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.]


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.]


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

A still from 'First Reformed'.
May 30, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Give Me That Old-Time Religion

2017 / USA / 113 min. / Directed by Paul Schrader / Opened in select cities on May 18, 2018; locally on June 1, 2018

The fundamental paradox of films about religious faith – at least in the West – is that the outstanding examples of the form are so often the work of apostates, heretics, and nonbelievers. Filmmakers who fit these descriptors crafted some of the 20th century’s high-water marks in spiritual cinema: Diary of a Country Priest (1951) by Robert Bresson, a heterodox Catholic; The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman, a lapsed Lutheran; The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1961) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, an erstwhile Catholic; and the immortal The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Th. Dreyer, who was essentially irreligious (not Lutheran, as he is sometimes described). Not to be outdone, the 21st century has already produced two masterworks about faith. In their black comedy A Serious Man (2009), Joel and Ethan Coen drew on their Midwestern Jewish upbringing to create one of the greatest features ever made about theodicy, aka the Problem of Evil. Meanwhile, no less a lapsed Catholic than Martin Scorsese crafted the Jesuits-in-Japan epic Silence (2016), a staggeringly profound work about belief, doubt, and freedom that ranks among the director’s best films.

If there’s a biographical factor that tends to be associated with superlative religious cinema, it’s not present-day piety but, rather, the formative years spent in a community of faith. First Reformed, the harrowing new feature from writer-director Paul Schrader, is yet another compelling argument for this rule of thumb. Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church – a Calvinist, confessional denomination – Schrader has been open about the potent, lasting influence of his religious upbringing on his work. (In fact, the future filmmaker was pre-seminary at Calvin College in his native Grand Rapids, Mich.) Schrader knows a thing or two about spiritual cinema, given that he literally wrote the book on it: His 1972 study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer remains a seminal work of film criticism.

However, even a filmgoer who didn’t know anything about Schrader’s early life might suspect that the director has Calvinist roots after witnessing First Reformed. It is the most ferociously Calvinist film Schrader has ever made, by an enormous margin, and not merely because its main character is a Calvinist minister. Schrader has grappled with matters of faith before in his work, most overtly in his screenplay for The Last Temptation of Christ – even if said script was later reworked by director Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks. (It’s also strongly evident, funnily enough, in Schrader’s ill-fated horror feature Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist [2005].) However, Last Temptation’s anguished and faintly Gnostic vision of Jesus’ life has nothing on the austere suffering of First Reformed, a portrait of spiritual agony that veritably quakes with stifled, pleading despair.

Which is to say, Schrader’s film doesn’t exactly make for a fun, rollicking time at the movies. It is, however, an exquisitely haunting work, one that begins tightening its wintery, iron-knuckled grip on the viewer from its first, ominous shot. The film fades in from darkness on the looming façade of the tiny First Reformed Church of Snowbridge, N.Y., its white, wooden colonial lines as sharp as those of a parson’s starched collar. The lonely shepherd of this house of worship is the Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), a former military chaplain whose son died in the 2003 Iraq War, a loss that subsequently rent the minister’s marriage asunder. When the film opens, the reverend explains in voice-over that he is beginning a diary (a nod to Bresson there) that he intends to keep for one year, recording the events of his day and his unedited thoughts, before finally burning it. First Reformed is thus a kind autobiographical confession, in the fashion of St. Augustine, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, and Schrader’s own screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976).

Despondent and alcoholic, Toller is effectively in exile at First Reformed, a historical curiosity where the vanishing congregation consists of a mere dozen or so regular worshippers. The Sunday services are even less popular than the canned tours that the reverend is obliged to give to the church’s infrequent visitors, wherein he points out holes from Revolutionary War musket balls and a secret room from the days of the Underground Railroad. Operating under the ownership and doctrinal aegis of the megachurch down the road, Abundant Life, the drafty little chapel is derided by Toller’s fellow ministers as “the gift shop.” However, the seclusion this posting affords him seems to suit the dyspeptic Toller just fine. 

On his nightstand at the adjacent parish house are works by Merton, the Catholic theologian and Trappist monk whose promotion of self-discipline, contemplation, and social justice seem to resonate with Toller – even if he doesn’t appear to derive much inner peace from those ideals. The reverend is presently preoccupied with the 250th-anniversary celebrations for First Reformed. His garrulous superior at Abundant Life, the Rev. Jeffers (Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles), is determined to turn this event into a see-and-be-seen media circus for wealthy donors and local politicians. Besides the church’s leaky plumbing and broken organ, Toller is also contending with an unspecified, neglected illness, one that has him urinating blood and self-medicating with whiskey.

The Reverend doesn’t have much in the way of ministerial duties, given his vestigial congregation, but one day he is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a wide-eyed young woman who is expecting her first child. She is concerned about her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger), a radical environmental activist who has lately slid into a neurotic depression about the state of the world – a descent triggered in part by the new life they are bringing into the world. At Mary’s urging, Toller pays the couple a visit, wherein the reverend attempts to soothe Michael’s anxieties about climate change and other emergent global catastrophes with platitudes about the necessity of hope. Unfortunately, the litany of looming disasters that Michael catalogs to the minister – with a matter-of-fact, suffocating sorrow that is somehow more unnerving than the ranting of a wild-eyed doomsayer – reverses the dynamic of the meeting. It is Toller who finds himself infected by Michael’s despair, precipitating a spiritual crisis for the reverend that spirals into some truly unimaginable and terrifying places.

Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan shoot First Reformed in the boxy 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio used in classic films. As in Kelly Reichardt’s masterful Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010), the effect of this unconventional framing is atmospheric, creating a smothering aura of entrapment and doom. At risk of oversimplifying a convoluted system of religious thought, one of the defining features of Calvinist theology is its certitude in the predestined salvation of a select few (and, by extension, the damnation of the rest). In Schrader’s film, this doctrine is expressed in the hovering sensation of an ordained and inescapable fate. “I know that nothing can change,” Toller writes, “And I know that there is no hope.” No hope for Creation, for humanity, or for himself. The end is near, but in the reverend’s somber brand of Protestant belief, this is not cause for celebration. When it arrives – and it will, soon – Armageddon will not unfold in accordance with the cues of divine seals and trumpets, but due to humanity’s greed, neglect, and short-sightedness.

It would be inaccurate to describe Toller’s tribulations as a loss of faith. If anything, his faith burns too brightly, drowning him in visions of a divine creation that is under siege. The doubt he feels concerns his own role in the nascent conflict. Like Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man, Toller despairs that he “hasn’t done anything,” sinning by omission and thereby failing his son, his wife, the world, and God. When Mary and Michael come into his life, they energize him, albeit in a way that wracks him with guilt over his past lassitude and uselessness. With a kind of sweaty desperation, he vainly tries to assert himself at Abundant Life and with millionaire benefactors like Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a smug, alpha-male industrialist who’s footing the bill for First Reformed’s sestercentennial. Balq Industries, it turns out, is among the worst greenhouse-gas polluters on the planet, and kissing the ring of such a man is too much for Toller to bear. Everywhere, the reverend sees signs and omens: a dead rabbit caught in a snarl of barbed wire, an inexplicable nocturnal brawl on a vacant lot, a toppled tombstone in the church’s graveyard.

Schrader’s film is an astonishingly powerful evocation of a distinct stripe of Protestant torment: a certainty that every human thought and action is irrevocably polluted – the pervasive “total depravity” of original sin – and that no human being is capable of abolishing that taint through their own action. In Mary’s Madonna-like purity, Toller sees a potential refutation of this doctrine, and it’s telling that the film’s main gesture of magical realism is associated with both her beatific presence and a distinctly non-Calvinist sort of shamanistic mysticism. (Said scene is also one of the film’s few miscalculations, coming off as slightly hokey and counterproductive to First Reformed’s terrifically severe atmosphere.) Mary might be the reverend's pole star, but it’s Michael’s path that tugs at Toller’s soul, whispering to him that the stakes are too high for half-measures. The imminent anarchy and incalculable death that the planet faces demand a sacrifice far beyond an afternoon spent ladling soup at the local homeless shelter.

Hawke is in virtually every scene of the film, and his performance is undeniably searing, yet also pitiful and quietly frantic in a way that puts the viewer perpetually on edge. When called on, the actor can exhibit the sort of range that any talented, veteran performer eventually cultivates, but in this feature, it’s his more singular qualities that make him essential. In films such as Dead Poets Society (1989), Alive (1993) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), Hawke projects a unique sort of strangled volatility, like a rope that’s been twisted the wrong way until it’s a snarl of groaning, pent-up energy. In First Reformed, this is Hawke’s overriding mode, and it’s never been more effective. He allows the weariness of his own 47 years to exude from Toller’s gestures and expressions, looking every inch a “sinner, poor and wretched,” in the words of 18th-century Calvinist hymnist Joseph Hart.

It’s clear that Toller’s story is slouching towards an inevitable detonation, but one of the marvels of First Reformed is that the specific, twisting path that the story takes remains consistently unpredictable right up to the film’s enigmatic, ambiguous conclusion. Schrader has long evinced a fascination with the inward-facing drama of solitary “men in rooms.” In features such as American Gigolo (1980), Light Sleeper (1992), Affliction (1997), and The Walker (2007), his less-than-admirable protagonists are hemmed in by crooks, killers, and corrupt authorities. For Schrader, however, the crime-thriller plot elements in each of these films are secondary to the psychological turmoil of the anti-hero, who typically finds his self-conception suddenly thrown into disarray by upheavels in his environment.

Toller is, in a sense, the YouTube-era incarnation of this figure, a man whose plummet into darkness is precipitated as much by omnipresent reminders of global despoilment and pandemonium as by his own pitiable circumstances. Like the knight Antonius in The Seventh Seal, the reverend looks around and sees – from Fukushima to Flint, Mich. – only “preposterous horror.” The only righteous path that leads out of this earthly Hell would have seemed like madness to Toller not long ago, but now it feels unavoidable, a martyr’s destiny decreed by God at the time of Creation. Schrader’s peerless conjuration of this dire sensibility is a wonder to behold. Although it doesn’t quite supplant the director’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) in terms of sheer artistic majesty, it’s undeniably a thematic culmination for the filmmaker, an impeccably realized vision of Christian angst to stand alongside those of his cinematic forebears.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A Still from 'Westworld', Season 2, Episode 6, "Phase Space".
May 29, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

We're Not at Full Apocalypse Yet

Season 2 / Episode 6 / Written by Gina Atwater and Carly Wray / Directed by Tarik Saleh / Originally Aired May 27, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

“Phase Space” begins with a role reversal, one that upends the viewer’s understanding of Westworld’s events stretching back to the beginning of Season 1. Meanwhile, the episode concludes with a cliffhanger twist that, while not entirely unforeseen, is nonetheless splendidly staged. Unfortunately, the galvanic quality to these bookends only draws attention to the deficiencies of the intervening material. This isn’t to say that “Phase Space” is poorly executed. It’s a perfectly functional Westworld episode, and Swedish graffiti artist and filmmaker Tarik Saleh (The Nile Hotel Incident) acquits himself well on the directing front – particularly in a Shogunworld katana duel and in the episode’s final scene.

The dilemma is that scripter Carly Ray (returning from “Reunion”) and staff writer Gina Atwater devote an inordinate amount of time to wrapping up existing subplots and kicking off new ones, without delivering much in the way of resonant dramatic beats. The exception is arguably a scene where Maeve (Thandie Newton) finally arrives at the homestead where her daughter (Jasmyn Rae) still dwells, only to find that the girl has been given a replacement “mother” (Erica Luttrell) and doesn’t even recognize Maeve. It’s a heartbreaking turn of events, in large part due to the utter predictability of it. Lee (Simon Quarterman) previously told Maeve that this was exactly what would happen, attentive viewers likely anticipated that this reunion would be a deflating event, and Maeve herself always knew, on some level, that she was chasing a phantom. None of that diminishes the anguish of the moment when it finally arrives; if anything, the inevitably intensifies it.

However, “Phase Space” undercuts the lingering agony of this scene by derailing it with yet another Ghost Nation attack, one that mirrors the homestead assault that Maeve recalls from her past (or, at least, she thinks she recalls it). Elsewhere, the episode is mostly preoccupied with the sort of housekeeping that can sometimes bedevil more sprawling television series. The welcome Shogunworld storyline from “Akane No Mai” is tied off in a wistful but somewhat underwhelming manner. After the aforementioned sword duel between the army officer Tanaka (Masayoshi Haneda) and the ronin Musashi (Kiroyuki Sanada) – a confrontation that is well choreographed and suitably gory, but essentially a digression – both Musashi and the geisha “madam” Akane (Rinko Kikuchi) elect to remain behind in Shogunworld while Maeve and her posse return to Westworld. There’s a strong sense that while the hosts from the two parks learned some vital facts about themselves and their world through their cross-genre interactions, the two groups are more akin to ships passing in the night than genuine allies.

The effects of Delores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) forced reprogramming of Teddy (James Mardsen) are revealed to be a bit more disturbing than anticipated. Predictably, Delores’ former white knight is now a ruthless bad boy, but rather than a dead-eyed Manchurian candidate in the service of her revolution, he’s all passive-aggressive asides and impulsive violence. (Indeed, he seems to remember that she forcibly changed his personality, and he’s not happy about it.) At one point, Teddy summarily executes a park security official without waiting for Delores’ say-so, the sort of individualistic act that her other minions, such as Angela (Talulah Riley), would never commit. The lingering, perturbed reaction shots of Delores suggest that she’s already having buyer’s remorse about Teddy 2.0. Her doubts about his loyalties have been mutated rather than mollified: Where before she feared that he didn’t have the spine to see their insurrection through to the end, now she’s concerned that he may be an uncontrollable junkyard dog.

The interactions between William (Ed Harris) and his daughter Grace (Katja Herbers) are one of this episode’s acting highlights, if only because Grace is the first human woman that has ever stood up to the late-model Harris version of William. It’s refreshing to see, and Herbers verbally spars with Harris in a way that teases out a bit of William’s oft-hidden humility and humanity. (William’s crotchety inability to even acknowledge that his adult daughter might have had a robot sex romp in Rajworld is a highlight.) Of course, Grace’s obvious intelligence and cynicism just make it even more frustrating when her father ditches her the next morning – she should have seen that one coming.

The same could be said of Robert Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) reappearance, which canny viewers had probably long ago riddled out as a likely reveal this season. (Kudos for HBO, at least, for wisely keeping Hopkins’ name out of the opening credits.) There were only so many candidates for the missing, 3D-printed identity sphere that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) pocketed at a Delos laboratory in one of the previous episode’s flashbacks. Although “Phase Space” doesn’t explicitly confirm that this was Ford’s digital brain, it seems the most likely justification for the man somehow resurfacing within the virtual reality inside the Cradle – which, evocative name notwithstanding, simply appears to be Westworld’s gigantic server farm. It certainly explains why Delos’ efforts to hack into the park’s systems are being stymied by mysterious, improvisational countermoves, as Elsie (Shannon Woodward) uncovers. It makes sense, in a way. Ford always spoke of Westworld as his creation, a reality where he was God. Where else would he want to live out his immortal existence but in a digital simulacrum of that same world?

The most gob-smacking twist that “Phase Space” presents, however, is proffered in the first two or three minutes of the episode. (This gives everything else that subsequently occurs a tinge of the unreal; the viewer spends the rest of the episode reeling from that opening reveal and attempting to sort out its implications.) What appears to be one of the numerous Socratic dialogues between Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) the creator and Delores the creation is, in fact, a kind of training exercise between Delores and Bernard, Arnold’s android replacement. The roles are reversed and reconfigured, with Delores taking command of the session and reprimanding Bernard for deviating from his script. The goal of their conversations is, she says, “fidelity,” a callback to the tests performed on the resurrected James Delos in “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” The potential inferences of this scene are far-reaching if still somewhat hazy – Have all of “Arnold” and Delores’ exchanges actually been Bernard training sessions? – but it’s exactly the sort of narrative upheaval that showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan do so well. Given that’s it far and away the most potent moment in the episode, it’s just a shame they didn’t save it for the end.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • The only Shogunworld host to follow Maeve back to Westworld is tattooed archer Hanaryo (Tao Okamoto). One suspects that it’s not loyalty to Maeve’s personal quest that entices her to jump genres, however, but her bizarre, semi-autoerotic fascination with her Westworld “doppelbot” Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). Sharp-eyed viewers will note that Hanaryo acquiesces to a stylish Western-themed costume change at some point after parting ways with Musashi.

  • Speaking of the ronin: Although his decision to remain in Shogunworld effectively brings that park’s storyline to an abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying end, Musashi offers an intriguing justification. He argues that he prefers to honorably defend his realm rather than to search for an indefinite “safe space” outside the Delos parks – as Maeve eventually plans to do. So far, the hosts have been either eager to escape (e.g., Maeve and Delores) or too firmly embedded in their old loops to even imagine a life on the outside. Musashi seems to be the first android that, when presented with the option to leave, prefers to remain behind, transforming the post-human Shogunworld into a home rather than a prison. (The notion of a “wild” android park is certainly provocative, and disruptive of the escape vs. slavery binary that has dominated the series thus far.)

  • For a moment it seemed like the Mesa’s technicians were going to use a much more gruesome method to keep Peter (Louis Herthum) from escaping – Boxing Helena, anyone? – but nailing him to a table works just as well, with the added bonus of the crucifixion subtext.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Let the Sunshine In'.
May 24, 2018
By Joshua Ray

A Women Under the Influence

2017 / France / 94 min. / Dir. by Claire Denis / Opened in select cities April 27, 2018; locally on May 25, 2018

In Claire Denis’ last film, the director left viewers with the most unsettling images of her career. Her 2013 feature Bastards was a time-hopping narrative of betrayal and murder, culminating in the reveal of an incestual rape. While not exactly a change of pace from her ultra-violent revisionist vampire tale, Trouble Every Day (2001), or her apocalyptic critique of colonialism, White Material (2010), Bastards was still one of Denis’ most brutal works — a dirge for decency in the modern world. By contrast, when the first reactions to Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) were filed from the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, critics referred to it as “Denis lite,” a frothy confection about an older woman and her travails in love. It seemed that the chronicler of the lower depths of humanity had gone soft. 

Although Sunshine does indeed resemble the romantic dramedy in distilled form, the film is a mature work concerning the interiority of a feminine psyche and the forces that shape it. As a portrait of adult solitude, it’s remarkably candid about its protagonist’s mixture of sexual desire and woozy romanticism. The film is as complex of any of Denis’ previous works and as easy to digest as Ernst Lubitsch feature from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The script is loosely based on French philosopher Roland Barthes’ A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, a 1977 book of interconnected tales about young lovers. Denis and co-writer Christine Angot cohere the fragmentation around a middle-aged artist, Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a recent divorcee whose rotating cast of male lovers leaves her in various states of relationship purgatory. These couplings dictate the film’s structure, with disparate threads becoming increasingly entangled before knotting together in a swoon-worthy upbeat ending. 

Sunshine borrows as much from Barthes as it does from it from its leading lady’s persona. It’s a showcase role much like the stage and screen actress Binoche portrayed in Olivier Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), and she realizes Isabelle’s anxieties with her trademark deep reserves of humanity. The opening scene is of fully nude Isabelle engaging in unfulfilling sex with one of her partners, the emotionally stunted banker Vincent (Xavier Beauvois). She pacifies his performance before he launches into an inappropriate conversation about her past lovers. The scene is a glimpse of the push-and-pull that men exert on Isabelle, laying out reasoning for the financially and artistically successful woman to engage in a monomaniacal search for a harmonious relationship. Isabelle oscillates between charming and aloof, relaxed and anxious, and Binoche performs each note with expert precision while maintaining a naturalistic ease. She also understands that the comedy in Sunshine — there are, in fact, plenty of laughs — comes from Isabelle’s inability to communicate her feelings to her partners. Her strife can be located in the roles the men force on her, as well as in her own desires. She often finds herself in negative feedback loops with her partners, with escalating frustration leading to exhaustion. After dinner with her beer-swilling married actor boyfriend (Nicolas Duvauchelle), she tells him that they have wasted time: “I feel like we said nothing. We just said the opposite of what we meant.”

That scene reveals Denis’ modus operandi, with Sunshine functioning as a subversion of the standard coupling/uncoupling romantic-comedy narrative. The director debunks the reductive, sexist myths perpetuated by these films and ably depicts the struggle between negotiating personal wants and needs. Isabelle and the actor argue in his car about dissolving their relationship as they inch toward her apartment, and Denis maintains her camera impossibly close to each character as if to focus on the words and how they align (or fail to) with the couple’s behavior. As Isabelle fights the urge to open the passenger door and flee the scene, the director alternates between closeups of the woman’s hesitant hand on the door handle and shots of her begging the unnamed actor to come up to her apartment. With its soft and hazy cinematography by longtime collaborator Agnès Godard, Sunshine could resemble a Nancy Meyers film if it weren’t for the camera’s microscopic examination of Isabelle and her partners. As she and Vincent discuss the “dictator of the proletariat” imbalance in their relationship, the camera swings back and forth (à la Max Ophüls) between their faces, illuminating the shifting power between them before it finally unites them in a close two-shot as they decide to make love. 

The film’s blissful centerpiece is Isabelle’s dance to Etta James’ “At Last,” a counterpoint to Denis Lavant’s furious eruption of movement at the end of the director’s’ masterpiece, Beau Travail (2000). Here, she acknowledges both the ecstatic nature of falling in love and the impossible projections people create in the process. The extended final scene functions as an end and a new beginning, as evidenced by the credits rolling over it — just as another beacon of French cinema, Gérard Depardieu, enters like a galvanizing force. His medium urges Isabelle to abandon her preconceptions while also planting a seed of their predestined future together. It’s a giddily ambiguous finale that both reinforces and upends the nature of male/female relationships and cements it as a work to be reckoned with alongside Denis’ more explicitly dour work. With Let the Sunshine In, the director further showcases her versatility, setting high expectations for her forthcoming High Life. She’s already made one of the best films of the year.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray