A still from 'At Eternity's Gate'.
November 21, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

He Found Creation Slightly More Than He Could Accept

2018 / France, Switzerland, UK, USA / 110 min. / Dir. by Julian Schnabel / Opened in select cities on Nov. 16, 2018; locally on Nov. 21, 2018

Ambitious filmmakers have previously taken the narrative biopic form in some unconventional directions. Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan-themed quasi-fictional anthology I’m Not There (2007) is probably the gold standard for this sort “anti-biopic” – at least in the 21st century – while David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) mutated William S. Burroughs’ allegedly un-filmable novel into a de facto vision quest into the author’s unsettling headspace. French director Julian Schnabel’s new Vincent van Gogh feature, At Eternity’s Gate, isn’t as daring as those films, attempting as it does a relatively literal-minded representation of the Dutch painter’s subjective, cracked-prism perspective. Still, compared to a crowd-pleaser like A Beautiful Mind (2001), which dubiously conveyed the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia in the argot of a slick espionage thriller, Schnabel’s film is commendably earnest, grounded, and empathetic in its depiction of both mental illness and artistic ardor. While At Eternity’s Gate adheres to the traditional view of van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) as an ahead-of-his-time visionary who suffered under the tyranny of a philistine public and his own disordered mind, the film also lends that narrative a fresh, expressive anguish.

Roughly chronological but pointedly slippery in its depiction of time’s passage, Schnabel’s film focuses on the final two years of van Gogh’s life, beginning with his disillusioned departure from Paris in early 1888, whereupon he relocated to Arles in the south of France. It was there that the painter’s work matured, sharpened, and began to exhibit the characteristics for which he is best known: vivid colors, energetic brushwork, and a heightened fascination with the rural milieu and the natural world. Schnabel presents this period – as well as the artist’s later time at an asylum in Saint-Rémy and later still as a guest of Dr. Paul Gachet (Mathieu Amalric) in Auvers-sur-Oise – as an impressionistic flurry of events. Some of the sequences have a disconcerting intimacy, the camera perched seemingly inches from the noses of characters as they hunch together in urgent conversation. Other scenes, such as Vincent’s wanderings through the fields and forests of Arles, border on the abstract: oneiric flashes of yellow-leaved branches rustling; of ragged boots crunching through dry grass; of the painter’s wide-brimmed straw hat bobbing up and down in the sunlight.

Schnabel and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme employ jittery handheld camerawork, pushing it to such disorienting extremes that the story becomes drenched with a perpetual sense of scattered anxiety. (The motion sensitive should be advised: The shakiest Jason Bourne actioner has nothing on At Eternity’s Gate.) Often, the film literally assumes van Gogh’s first-person viewpoint, peering through a distorted lens at a world that seems alternately enchanted and hellish. At times, Schnabel and his sound team repeat and layer the film’s dialog, suggesting the cacophony of obsessive thought that babbles inside the painter’s skull, haunting him with the words of family, friends, and himself. The feature portrays the creation of specific works – L'Arlésienne, Tree Roots, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, and one of van Gogh’s boot paintings, among others – but it is not really a study of the artistic process, per se. (Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait from earlier this year provides an instructive contrast, absorbed as that film is with the agony of a single painting’s physical production.) Indeed, Schnabel ultimately lends more attention to the colors, shapes, and textures that inspired the painter than to his acts of creation. At Eternity’s Gate is foremost about van Gogh’s extraordinary way of looking at the world – and the grueling misery that this vision inflicted on him.

Refreshingly, the screenplay by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carrière, and Louise Kugelberg isn’t particularly interested in providing the viewer with the sort of linear, greatest-hits life story that is so often the default approach of more banal biopics. Not only is the film narrowly focused on the artist’s final two years on Earth, but its loose, fragmented style doesn’t allow for the conventional, this-then-that recitation of Wikipedia bullet points. Rather than attempt to sculpt a glib narrative around real-world events, the writers instead underline the story’s episodic yet unstructured quality, turning the absence of a character arc into a feature rather than a bug. In those scenes where At Eternity’s Gate focuses on specific incidents – as opposed to simply crouching in van Gogh’s cramped bedroom studio or wandering with him through wheat fields – it uses those events to deepen its portraiture of the artist, rather than to advance the plot (of which there is precious little). Ultimately, the film is much less concerned with drama than in conjuring the experience of being Vincent van Gogh, or at least Schnabel’s distinctly 21st-century conception of that experience.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film isn’t all that interested in educating viewers about the dry facts of its subject’s life, At Eternity’s Gate often assumes that the audience is populated with art history geeks and van Gogh enthusiasts. This turns out to be both the film’s best and worst trait. While it means that Schnabel isn’t obliged to waste time explaining, for example, who Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) is or why he is important, the director can’t resist littering the frame with the arthouse equivalent of Easter eggs. Some of these are pleasantly poetic, such as a shot at the Saint-Rémy asylum that visually paraphrases van Gogh’s The Round of the Prisoners. Others are as jarring as a record scratch. When the artist briefly crosses paths with the bushy-bearded Arles postman and suggests that he sit for a painting, it feels like a gratuitous wink directed at the viewer erudite enough to recognize the subject of Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin. Too often, the film’s heavy-handed allusions feel like inside jokes that have been slipped in solely to flatter its presumably literate audience.

Those same viewers are apparently expected to disregard fact that the 63-year-old Dafoe is playing a man who died at the age of 37. Truth be told, it’s a testament both to Schnabel’s confidence in his supple, bittersweet approach and to Dafoe’s indelible strength as a performer that this historical discrepancy is never particularly distracting. Dafoe’s portrayal highlights van Gogh’s mania, distress, and exhaustion – traits underlined by the actor's sharp, creased features. It’s a role that has previously been filled by no less a rugged countenance than Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life [1956]), but Dafoe makes this iteration of van Gogh wholly his own. With both rawness and elegance, he conveys the consuming paradox of van Gogh’s self-conception. On the one hand, the artist is blessed with absolute certainty about his life’s purpose – to paint, and only to paint. On the other, the sights he yearns to share with the world torment him, filling him with both elation and the blackest terror. “Your vision of the world is quite frightening, isn’t it?” asks a doctor after the notorious episode in which van Gogh excises his left ear with a razor. All the artist’s profound psychological agony can be gleaned solely from Defoe’s shuddering, exhaled reply: “Yes!”

It’s a wrecked and aching portrayal, albeit one that is undermined by the self-satisfied historical hindsight that runs through many of the film’s pivotal conversations. Often, the dialog is less concerned with realism than with scoring points against the benighted 19th-century people who were too blinkered to recognize van Gogh’s brilliance. When an asylum priest (Mads Mikkelsen) disparages one of the artist’s paintings as “unpleasant and ugly”, the viewer is invited to cluck their tongue as the cleric’s provincialism. In the film, Van Gogh himself is prone to dropping Chicken Soup for the Artist aphorisms and speechifying superciliously about his work in a manner that feels conspicuously anachronistic. In these moments, it appears that Schnabel is indulging in a sort of ex post facto victory lap on the painter’s behalf, as though van Gogh’s contemporary, world-wide renown was insufficient posthumous reward for his brief life of misery. While this inclination undercuts the film’s otherwise intense pathos, At Eternity’s Gate remains an aesthetically bracing and ecstatically immersive work of artist portraiture, one centered on a suitably beguiling performance.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Boy Erased'.
November 15, 2018
By Cait Lore

You Were Washed, You Were Sanctified, You Were Justified

2018 / USA / 115 min. / Dir. by Joel Edgerton / Opened in select cities on Nov. 2, 2018; locally on Nov. 16, 2018

Who, exactly, is religious-based gay conversion therapy meant to help? This is but one question at the center of director Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased. Another, for the central character Jared Eamon (Lucas Hedges) anyway, involves his sexuality: Is he actually gay? He tells his parents he doesn’t know for certain, although he does “think about other men”. Jared is willing to give conversion therapy a try, if there’s any possibility it can “fix” these feelings.

Jared’s parents, Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman), are pulled in two different directions. Their paternal instincts cause them to ache along with their son. The Eamon family does not discuss homosexuality as a “choice”, but as an illness or trial that they must be weather together. It’s an important distinction, and not something commonly portrayed in pray-away-the-gay family dramas. However, there’s also the matter of the faith-based reasoning that conflicts with their parental urges. Marshall is a Southern Baptist preacher, after all, and one that spends much of his time railing against eternal sins before his congregation. The Eamons love each other, and they know that compromises must be made, but how can a model Christian family come to terms with a problem like this? 

It’s Nancy alone that takes her son to conversion therapy center Love in Action. She stays at a hotel down the road, while Jared gets oriented with the system. Everyone’s on-board at first, it seems. Most of all Jared, who takes a liking to Love in Action’s director Victor Sykes (played by director Edgerton). Sykes assures the boy and his family that Love in Action will do “right” by Jared. Their success rate is high, Jared’s parents are told, and all they need to do is give the program proper time (and money, lots of money).

However, Love in Action’s road to conversion is paved with the most frightening, maybe even perverse, intentions. As Jared sees it, the organization’s methods, disturbing as they may be, are his one hope at finding communion with his parents and his religious life. Trying to adjust to Sykes’ practices is a bigger challenge than Jared expected, though. The therapy “activities” turn out to be humiliating power-plays between Sykes and his “clients”. For instance, all new clients are required to take a “moral inventory” — recounting their past traumas, as well as their sexual fantasies and practices — and then present it to the group. It’s psychological abuse, simply put, but it’s also an attempt to breakdown Jared’s sense of self, which appears to be the primary goal at Love in Action. Individual clients are targeted through needlessly cruel displays of power. When Jared tells Sykes and his staff he wants to be a writer, they insist on taking his notebooks away. Writing could lead to corrupting influences, they explain, and so could another year of college, they tell Jared’s mother. As Jared’s time in conversion therapy becomes unbearable, his family must together decide how to reconcile their beliefs and their love for their son. 

There’s another question at the center of Boy Erased, and that’s the “what next” question. That is to say, the film is an investigation into adaptation — in the literal sense, considering that Boy Erased is adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir. In regards to Edgerton’s treatment, however, the narrative is propelled forward by characters’ (in)abilities to evolve and be transformed by lived experience. Here, answers don’t come quick or easy, which makes for a sophisticated, sensitively-drawn investigation of its themes. This approach gives Boy Erased’s actors the room they need to make these roles their own. Crowe and Kidman are as solid as ever, though audience members wouldn’t be wrong if they accused Kidman of playing it safe here. Lucas Hedges’ role is anything but cozy, however. He’s quickly becoming one of the most exciting young actors to watch. Without any big “aha!” moments, Jared’s maturity really creeps up on the audience, owing to a subtle performance by Hedges. 

Not all the characters in Boy Erased areas are as carefully realized as Jared, though. And that’s where the film’s problems — which there are many — begin. Much to the detriment of the narrative, virtually every character outside of Jared’s immediate family is woefully underdeveloped. Take for instance the program’s director Victor Sykes: His real-life counterpart, as the film’s coda reveals, no longer serves as the director at Love in Action, but is now happily married to another man. Given this fact, one would think that Boy Erased would make reference to Syke’s repressed sexuality within the narrative. It only does so, however, by hinting that Syke and his co-workers get some sort of sexual release from their therapy power games. This merely reduces these characters to goofy cartoon villains, which is a shocking oversight on Edgerton’s part, considering how generous and insightful the script is in other areas.

In a year run rampant with culture-war morality plays, Boy Erased should have been a breath of fresh air. This is not one of those milquetoast movies that try to manage a viewer’s radical politics for them. One of the best things about Boy Erased is its steadfast dedication to introspection, for both the film’s characters and its audience. However, Edgerton isn’t interested in fleshing everyone out. In leaving certain characters in the dust, the film fails to ask audiences to get their nails dirty, to sympathize or simply understand how people give in to hate. This results in a film whose various conflicts feel undeveloped, leading to tedium as the running time ticks on. It might be a radically kind feature, but even the noblest of intentions can’t save a film with a serious execution problem.

Grade: C-

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'Widows'.
November 15, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Women at Large

2018 / UK, USA / 129 min. / Dir. by Steve McQueen / Opens in wide release on Nov. 16, 2018

There’s a shot early in director Steve McQueen’s Widows that haphazardly announces the politically subversive nature of this Hollywood-made heist thriller. Following a rally for his program supporting women entrepreneurs of color, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) — the white incumbent alderman for largely black ward on the south side Chicago — berates his campaign manager and girlfriend, Siobhan (Molly Kunz) in the back of their luxury car.

Instead of following the pair into the back of the vehicle, McQueen mounts a camera at the front of the car, showing the city streets as the passengers glide to their destination. At one point during the ride, the camera pivots to the other side of the street, highlighting the socioeconomic gap between the politician’s underprivileged constituents and his own gated mansion just a short ride down the street.

This divide in the urban United States is well-trod thematic territory, but McQueen gives it startling clarity here. It’s so clear, in fact, that the moment removes itself — and the viewer — from the film and becomes an act of non-narrative filmmaking in stark contrast to the largely routine but supremely well-mounted genre fare that surrounds it. To this end, Widows often peddles half-baked political grandstanding, including the egregious inclusion of a real-world fatal traffic stop that otherwise goes without comment.

Bludgeoning the audience with theme was the director’s mode in the morose sex addiction drama, Shame (2011), before he’d win a deserved Best Director Oscar for the more urgent and lean 12 Years a Slave (2013). Widows finds McQueen somewhere in the middle of those two previous works, oscillating between being punishing and transcendent. Here, McQueen doesn’t trust himself or his audience sufficiently to allow the plot’s intrinsic qualities to speak to the racial politics of modern America.

He and co-screenwriter, Gillian Flynn — the writer behind twisty novels Sharp Objects and Gone Girl and their filmic adaptation — update a 1983 British miniseries of the same name to a contemporary Chicago where sociopolitical upheaval is prevalent. Veronica (Viola Davis) is a teacher’s union representative married to big-time crook Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson). Their interracial relationship — paired with Veronica’s wealth that contrasts with the financial struggles of other black characters — is one of the more compelling and sophisticated acknowledgements of racial parity throughout Widows.

The opening shot of the film is a sexy jolt, painting a portrait of Veronica and Harry at the peak of their romantic prime. It speaks to Widows’ canny craft as a thriller that even revealing that much about the film’s opening feels like a spoiler. Mere minutes later, the audience is thrust into a heist that ends fatally for its five male participants, Rawlins included. Their fumble leaves the grieving Veronica on the hook for two million dollars to two-faced politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, proving versatility in a role very different from those in Atlanta [2015-] and White Boy Rick [2018]). 

Manning’s posse is led by his violent sociopath brother, Jatemme, played Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out (2017). It’s a brooding and intense role; Jatemme initially only looms in the background, letting his older brother handle the manipulation, before eventually engaging in his own fatal mind games. In a sequence as cinematically showy and thematically weighty as the aforementioned car ride, a camera swirls around Jatemme and a couple of criminal low-lifes as they rap for him, just before he suddenly shoots them dead. His sadism is only matched by McQueen’s willingness to linger on it, unnecessarily and tortuously taking it to extremes later in the film with a protracted stabbing sequence in a bowling alley.

Jamal seeks to become the first black alderman of the 18th ward, running against Mulligan, who all but inherited the position from his father, Tom. In that role, veteran actor Robert Duvall does his best scenery-chewing impression of himself against Farrell, who dips in and out of a Chicago accent as shifty as his character’s political dealings. Those two, along with another seethingly gross portrayal of a Chicago stereotype by Jackie Weaver, represent the nadir of the performances in Widows, whose actors either work within McQueen’s modern Hollywood parable or completely against it.

The first half of Widows is filled with backroom political power struggles, and although it isn’t initially clear why or how Mulligan’s re-election bid factors into the botched robbery, Flynn and McQueen begin to intertwine these threads with those of Veronica’s desperate mission to pay back Manning. That mission becomes the main thrust of Widows as seemingly loosely-connected events and people begin colliding like charged particles in an accelerator.

As in Flynn’s previous work, the disparate plotting seems to lack coherence at first blush, but as Veronica discovers that Harry left her plans to a future robbery — one that will allow her to settle her debt and live comfortably again — most of the film’s details gain clarity. Still, Widows is overstuffed with rudementarily sketched characters and comparatively flabby when considered alongside the lean and mean Gone Girl (2014), David Fincher’s adaptation of Flynn’s popular beach read.

The core female characters of Widows, however, are drawn with interest and complexity. As Veronica, Davis lends credibility to the somewhat outlandish plot by carrying herself with both dignity and desperation as she enlists the other widows of her husband’s gang members to help her. It’s a multifaceted showcase for a performer who’s known for her reserves of power. Here, Davis is allowed her trademark snot-nosed wails of anguish, but is also permitted to be a humane superhero figure with a mean, manipulative streak.

The other titular thieves are equally fascinating, pushing Widows in the right direction as a screed against the gender, classist, and racial power imbalances within the United States. Elizabeth Debicki is wickedly funny as second generation Polish emigre, Alice, a woman whose apparent vapidity begins to dissipate when she’s given purpose. Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda is a complex badass, negotiating between single motherdom and her criminal undertakings. Finally, Cynthia Erivo — handily demonstrating that that she has the presence to hang with more veteran performers — portrays quiet powerhouse Belle, a beneficiary of Mulligan’s program for women of color.

The righteous lust and determination with which Veronica and her cohorts carry out Harry’s plan become a fist-pumping act of mainstream feminist gender-flipping. It feels necessary and just after the disappointment of this year’s other female-led heist film, Gary Ross’ Ocean’s 8. That film only hinted at the sociopolitical imbalances that spurned its creation, while Widows illustrates their depth and breadth. In its most dour moments, McQueen’s film crashes with thudding obviousness, but when it reaches supreme Hollywood generic craftsmanship, its message soars.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Black Memorabilia'.
November 9, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2018 / USA, China / 63 min. / Dir. by Chico Colvard / U.S. release date TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Within the past year, American cities including Baltimore, Md., Austin, Tex., and Durham, N.C., have seen their Confederate symbols toppled to the ground. Statues, plaques, and flags have been removed either by governmental action or by the force of protestors. The erasure of these signposts is an important movement forward for the country to work through its past and present sins of racial violence and injustice — a righteous acknowledgement of support to black Americans. Those opposed to the removals would say this is erasing “history,” ignoring the objects’ purposes as celebratory rather than contextual. 

Chico Colvard’s documentary Black Memorabilia digs deeper into a reckoning with this past, exploring what some might perceive as “smaller” documents of United States’ oppression of people of color: the stereotypes of mammy, Uncle Tom, zip coon, and so on that proliferate through the American popular consciousness via Saturday morning cartoons, antique coin banks, and other seemingly innocuous everyday artifacts. Colvard eschews typical didactic documentary forms and creates a kaleidoscopic tryptic about the power of these ever-present black cyphers — works made by white Americans in order to pigeonhole their black compatriots as lesser beings. 

Memorabilia graciously allows for consideration of this topic from four differing angles, permitting the viewer a dialog with the people central to each part of the film’s three main sections. The film borrows the chapter structure of a silent film for its mode of storytelling. In doing so, Colvard slyly acknowledges the role of his chosen artistic form — cinema — in doling out insidious propaganda. (D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking and thoroughly racist The Birth of a Nation [1915] gets a shoutout.) In further pushing non-fiction limits, a title card boldy defines “hybrid documentary” before the film begins in earnest — the reason for which remains a mystery until its end. 

The “Manufacture” chapter uses first-person narration to tell the tale of a working-class Chinese ironworker, Jian, who makes replications of turn-of-the-20th century piggy banks in the form of a smiling black figure with an unspeakable name. Having inherited the trade from her family, she spends her time iron-casting and painting, stating she sees it as a kind of personal poetry when she looks at her brush strokes in the overdrawn red lips of her black caricatures. Jian acknowledges her own people’s history of subjugation as her family watches a story about Black Lives Matter protests on the national news, seeing parallels between them and people of color in the United States. 

In “Consume”, antiques dealer, Kim lacks any of the guilt Jian begins to exhibit towards the end of her story. She’s a white Virginian who inherited her own trade in dealing with the racist objects of American history: attending roadshows to sell the original knickknacks that Jian replicates. Kim keeps claiming her ephemera is “black history,” choosing to ignore their origins. Colvard doesn’t confront this contradiction, instead allowing black Brooklyn artist Alexandria Smith to discuss her own relationship to the negative representations in the film’s final chapter, “Reclamation". If “Consume” is the most traditionally-told of the three segments, “Reclamation” is a free-flowing personal essay that allows its subject to explore the ambiguity inherent in the use of stereotyped black figures in her own art. 

Throughout Black Memorabilia, the viewer is aware that something within it must be a work of fiction, given its earlier self-identification as a “hybrid documentary.” Colvard reveals the integration in his epilogue, uncovering that a confession by one of the characters was his own act of reclamation and wishful thinking. This turn doesn’t pull the rug out from under the audience. Instead, the director daringly asks them to re-evaluate the feeling with which the disclosure initially struck them, empowering them to reject, reproach, and reclaim dangerous stereotypes of black Americans. 

Black Memoribilia screens Saturday, Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum. The event is free and open to the public. There will be a post-film discussion led by D.B. Dowd, professor of Art and American Culture Studies at Washington University, and Vernon C. Mitchell Jr., curator of Popular American Arts and Culture at Washington University Libraries.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Sentence'.
November 8, 2018
By Cait Lore

2018 / USA / 85 min. / Dir. by Rudy Valdez / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 12, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Rudy Valdez was working as a New York-based documentary cinematographer when he got the call: His older sister, Cynthia Shank, was being sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. “She went to prison because we’re poor,” Valdez has said in interviews. Indeed, class plays a major role in the specific case of Shank; however, her circumstances also puts a spotlight on a under-reported aspect of the modern American criminal justice system. For over four decades, there has been a rapid increase in women’s incarceration, a phenomenon that largely comes down to policy and practice changes within law enforcement, primarily with respect to the War on Drugs. Rudy Valdez’ new film, The Sentence, puts a face on a national crisis that has languished on the outskirts of public discourse for far too long.

On May 9, 2002, Shank’s boyfriend, Alex Humphry was murdered outside their Michigan home. When police searched the house they found over 40 pounds of cocaine, a cache of illegal firearms, and a king’s ransom in marijuana, packaged to sell. It was the biggest drug bust in the city’s history, and with no perpetrator left alive to prosecute, the authorities threatened Shank with a 13-year sentence, but Shank resisted: “When I first started dating Alex, he didn’t do these drug dealings.” She was insistent that she herself didn’t buy drugs, let alone deal them.

At the time, Shank’s denials were sufficient for the state and federal courts to ultimately drop the charges. However, six years later, after Shank had married and given birth to three children, a federal investigation led to her being charged with four counts of conspiracy. Again, she denied the accusations, this time alleging that she was a victim of domestic abuse; she couldn’t possibly have left Humphry without risking her life. However, under current U.S. drug laws, even individuals in the most peripheral roles relating to narcotics — such as being the abused girlfriend of a highly dangerous drug trafficker — can be held accountable for the entire quantity of drugs seized in connection with a conspiracy. Due to minimum sentencing requirements, Shank was convicted to spend 15 years in prison.

After her sentencing in 2008, Rudy Valdez began making frequent trips home to New York to be with his sister’s family, their parents, and other siblings. In what starts as a personal project, meant for his sister’s eyes only, Valdez records everything that occurs on these trips. At some point, in the 10-plus years he spent capturing intimate family exchanges, Valdez evidently realized that there was a documentary feature somewhere in the hundreds of hours of footage. Audiences are lucky that he did so, as The Sentence offers rare emotional insights into how grief manifests within a family.

At one point in the film, Valdez expresses his doubts about the project. “I don’t know what it is about being behind the camera,” he says, “...sometimes I feel like it’s a coward’s way out.” This is far from the case. The Sentence is the sort of film that can interview a 6-year-old about her newly incarcerated mother and transform it into a revelatory act of courage. The documentary space that Valdez creates for his family affords them the opportunity to “perform” their feelings for each other. Through these moments, Valdez’s film taps into a rare empathetic impulse, primal in nature. It’s a precious human story at the heart of a sociological disaster that spans decades, a tale that only Valdez and his family could tell. That fact alone makes The Sentence worth seeing.  

The Sentence screens Friday, Nov. 9 at 2:00 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum. The event is free and open to the public. Tila Neguse, coordinator of The Divided City Initiative at Washington University’s Center for the Humanities, will be hosting an introduction and post-film discussion.

Tags: SLIFF Cait Lore

A still from 'Chasing Portraits'.
November 8, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

2018 / USA, Canada, Israel, Poland / 88 min. / Dir. by Elizabeth Rynecki / U.S. release data TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Early in her melancholy, unnervingly personal documentary feature, Chasing Portraits, filmmaker Elizbaeth Rynecki makes a pivotal decision with respect to the artwork of her late great-grandfather, Moshe, a victim of the Holocaust. Working mostly in oil on paper, Moshe Rynecki created striking paintings of intimate domestic and religious moments in Polish Jewish life, realizing everyday scenes in a markedly modern style that reflected the influences of French Impressionism and German Expressionism. Director Rynecki thought her ancestor’s artistic legacy to be somewhat obscure prior to her efforts to uncover more information about Moshe, whose works decorated the walls of her childhood home. When she eventually learns to her astonishment that not only do numerous other Moshe Rynecki paintings exist, but that they are held in high regard by museums and collectors, the filmmaker finds herself at a strategic and moral crossroads. Should she pursue her great-grandfather’s war-scattered works as a descendent seeking their repatriation? Or should she assume the stance of a historian who merely wishes to bring a neglected artist into the sunlight?

Rynecki elects to take the latter approach, and that choice informs the tone of Chasing Portraits. Unexpectedly, however, rather than turning her search into a detached academic endeavor, the director’s decision to abandon her family’s potential ownership claims has the effect of intensifying the personal dimension of her mission. By putting to rest suspicions that she seeks to wrest the paintings from the current owners, Rynecki eschews the legal thriller elements that are often pushed to forefront in stories of repatriated Jewish art (e.g., Woman in Gold [2015]). Chasing Portraits thereby attains a more affecting and emotionally thorny character, as the desire to see Moshe’s lost paintings with her own eyes becomes an end in itself for the filmmaker. This yearning takes on an almost religious dimension as Rynecki winds her way through a labyrinth of fragmentary records and crisscrosses the world, often based on slender clues and vague assurances.

It eventually becomes apparent that Chasing Portraits is not a traditional biodoc-by-proxy of Rynecki’s ancestor, or even a delve into the annals of pre-War Jewish art history. Instead, the documentary is revealed as a fraught procedural about the filmmaker’s search for the physical art objects themselves; about said objects’ meaning (or lack thereof) to the myriad institutions and private individuals who possess them; and about Rynecki’s understanding of her family and her own place in history. The film is accordingly nothing so prosaic as "entertaining" or "interesting" in the manner of many documentaries about historical mysteries. This is a work of sorrowful passion, a pilgrimage to put white-gloved hand to painted paper and thereby achieve spiritual communion with the past.

It’s an undeniably potent approach – and perhaps the only one that makes sense for a tale so entangled with the filmmaker’s own story. Rynecki is commendably open in her voiceover narration about the conflicting emotions she contends with during her odyssey. She doesn’t present herself as a righteous champion so much as a humble seeker, her hunger entwined with questions and uncertainties. At times, the director’s cinematic instincts bend towards the self-indulgent – as when she visits the concentration camp where her great-grandfather was murdered, only to lean distractingly on clichéd visuals – but such minor missteps are counterbalanced by the startlingly honest pathos that prevails throughout the film. Rynecki’s own father is at the center of much of the film’s troubled ambiguity. Good-natured but emotionally walled-off, the man is visibly reluctant to discuss his wartime memories, and the filmmaker wrestles with how far to push her father in the interest of exhuming their family’s history. The director’s fiery investigative instincts are often set in opposition to her empathy, deference, and diplomacy. The film’s self-consciousness about that tension is one of its most refreshing features.

Indeed, what most distinguishes Chasing Portraits is this bruised unease that discolors Rynecki’s ostensibly straightforward story of righteous truth-seeking. It’s discernable in modern Warsaw’s glib fetishization of its decimated Polish Jewish culture, epitomized in the cutesy and faintly anti-Semitic tourist tchotchkes that startle the director when she encounters them on the street. It’s uncomfortably close to the surface in the inexplicable evasions and recalcitrance from one painting’s present-day owner, who seems determined to go to her grave with the artwork hidden away in her possession, unseen even by scholars. It’s these scribblings of imperfect justice and unsettled history that give Chasing Portraits its jolt of credibility, amplifying the power of the film’s achingly personal character.

Chasing Portraits screens Friday, Nov. 9 at 7:15 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.


Tags: SLIFF Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Support the Girls'.
November 7, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2018 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Andrew Bujalski / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Aug. 24, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

[Note: Critic Joshua Ray previously reviewed Support the Girls here.]

Andrew Bujalski’s cinema is not one of grandiosity and bombast. He’s the forefather of the “mumblecore” movement — a current of early-to-mid-aughts indie films filled with low-key performances and concerned with low-key life. In the years, since Bujalski has moved outward into more experimental territory, making 2012’s Computer Chess, an Altman-esque sprawl shot on low-grade consumer home video. That was a supreme step forward, but now, Support the Girls is his crowning achievement. On its gleeful surface, it retains the low-stakes sitcom setup of the movement Buljaski helped to create. Roiling below that, though, the film contains deep reserves of humanity: moments of spiritual grace under pressure, moral and ethical consideration, and the purest expressions of understanding and platonic love. 

“Let’s go straight to number two,” suggests Maci (the apparently chameleonic Haley Lu Richardson), the superstar server with a permanent smile and a shining personality to match, skipping past the first work rule of “No Drama!” By the time Lisa and Maci welcome a group interview of potential new hires to their Texas bar and grill, the former has had a complete emotional meltdown in her car before discovering that a burglar is currently stuck in the restaurant’s air vents. Remarkably, there are far more taxing tests of faith to follow. Set almost entirely during a single day — save for a gorgeously wrought coda — Support the Girls works on a small scale to present a snapshot of the lives of these women.

The film is also an impressively concise portrait of the United States during these turbulent times, as well as a celebration of the empathy and decisiveness required to navigate such an era. Bulijaski doesn’t shy away from exploring gender and sexual politics in America, but his feature is never pedantic or polemical about these topics. “Do they grab you?” asks one of the potential new hires early in the film, and although Support the Girls doesn’t have an answer to the problem of imposed masculine power, it deftly explores the intricacies of that power. The women of Double Whammies are obliged to wade through complex waters: subject to the leering eyes and groping hands of men, while working out how to use such invasions to their benefit. 

The film is also slyly ripe with overtones about race. Lisa, Danyelle, and Nika (Nicole Onyeje) are the only people of color working the front of the house. Danyelle makes a point that Lisa isn’t allowed to schedule her and Nika during the same shifts because the white conservative owner, played with smarmy machismo by James LeGros, forbids it. The kitchen, however, is largely staffed by people of color. When Lisa identifies the cousin of her fry cook, Arturo, as the vent-trapped burglar, she asks him to resign, but acknowledges the day-to-day strife they endure by refusing to get the police involved. “I do my best to be generous,” she says, to which he replies, “You’re always generous.” She still asks him to finish his shift, however, given that she’s short-handed.

Moments like these uphold early reactions to the film as a kind of continuation of the late Jonathan Demme's output, a filmmaker whose features reverberate with the joy and pain of being human. It also recalls the work of the Dardennes — Bujalski’s film can be thought of as Two Days, One Night (2014) by way of the best of the American The Office (2005-13) — in exploring complex notions of work, morality, and ethics, all while being simultaneously gut-busting and tear-inducing. The film eventually and inevitably devolves — nay, evolves — into Hawksian screwball comedy when the workers of Double Whammies stage a coup during the restaurant’s proverbial Big Night, here corresponding to a pay-per-view boxing match. It’s an exhilarating act of self-reclamation that, on the outside, may seem like the smallest of rebellions. However, for these women who center their lives on their work, well-being, and makeshift family, it’s a daring and necessary act.

The cast is roundly magical, and at the center of the film are three spectacularly alive performances: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, and Shayna McHayle (also known by her rapper stage name Junglepussy). Richardson is effervescent, radiating an energy completely opposite to her tremendous, more downplayed turn at the heart of kogonada’s Columbus (2017). McHayle’s strutting, gives-no-fucks attitude lends the film some of its finest moments of feminine clapbacks. And as everyone’s mother, best friend, boss, and mentor, Hall bests her Girls Trip (2017) performance, showcasing the role’s heartbreak and humor while doubling down on both Lisa’s optimism and resignation. Her turn is an easy contender for the most magnetic of the year, and just one of the myriad reasons Support the Girls is one of the year’s best films.

Support the Girls screens Thursday, Nov. 8 at 7:15 p.m. at the Tivoli Theatre. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray

A still from 'The House, the Hand and the Hatchet'.
November 7, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

2016 / USA / 91 min. / Dir. by Austin and Maitland Lottimer / U.S. release date TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Even if the name of sculptor James Surls is unfamiliar – indeed, even if one knows virtually nothing about the landscape of contemporary American art – the man’s pieces possess a primal resonance that often strikes a rumbling chord in anyone who lays eyes on them. Massive works in wood and metal, they typically incorporate hard, masculine shapes such as blades, prisms, and blocks, while also reflecting more organic macro-forms: tendrils, branches, and floral whorls. Surl’s work – which includes not only sculptures, but also prints, rubbings, and hallucinatory line drawings – has the uncommon luster of art that has forced its way into the world out of sheer necessity, rather than because the artist has “something to say.” While Surl’s sculptures are hardly denuded of cultural or political voice, they nonetheless seem to thrum with the same unmistakable atavistic energy that radiates from Paleolithic cave paintings.

The impressively prolific Surls resists categorization: Loosely identifiable as a modernist, he belongs to no definitive artistic tradition, movement, or “school”. Brothers Austin and Maitland Lottimer have crafted a fittingly distinctive vehicle for this under-appreciated American original with their absorbing new documentary feature, The House, the Hand and the Hatchet. A different sort of film might have taken a more prosaic biographical approach, endeavoring to correct Surls’ relative pop obscurity by unearthing the nitty-gritty details of his life for wider examination. The Lottimers, however, employ a method more akin to true portraiture, presenting a snapshot of the seventy-something artist as he is now, while also privileging the imposing tangibility of the sculptures themselves.

The traditional biodoc elements aren’t wholly neglected in House. Surls’ personal story – particularly his early life with his wife and young daughters in the woodlands of East Texas – deeply informs his work, and the Lottimers periodically reference that past through archival VHS footage and vintage news clips. In the main, however, their documentary is focused on the present day. Indeed, House is best described as a fly-on-the-wall film, following Surls in 2015 as he lives the life of a veteran artist with no intention of slowing down: laboring diligently on new pieces in his Colorado studio; lecturing to enthralled art students; overseeing new installations and exhibitions of his work; and sitting for a frank (if friendly) retrospective interview.

Shadowing the sculptor in this fashion provides a vérité immediacy, but House is as interested in Surls’ worldview as in the procedural minutiae of his artistic process. To that end, the film provides the man with the space to expound freely on his life and work, revealing a personality that is thoughtful and poetic, and yet also admirably no-bullshit. Surls cuts a contradictory but clearly-defined figure, and it’s easy to see why the Lottimers find him so compelling. He boasts the education, erudition, and staggering resume of an artist’s artist – he has a MFA from Michigan’s prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art – but also the down-to-earth, curmudgeonly streak of a Western straight-shooter. Pointedly, Surls is widely dismissive of much of the contemporary art world. He is, in almost every respect, as independent and incomparable as they come.

That said, other people with a significant role in Surls’ day-to-day routine appear prominently in the film, including his wife, daughter and assistant. However, these individuals are not afforded much opportunity to discuss themselves, beyond some cursory talking-head footage. Instead, Surls talks about them, illuminating their essential role in his artistic process and their cherished presence in his life. This is in keeping with House’s focus on the artist as individual, an ambition that is further reflected in the film’s fascination with the physical aspects of his distinctive work: the planes, curves, textures, colors, and shadows. Above all, the Lottimers convey the daunting solidity and weight of Surls’ sculptures, traits that have intrinsic meaning in an era when American culture seems driven principally by digital ephemera.

The sheer, unwieldy bulk of Surls’ more massive sculptures even becomes a plot point late in the film, when the artist travels to Singapore to oversee the installation of a piece at that island nation’s renowned Botanic Gardens. As absurd, unforeseen bureaucratic and engineering complications arise surrounding the installation, Surls’ mounting, exhausted annoyance becomes palpable. This frustrating episode highlights the weary cynicism that occasionally peeks through the unflagging creative diligence that has produced a body of work that now encompasses some 350 pieces. That subtle undercurrent of fatigue is essential to the wistful tone that the Lottimers strike in their film, which skillfully conveys the spirit of a septuagenarian artist who remains bracingly vital yet can’t resist ruminating on his legacy. It’s this low-key litheness that distinguishes the engaging The House, the Hand and the Hatchet overall, marking it as an ideal introduction to a vigorous, essential American figure.

The House, the Hand and the Hatchet screens Thursday, Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at .ZACK. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'In the Aisles'.
November 6, 2018
By Joshua Ray

2018 / Germany / 125 min. / Dir. by Thomas Stuber / U.S. release date TBA

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) is one of the oddest films to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. A bleak comedy about the moral depths to which one lowly data entry office worker (Jack Lemmon) will descend in order to climb the corporate ladder, the film is a far cry from the populist Important Films that are so often associated with that most coveted of prizes in American filmmaking. Nevertheless, due to its pitch-perfect equipoise of cynicism and optimism, the film has endured, taking its rightful spot in the canon of great American motion pictures. 

That said, it has rarely served as an urtext for other filmmakers in the manner of Wilder’s oft-imitated Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). No more: With his new film In the Aisles, German director Thomas Stuber has taken The Apartment’s unrequited workplace love story and painted its white collar blue. While not a direct remake, the inspiration is clear, and this new portrait of yearning and angst among the working class contains the same threads of comedic grace as its forbear. 

In lieu of the condemnation of the American bootstrap myth in The Apartment, Stuber’s film is more interested in reconstruction and second chances — a reconfiguration logical to its Germanic setting. Christian (Franz Rogowski, star of another great SLIFF selection, Christian Petzold’s Transit) is a brooding ex-con who’s granted a fresh start as a beverage stocker in a Costco-like wholesale warehouse somewhere in rural Germany. He’s forced to wear long-sleeve shirts while on the clock, starting each day by strategically tugging at his clothing to hide the tattoos that are a symbol of his previous life. Throughout Aisles, the director uses rapid montages of Christian readying himself for work to depict the monotony of labor — a routine that, while soul-sucking for some, represents stability for Christian. 

Christian’s curmudgeon ally and teammate, Bruno (Peter Kurth), notices his trainee’s lingering eye on the effusive and charming Marion (Sandra Hüller, lead of Toni Erdmann [2016]), and fills him on her rocky marriage. Christian doesn’t necessarily heed that warning, presenting her with a vending machine brownie topped with a candle as a birthday surprise. Their attraction is palpable yet hushed, with clandestine meetings as deliberate as the film’s narrative and mood. Stuber lays out carefully placed breadcrumbs in revealing his characters’ motives and histories, similar to the way minute acts of personal disclosure gradually inform any worker of the inner lives of the strangers with which they’re obliged to co-exist.

The director is as interested in the ecosystem of the cavernous warehouse and its inhabitants as he is with the specifics of their narratives. Stuber glides his camera within and along the towering aisles, as the audience — like Christian — is given a tour of the space's nooks and crannies. These not only represent operational functions for the warehouse, but also reflect the personalities of the workers within them — such as the desserts and baked goods section “Sweet Marion” inhabits. 

Tati-esque man-versus-machine scenes further detail the travails of warehouse work as Christian struggles with his forklift, evoking Sisyphus and his rock. This becomes a kind of existential struggle for him, paralleling his quest for meaning and human connection as the film moves into a more soulful and somber mood in its second half. The shift isn’t necessarily jarring, as the seeds for the transition are sown early in the film. That delicate balance of light and dark that Stuber endeavors to navigate could have caused In the Aisles to come crashing down like a pallet of boxes of wine. Instead, the feature is executed as gracefully as the mechanized balletic confidence exhibited by the film’s veteran forklift operator.

In the Aisles screens Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 2:10 p.m. and Friday, Nov. 9 at 12:30 p.m., both days at Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Joshua Ray

A still from 'Bisbee '17'.
November 6, 2018
By Cait Lore

2018 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Robert Greene / Opened in select cities on Sept. 5, 2018

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Everybody dies twice. That is, if the Sarasota, Fla. historian featured in director Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine (2016) is to be believed. Death first occurs when someone leaves the physical world, he explains, and then again the last time someone utters the deceased’s name. Greene lets this comment hang in Kate, but it’s in his latest feature, Bisbee ‘17, that the filmmaker investigates what that might actually mean.

Not far from the Mexican border is the small town of Bisbee, Ariz. The events that unfolded in this place in the summer of 1917 are specifically what has caught Greene’s interest. That is when a major mining corporation orchestrated the illegal arrest of over 1,300 union workers on strike. The company’s enforcers harded the strikers — nearly all of them immigrant workers — into cattle cars, starved them for 16 hours, transported them across state lines, and then dumped them in New Mexico. History remembers this day as The Bisbee Deportation. This episode, which essentially comprised a kidnapping as executed by a corporation, was plainly criminal. Even President Woodrow Wilson knew this, calling the even “wholly illegal and without authority,” although none of the mining company perpetrators were ever charged for their crimes.

Greene’s Bisbee ‘17 documents the arrival of the filmmaker and his team in the Arizona town, on the heels of the Bisbee Deportation centennial. Blurring the lines between performance and lived experience, the filmmaker collaborates with historians and townfolk to perform a reenactment of the grim events. Greene’s feature functions as an ode to the collective acts of filmmaking, storytelling, and conceptual art in the vein of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence. Or, it would, that is, if the film weren’t unearthing decades of generational trauma, exploring Derrida’s “hauntology” and the constructed nature of history.

Divided into six chapters, Greene’s documentary film (and staged event) uses storytelling techniques from myriad genres and mediums — including musicals, Westerns, and even podcasts like Serial — to perform an exorcism of sorts. Manifestly, the film’s real interests lie in events that are unfolding 100 years after the Bisbee Deportation; namely, the political and cultural convulsions of Donald Trump’s America, although the President's name is never mentioned. (Greene was filming Bisbee ‘17 when the man was elected.) The present-day climate in America is subject to a pitiless close-up as Bisbee’s citizens, from radical leftists to the Christian right, reenact their town’s collective past. Throughout the weeks of preparations, things prove to be more difficult than anyone anticipated. To watch as a descendant of Lee Leslie Cook “arrests” and “deports” his own brother proves to be one of the more uncomfortable viewing experiences of the year.  

Bisbee ‘17 has obvious parallels with the similarly haunted docu-hybrid The Act of Killing (2012), but Greene does something far more radical and fresh with the form than the comparison might suggest. The director uses his film to “write” about the present through the past. In this way, his documentary functions like one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1970s melodramas, with their critique of German Cinema. Without softening its radical edges, Bisbee '17 employs the big swells of a Hollywood genre film to present an American ghost story. Like Fassbinder, Greene understands that artifice, when approached forthrightly as a distinct mode of expression, has special access to the truth.

In Jean Luc Godard’s The Image Book (2018), which is also screening at this year’s SLIFF, the director intones: “The act of representation almost always involves an act of violence against the subject of the representation.” Bisbee ‘17 makes good on Godard’s insights, as the viewer is captive to Greene's historical and political flame-stoking. It’s a career high for the director, but also a landmark in the landscape of 21st-century documentary film. The hindsight of years is not necessary to confirm Bisbee ‘17 as one of the most challenging and astute films about America today.

Bisbee '17 screens Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at .ZACK. Buy tickets now.

Tags: SLIFF Cait Lore