s new feature is a different animal than her 2010 film. Where Winter’s Bone used its backwoods Ozark setting in the service of a horror-tinged Hero’s Journey, Leave No Trace is a work of weary physical and psychological realism, comparable to those of fellow American auteur Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Certain Women).

Almost a decade away from narrative features hasn’t diminished Granik’s formidable talent behind the camera, her deep emotional sensitivity, or her genuine fascination with a slower, forgotten kind of American life. Indeed, Stray Dog, the director’s 2014 documentary of Vietnam veteran Ronnie Hall, is echoed in many of Leave No Trace’s elements, including Will’s PTSD and the cozy RV community where he and Tom find themselves later in the film. As she did with the Ozark folk musicians in Winter’s Bone, Granik exhibits an earnest regard for the unpretentious yet passionate pursuits of her rural characters. In a certain stripe of snotty Sundance dramedy, the viewer would be invited to snicker at the church praise dancers, for example; Granik uses the scene to convey Tom’s low-key wonder at all the idiosyncrasies of American culture that have been hidden from her.

This is essential to the fundamental tragedy at the heart of Leave No Trace, as the viewer shares in Tom’s growing affection for all the marvelous textures and friendship that the wider world offers. While the film is undeniably sympathetic to Will, it’s Tom who is ultimately the story’s point-of-view character. The director and young actress McKenzie – whose performance is commendably raw yet somehow understated throughout – splendidly convey the swelling glut of anxiety, anger, and sorrow that threatens to overwhelm Tom’s previously unconditional willingness to follow her father off a cliff. One can feel the inevitable anguish of the film’s conclusion approaching from far off; a distant, rumbling thunder that signals Will and Tom’s dilemma cannot be resolved without terrible pain. Nonetheless, when the moment finally arrives, it is utterly heartfelt and devastating, a perfect punctuation mark that feels at once authentic and narratively satisfying.

Leave No Trace is an unhurried and naturalistic film, an attitude that is wholly expected given the material, but nonetheless executed with discernment and elegance. Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough rely on hand-held camera work and a cool palette of grays, blues, and greens that fits snugly with the story’s coastal Pacific Northwest setting. The production design by Chad Keith is wonderfully lived-in and authentic, making particularly excellent use of existing locations like a weather-beaten rabbit farm or a crazy-quilt RV park to conjure the sense of warmth that Tom craves. Erin Aldridge Orr’s costumes are also essential, conveying a rumpled, chilly Oregonian vibe without straying into the fussed-over polish of a Land’s End catalog.

Ultimately, however, this is a film that is powered less by striking formal choices than by its performances and screenplay, and on that score it’s a deeply moving work. Foster is all walled-up anguish in a role that could have come off as faintly menacing, were it not for the pitiable desperation that he imparts to Will’s every questionable choice. The rapport that Foster has with McKenzie is critical, given that the relationship between their characters is so central to the story. The pair of them are remarkably convincing as tight-knit father and daughter, often communicating by glances and gestures rather than words. When they finally spill out, the words tend to be blunt and lingering. “Did you even try?” an exhausted Tom asks her father after an abrupt return to transience, “Because I can’t even tell.”

Leave No Trace is essentially devoid of sinister characters, a refreshing change of pace for a story about people dwelling on the fringes of society. There are no opportunistic predators who reaffirm Will’s distrust and fanatical self-reliance; the people that he and Tom meet are, by-and-large, fair-minded and compassionate folk. Distinctive and capable character actors appear in key supporting roles, including Jeff Kober (Sully) as the tree farm owner and Dale Dickey (Hell or High Water) as the RV park manager, but the film rests overwhelmingly on Foster and McKenzie’s shoulders. Granik has reimagined a familar tale of parent-child separation – in terms of divergent needs, rather than physical distance or emotional disconnection – within a fraught, survival-driven framework. This renders Leave No Trace acutely resonant, while also unobtrusively touching on broader issues that are typically underserved by most mainstream cinema: veterans, mental health, homelessness, state bureaucracy, and public land policy. Above all, Leave No Trace signals a welcome return to narrative filmmaking for Granik, vividly illustrating that her humane voice is a sorely needed balm in these cruel times.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Night of the Virgin'.
June 28, 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.

Night of the Virgin

2016 / Spain / 116 min. / Dir. by Roberto San Sebastián / Premiered online on June 12, 2018

Whatever its flaws, Roberto San Sebastián’s occult fever-dream Night of the Virgin has a rather distinctive and strange aesthetic. The rotting Gothicism of Spanish-language horror cinema and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s apocalyptic flourishes are muddled with the gross-out excess of Peter Jackson’s early splatterfests (Bad Taste; Braindead). Unlike those latter films, however, Virgin isn’t particularly funny. Its laughs are too invested in the sweaty horniness of callow, buck-toothed protagonist Nico (Javier Bódalo, playing things Bollywood-comedy-broad), who follows middle-aged temptress Medea (Miriam Martín) back to her apartment on New Year’s Eve. What follows is a grueling ordeal of Tantric rituals, Tibetan demonology, and seemingly limitless quantities of blood, vomit, feces, and other substances. Sebastián gets impressive, squirm-inducing mileage out of a claustrophobic set, a miniscule budget, and some jaw-dropping gore effects, but Night of the Virgin is overly reliant on charm-free vulgarity and protracted histrionics. Still, although it runs about 20 minutes too long, the film is sufficiently novel and demented to potentially endure as a cult curio. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

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