A still from 'Easy Rider'.
August 27, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Revisiting the Cinematic Landmarks of 1969

Golden Anniversaries: Films of 1969, a series of six films celebrating their 50th anniversary, runs for three consecutive weekends, Aug. 31-Sept. 15, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the St. Louis Public Library's Central Library. Throughout 2019, Cinema St. Louis has featured 50th-anniversary films, with major works from 1969 screening during the Robert Classic French Film Festival and QFest St. Louis. Several more 1969 films will appear during the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7-17.

Easy Rider will screen at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 8 at the St. Louis Public Library's Central Library auditorium. Diane Carson, film critic for KDHX 88.1 FM and professor emerita of film at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, will introduce the film and moderate a post-film Q&A.

Easy Rider: Lookin' for Adventure

By Diane Carson

1969 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Dennis Hopper / Opened in select U.S. cities on July 14, 1969

Bear with me here as I recount a few facts about and plaudits for Easy Rider. A monumental landmark, Easy Rider has been the subject of hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of analysis. The film received a belated sequel in 2012 (Easy Rider: The Ride Back, with none of the original actors or crew), and two documentaries have been devoted to its production history (Born to Be Wild [1995] and Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage [1999]). In addition, Easy Rider was given a deluxe Criterion Collection release, which includes audio commentaries by Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Paul Lewis, the film’s production manager.

If numbers matter (and they do to Hollywood), the entire production cost less than $400,000 and grossed at least $60 million, according to the Worldwide Boxoffice website. The production costs listed prove a bit deceptive because Fonda reportedly charged significant travel costs with his own credit cards, and music licensing soared to a cool million dollars in postproduction. Given the impact of the music in driving the film and commenting on the social milieu, the investment certainly paid high dividends.

Easy Rider’s premiere at the 1969 Cannes International Film Festival earned it the First Film Award; Jack Nicholson received a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Academy Award nomination; and Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern shared an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid won). In 1998, Easy Rider joined the “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” works on the U.S. National Film Registry. The American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Movies” places it at No. 88 of all-time best American films.

I cite these statistics and acknowledgements because I’ve often heard the film dismissed as “that cool counterculture movie, nothing more” (“counterculture” used so often to define Easy Rider that it may as well be part of its name). But this film is so much more in film history, both for its cinematic style and for its ability not just to express but to channel a milieu, a dissatisfaction — remember “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” —  and a profound longing to escape. Everything!

Because I was there, permit me to take you back to what this film meant to those of us who lived its longing, who yearned desperately for sanity, change, happiness, peace. You’ll have your own experience of this film now; I was there then, and this film mattered in ways few films do.

For all the information available about Easy Rider — the builders of the motorcycles, the heated arguments over the screenplay (who wrote what and when), the production conflicts and crises, the yin and yang of the meditative Billy (an amazing Peter Fonda) and the volatile Wyatt (a frenetic Dennis Hopper), the improvised insults of the locals, and the other incredible minutiae — to me what distinguishes and elevates the film is the visceral experience of it.

On the release of Easy Rider, I was in graduate school in the University of Kansas’ English Department. Word spread quickly about the appeal of this unprecedented, thrillingly unique film. It hadn't yet appeared in Lawrence, Kan., so my roommate and I made a pilgrimage to Kansas City, my friend's home city. It was all we expected and more, a late-1960s confrontation with staid cultural values and restrictive dictates. The soundtrack accelerated and defined the momentum, especially Steppenwolf's “Born to Be Wild” propelling the early, exhilarating escape to the open road. It and selections from the Band, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, and others replaced mind-numbing tedium with mind-expanding fantasies induced by the music.

Steppenwolf’s incantation — “Head out on the highway/Lookin’ for adventure” — catapulted motorcycle riders and film viewers into a rarefied register of unfettered, illusory escape. We felt one with the spirit, and to hell with the thesis paper, the Middle English course, and the TA responsibilities — especially all those essays needing grading. We were free — at least for two hours.

Stylistically, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs devised exactly the technical presentation that complemented and enhanced the film’s appeal. Shot over 12 weeks on the road, the film was described by Kovacs as minimalist filmmaking. In New Wave King: The Cinematography of Laszlo Kovacs, ASC (2002), edited by Ray Zone, Kovacs says: “We had the motorcycles in one truck and all the camera and lighting gear in another. There was no room for a dolly. My camera car was a Chevy convertible with a plywood platform. The film looks spontaneous, but don’t let that fool you. We rehearsed and staged every scene, and I lit to establish the mood and setting.” He inserted flash-forwards, jump cuts, choppy transitions, several frames from one scene alternating with frames from the succeeding scene — all in the service of the psychedelic trip. And we left thrilled, stunned, and overwhelmed by the shocking ending, painfully yearning for us not “to blow it.”

On the occasion of the film’s 50-year anniversary, with memories flooding back over me with a surprising immediacy, the question is whether Easy Rider can possibly hold up. Have we succumbed to our comfortable lives 50 years on? Has Easy Rider’s appeal considerably dimmed? Has life taken its toll on rebellious inclinations and dreams of independence or is there still that kernel of resistance and recall? Can the spirit of the time be revived and enjoyed as vicariously as we once did or is it now so foreign, so unusual, that its appeal has become anachronistic, all but elusive for contemporary viewers. The good news is that it does maintain its appeal. It still casts a spell. With energy and heart, it continues to project a doomed world of idyllic dreams that crash against reality.

I must also add that not long after Easy Rider opened, Steppenwolf toured, capitalizing on the band’s increased fame. The band came to KU, and I attended the concert with a friend who helped organize it. I met lead singer John Kay, who turned out to be less exciting than his music, a bit impressed with his own success. Perhaps he was exhausted with the schedule or the repetitive demands for the invigorating music. Even so, he couldn't dampen our enthusiasm. I never fail to get an electric jolt when I hear "head out on the highway" or to feel a bit like Gatsby, my past regrettably receding.

Tags: Golden Anniversaries

A still from 'Midnight Cowboy'.
August 27, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Revisiting the Cinematic Landmarks of 1969

Golden Anniversaries: Films of 1969, a series of six films celebrating their 50th anniversary, runs for three consecutive weekends, Aug. 31-Sept. 15, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the St. Louis Public Library's Central Library. Throughout 2019, Cinema St. Louis has featured 50th-anniversary films, with major works from 1969 screening during the Robert Classic French Film Festival and QFest St. Louis. Several more 1969 films will appear during the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7-17.

Midnight Cowboy will screen at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 31 at the St. Louis Public Library's Central Library auditorium. Andrew Wyatt, editor and film critic for The Lens, will introduce the film and moderate a post-film Q&A.

'Midnight Cowboy': You're the Only One

By Andrew Wyatt

1969 / USA / 113 min. / Dir. by John Schlesinger / Premiered May 25, 1969 in New York City, N.Y.

In the spring of 1969, the American moviegoing public’s conception of New York City – or, perhaps more accurately, that of the white middle-class American moviegoing public – was informed to a substantial degree by a fading Technicolor illusion. The New York film that had dominated the pop-cultural consciousness early in the decade, 1961’s West Side Story, was an eye-popping Broadway adaptation, hardly the stuff of gritty urban realism. In the following years, mainstream cinematic depictions of the city were thereafter dominated by musicals, romances, comedies, and the odd musical romantic comedy. Many of these were also adapted from the stage: Two for the Seesaw (1962), Critic’s Choice (1963), Sunday in New York (1963), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), A Thousand Clowns (1965), Any Wednesday (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), Funny Girl, and The Odd Couple. The latter two features, both premiering in 1968 and making an impressive splash at the box office, were the first New York films that finally gave Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ hit musical a run for its money. (Along with Rosemary’s Baby, that left-field outlier in so many ways.)

To discern a more authentic, less savory vision of New York – one lurking beneath the studio dazzle, crowd-pleasing hijinks, and Neil Simon wisecracks – one would have had to look, unsurprisingly, to the B-pictures that were sneaking their way into theaters in the mid- to late ’60s. The New York-set neo-noirs and thrillers of this period unearthed a grimier side of the city: Sidney Lumet’s shockingly cynical character study The Pawnbroker (1964); Larry Peerce’s raw-nerved subway thriller The Incident (1967); Gordon Douglas’ hard-edged police drama The Detective (1968); the brutally violent Coogan’s Bluff (1968), the first collaboration between director Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood; and Shirley Clark’s overlooked but groundbreaking proto-blaxploitation street drama The Cool World (1963). Even Wait Until Dark (1967) – a smash hit with a real movie star in the person of Audrey Hepburn – suggested a disquieting urban anxiety: The violence of the drug underworld smuggling its way into the lives of Manhattan’s artistic and professional class.

All this is to say that the quote-unquote Real New York was always there, waiting for its moment. That moment came with the arrival of Midnight Cowboy – director John Schlesinger’s radical, scuzzy, psychedelic masterwork – in May of 1969. Even with the benefit of hindsight, the film’s commercial success remains remarkable. This is, after all, a seedy, downbeat drama about the dysfunctional friendship between a guileless male prostitute and a slimy conman, shot on location in New York for a modest $3 million. If there was a better sign that a confounding rift had opened in mainstream American culture, it was surely that this film, of all films – whose plot features both gay oral sex in a Times Square theater and a Warhol-inspired druggie bacchanalia – managed to become the No. 2 box-office hit of the year, solidly trouncing that other New York film of 1969, the throwback Gilded Age musical Hello, Dolly! Moreover, Midnight Cowboy wasn’t merely a populist hit: It won three Oscars, including Best Picture, making it the only X- or NC-17-rated feature ever to do so.

British filmmaker Schlesinger was blessed with an outsider’s viewpoint when he came to New York City to shoot Waldo Salt’s adaptation of the 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy. In just four years, the London-born director had made three well-regarded small-scale dramas for the U.K. B-picture studio Anglo-Amalgamated, before being tapped by MGM to helm a 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. There is little sign in Schlesinger’s early filmography of the rough-edged yet hallucinatory sensibility he brought to Midnight Cowboy. Chalk it up to his eagerness as a thrice-othered stranger in a strange land – British, Jewish, and gay – to breathe in the sticky garbage-water miasma of New York City and savor its nowhere-else-on-earth funk, not unlike his film’s gormless pretty-boy protagonist, Joe Buck.

For Joe – a small-town Texan Army vet working in a greasy spoon – New York is his Big Rock Candy Mountain, a dazzling Babylon where a good-looking stud like himself never has to do any real work. Wealthy, older women will pay him handsomely for his sexual prowess, or so he believes and cheerfully tells anyone who will listen. Needless to say, Joe’s plans go awry from the moment he steps off his bus at the Port Authority, his ambitions for a life of ease undone by his own country-boy naivete and the predatory callousness of Gotham street life. That cruel setting is more than a mere backdrop in Midnight Cowboy. Foremost among the reasons for the film’s historical significance is its status as a trailblazing feature in what might be termed the “New York Shitty” movement. From roughly 1969 to 1976, a succession of bleak street sagas, low-rent thrillers, grubby satires, and blaxploitation flicks put the ugliest side of New York on display for all the world to see: The Landlord (1970), The French Connection (1970), Little Murders (1971), Shaft (1971), Across 110th Street (1972), Super Fly (1972), Mean Streets (1973), Serpico (1973), Death Wish (1974), The Gambler (1974), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Taxi Driver (1976), which was arguably the apotheosis of this cinematic current.

However, when Midnight Cowboy first pulled back the curtain on this nastier New York City – the pimps and hustlers, the rats and garbage, the drug dens and porn theaters – it was undoubtedly startling for the mainstream Middle American viewer. They might have suspected in their more reactionary moments that the Big Apple was a cesspool of misery and wantonness, but they had never had it thrust into their faces in such a blunt manner. This made Schlesinger’s feature revolutionary, but what makes the film truly novel, even 50 years later, is the way that it blends this sleazy verisimilitude with a hallucinatory sensibility that is very much of its moment. While 1968 was arguably the first apex of the psychedelic film – with the likes of Barbarella, Head, Psych-Out, Yellow Submarine, and the year’s unlikely box-office smash, 2001: A Space Odyssey – 1969 gave the sub-genre two of its most essential entries, first in Midnight Cowboy and then in Easy Rider, released just two months later.

Compared to the surreal works that would follow in the next decade from filmmakers like Ken Russell, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and David Lynch, Schlesinger’s feature feels relatively earthbound. What’s critical is how the director employs the film’s trippier elements. They appear most obviously during a chic, drug-fueled party at an artist’s loft, but perhaps most essentially in the film’s flashbacks and dream sequences, which give Midnight Cowboy a subjective, inward-facing quality that is rare in the otherwise ruthlessly grounded New York Shitty canon. Schlesinger uses quick flurries of shots to convey details from Joe’s unhappy past, turning lurid backstory into a recurring nightmare of post-traumatic anxiety and hellish images. Formative events that are spelled out in graphic detail in the original novel are only barely hinted at here or excised completely an effort to denude Joe’s story of its more explicit queerness. Fortunately, Schlesinger’s directorial hand is so self-assured, the film’s more surreal sequences feel less like self-censoring obfuscation than intimate psychological realism, an effort to capture the ineffable sensation of memory and fantasy.

Ironically, it’s Joe’s wormy, dyspeptic hanger-on and eventual flatmate, Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo – played by Dustin Hoffman with maximal whiny, sweaty wretchedness – who has the more flamboyant daydreams. His Utopia, it turns out, lies on the sunny beaches of Miami, where he envisions that he and Joe will live like yacht-club kings on the checkbooks of grateful, horny dowagers. Even if one knows nothing of Midnight Cowboy's twists and turns, the sheer absurdity of Ratso’s candy-colored reveries is enough to foreshadow that he and Joe are almost certainly not headed for a happy ending in the Sunshine State. They do, however, get closer than one might expect, and the forlorn, bittersweet character of the film’s final scenes resonates in a manner that underlines the feature’s sneakiest strength: Its poignant depiction of an unlikely, contentious, and yet weirdly tender friendship forged on the margins of society. More than the grime and the weirdos, more than “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “I’m walkin’ here!,” this is what echoes through the decades. Joe might be a sexually confused, dimwitted bumpkin, and Ratso might be a peevish, revolting little swindler, but they’re also both profoundly lonely souls, and they’ve latched onto each other for reasons that they probably don’t understand themselves.

Sniffier critics will always attempt to puzzle out the specific nature of Joe and Ratso’s relationship, to read between the lines of the film’s tremendous performances and at-times enigmatic imagery. Is there stifled sexual attraction or even romantic love at play, from either man or both? Schlesinger, ever the cunning dramatist, seems to have apprehended that such questions might matter to curious filmgoers who are scandalized or titillated by the film’s queerness, but they ultimately don’t matter to people like Joe and Ratso, who live smack in the middle of a city but somehow also on its outermost edges. Whether in the gooey heat of summer or the bone-cracking cold of winter, New York is a hell of a lonely place. When you find another like-minded survivor who will share what they have with you – a place to sleep, a stolen coat, a can of soup, or their last cigarette – who cares what name you put to it?

Tags: Golden Anniversaries Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Wild Bunch'.
August 27, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Revisiting the Cinematic Landmarks of 1969

On Aug. 31, Cinema St. Louis officially inaugurates a new annual program, Golden Anniversaries, with a free screening of Midnight Cowboy at the St. Louis Public Library. The goal of Golden Anniversaries is to spotlight essential films on their 50th anniversaries, and this edition features works from 1969. Screenings of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, The Learning Tree, Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, and Women in Love will follow Midnight Cowboy and take place over three consecutive weekends. All of the screenings will feature accompanying introductions and discussions by critics and academics. The series will be highlighted by the Sept. 14 screening of The Wild Bunch, which will feature W.K. Stratton, author of a new (and definitive) study of the film, The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film.

Cinema St. Louis introduced Golden Anniversaries with a selection of films from 1968 at last year’s Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). This year, we’ve expanded our offerings by including films from 1969 in two of our other annual events: The Milky Way and My Night at Maud’s at the Robert Classic French Film Festival and Funeral Parade of Roses at QFest St. Louis.  Moving forward, Cinema St. Louis will continue to thread 50-year-old films through our programming each year — and we’ll feature a few additional 1969 films at this year’s SLIFF —  but Golden Anniversaries also becomes an annual stand-alone event. If funding allows, we hope to expand Golden Anniversaries’ scope further in future years.

The period that Golden Anniversaires will cover over the next decade is among the most fertile in cinema history. From the late 1960s through 1980, Hollywood experienced a radical transformation, with studios giving filmmakers unprecedented freedom to produce challenging works that subverted or expanded traditional genre expectations, featured innovative narrative structures and open endings, and engaged provocatively with the often tumultuous era in which they were made.

Selections from what became known as the Hollywood Renaissance will form the core of Golden Anniversaries, but equally exciting, influential movies were being made outside the U.S., and the program will also include a sampling of international films (such as this year’s Women in Love). In addition, future editions of Golden Anniversaries will feature representative works of American-independent cinema and documentary film.

Film screenings and the accompanying discussions are Golden Anniversaries’ raison d’être, but as a supplement, The Lens will offer critical and personal essays on several of the featured films. Cliff Froehlich, Cinema St. Louis’ executive director, introduces the series with a contextualizing article on the Hollywood films of 1967-’80 (adapted and updated from his 1998 review of Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which was first published in The Riverfront Times). The Lens will also post pieces by the presenters of three of the program’s films: Andrew Wyatt on Midnight Cowboy, Diane Carson on Easy Rider, and Joshua Ray on Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

Persistence of Vision

The Hollywood cinema of 50 years ago continues to provide remarkable viewing

By Cliff Froehlich

Peter Biskind begins Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), his compulsively readable but deeply flawed book on Hollywood in the ’70s, with an earthquake. The February 1971 quake was a real event, of course, but Biskind uses it as a facile metaphor to demarcate the split between Old and New Hollywood, a physical approximation of the seismic sociocultural forces that were then altering the movie industry’s landscape. The changes that occurred in American films in the late ’60s and early ’70s, however, resulted not from a single, dramatic event but, in appropriately Californian fashion, from a series of figurative disasters akin to the state’s endlessly multiplying quakes and aftershocks, drought-fed wildfires, torrential rains, and engulfing mud slides.

The Los Angeles Dream Factory that was assembled in the ’20s and ’30s, and that arguably reached its peak productivity — along with the rest of American industry — during and immediately following World War II, was already rusting and breaking down in the ’50s. A Supreme Court antitrust ruling, made in 1948, compelled the studios to divest themselves of their theater holdings, thus dismantling the vertical monopoly they tenaciously held over film production, distribution, and exhibition for three decades. Just as devastating — at least in the short term, until the eventual rise of mall cinemas and multiscreen houses — the postwar suburban migration dispersed the filmgoing population to formerly undeveloped areas, making trips to movie theaters, still largely located in urban centers, a significant time investment. And why drive downtown for entertainment when it’s delivered direct to the living room via a newfangled device called the TV?

Compounding Hollywood’s problems in the ’50s and early ’60s, as the studio moguls, executives, producers and directors aged, their tastes became ossified and seemed increasingly out of step with an audience that was growing ever younger as Mom and Dad plopped on the couch and lent the kids the car for a night at the movies. Especially as the Eisenhower era’s straight laces were cut by sex, drugs, and rock & roll during the Kennedy and Johnson years, the youth audience embraced less the bloated productions of big-studio Hollywood (The Sound of Music, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World) than the looser, low-budget, marginally hipper exploitation fare offered at the drive-ins (Roger Corman’s biker and women-in-prison movies, Hammer horror films, gorefests such as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Hershell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs).

Battered by these and other blows, the studios’ walls finally tumbled in 1967, with the one-two punch of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Freed of the industry’s self-censoring Production Code, which collapsed with the studio system itself, these films — with their sexual frankness, all-stops-pulled violence, European formal influences, and ambiguous or flat-out-unhappy endings — were among the first to reflect accurately the tumult and escalating unease of the times. Bonnie and Clyde’s nihilistic tagline “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people” aptly captured the smart, black-comic cynicism and hard, uncompromising edge of not only Penn’s movie but also those that followed during the next heady decade.

The movies increasingly mirrored both the new freedoms of the day and the cynicism, disaffection and paranoia created by the morass of the Vietnam War; the MLK and RFK assassinations; race riots, black militancy, and white flight; and, finally, Watergate. Films approached those subjects both obliquely (the Vietnam allegories of The Wild Bunch and Little Big Man) and directly (All the President’s Men), and occasionally even explored the youth culture of drugs, free love, and protest, with varying degrees of success (such imperfect but important films as Easy Rider and The Panic in Needle Park on the positive side, and such painfully dated curios as The Strawberry Statement and The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart on the negative). Shaking loose of genre restraints along with inhibitions concerning sex and violence, movies such as Five Easy Pieces — one of the period’s high watermarks — told uncategorizable stories that shifted abruptly between comedy and intense drama, resolutely avoiding traditional heroes, melodramatic catharsis, or tidy resolutions. And when genres were used, they were generally bent and subverted (Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or McCabe & Mrs. Miller) or grandly elevated (Francis Ford Coppola’s two Godfather epics), thus reinvigorating tired formulas.

The cinema of the ’70s also elevated the director to the status of auteur: No longer regarded as just a highly skilled hired hand executing orders, the director was now seen as the primary creative force in making movies. With the factory system closed, studio style, in-house editing, and staff-producer control were replaced by a much less rigidly hierarchical approach that acknowledged, however reluctantly and all too briefly, the director’s central role in the filmmaking process. (Not that directors were allowed absolute power, as a look at the compromised oeuvre of Sam Peckinpah sadly demonstrates.) Important actors (Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty) helped define the time, and key writers (Robert Towne, Paul Schrader) also shaped the decade, but the director was clearly the ascendant star. Further proving the point, Towne, Schrader, Nicholson, and Beatty — the latter a savvy creative producer as well — recognizing the director’s ultimate authority, moved behind the camera themselves.

The chaotic state of the studios not only opened up room for the film-school generation — unabashed movie enthusiasts such as Martin Scorsese who were equally in love with and influenced by the cinemas of classic Hollywood and Europe — but also expanded the freedoms of the remaining older directors (Robert Aldrich, John Huston, Don Siegel, Billy Wilder) and an underappreciated middle group of filmmakers who began in theater (Bob Fosse), comedy (Woody Allen, Elaine May, Mike Nichols), television (Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, Peckinpah, Arthur Penn), magazines (Robert Benton), and even criticism (Peter Bogdanovich).

Eventually, of course, this creative window closed — shut by the directors’ own excesses (the unfairly maligned Heaven’s Gate, to cite the usual example) and the popular successes of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, who in The Godfather, Star Wars and Jaws provided executives with a trio of big-box-office models that enabled the eventual reassertion of the studios’ power.

But during the period from 1967-’80, when the fresh breezes were blowing into Hollywood, a remarkable body of work was created. Diane Jacobs, in a 1977 book on major contemporary directors and their works, boldly proclaimed a “Hollywood Renaissance.” Looking back from a distance of 50 years, having suffered through the increasingly banal and spiritless Hollywood films of the subsequent decades, her celebration of the ’70s seems all the more sound.

For those looking for more information on the period, Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls proves an easily digestible if nutrition-deficient introduction. (The book was also adapted into an entertaining but similarly superficial documentary in 2003.) Given the astonishing richness of Hollywood from 1967-’80, a survey of the time almost necessitates a means of narrowing its focus, and Biskind understandably limits the scope of his work by focusing on a relatively small group of a dozen-or-so key filmmakers. But the book unfortunately concerns itself more with commercial than aesthetic considerations, and the apparent governing impulse behind which filmmakers receive extended attention was their ability to generate gossip or money. We learn much about the sex lives, drug use, and other hedonistic indulgences of the filmmakers, and their selfish bad behavior both on and off set provides countless amusing and/or appalling anecdotes. Biskind does provide legitimate insight into the ways such hugely profitable films as The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars altered the industry and created the blockbuster mentality that so dominates contemporary Hollywood — a sort of reverse alchemy by which the filmic gold of the ’70s was transformed into the leaden superproductions that followed, arguably reaching its apotheosis in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What we don’t get is a clear sense of why — other than the size of their grosses — these filmmakers are important: Their movies, the only reason we should care about their lives, are treated as almost incidental. Business dominates the book; art, when it’s discussed at all, is the submissive and unequal partner.

For more insightful approaches to ’70s film, I’d suggest such studies as Jacobs’ Hollywood Renaissance, James Monaco’s American Film Now (1979), and Michael Pye and Lynda Myles’ The Movie Brats (1979) — all produced during or at the end of the period — and especially Robert Phillip Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness (first published in 1980 and available in four considerably different editions) and Robin Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (1986, with its 2003 revised edition including new material and adding “… and Beyond” to its title), both of which provide more critically ambitious views. Another essential text on the period is Mark Harris’ exemplary Pictures at a Revolution (2008), which uses the five 1967 films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar — Bonnie and Clyde, Dr. Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night — as compelling case studies in the difference between the Old and New Hollywoods. Harris continued the project with a terrific series of essays, “Cinema ’67 Revisited,” on the Film Comment website. Charles Taylor’s immensely entertaining and insightful Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You There (2017) explores what the subtitle terms “The Shadow Cinema of the American 1970s” — less celebrated but compelling films such as Floyd Mutrux’s Aloha, Bobby and Rose and Robert Culp’s Hickey & Boggs. There are also plentiful biographies and critical studies of the essential directors, and even some celebratory documentaries (e.g., Milius in 2013 and De Palma in 2015).

The best means of learning about the major films of the period, of course, is to watch them at Golden Anniversaries or seek them out on Blu-ray or streaming services. To make sampling those films a bit easier, I’ve provided a guide to select works by key filmmakers. Although I cheated a bit by including a few independents and a handful of films by English or European directors with American stars, the list — which is emphatically not exhaustive — offers irrefutable evidence of Hollywood’s range and vitality during that remarkable time. Add to those titles the great documentary work of Barbara Kopple, Frederick Wiseman, Albert and David Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Emile De Antonio, Haskell Wexler and Peter Davis, and is it any wonder that those of us who cut our filmgoing teeth in the ’70s find most contemporary American work — Hollywood or independent — scarcely worth chewing?

Direction Finder: Works by Key Filmmakers of the 1970s

  • Robert Aldrich: Hustle, Ulzana’s Raid
  • Woody Allen: Annie Hall, Bananas, Interiors, Love and Death, Manhattan, Sleeper, Stardust Memories
  • Robert Altman: Brewster McCloud, California Split, Images, The Long Goodbye, M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Thieves Like Us, Three Women, A Wedding
  • Michelangelo Antonioni: The Passenger, Zabriskie Point
  • Alan Arkin: Little Murders
  • Hal Ashby: Being There, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo
  • Ralph Bakshi: Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic
  • John Badham: Saturday Night Fever
  • Robert Benton: Bad Company, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Late Show
  • Bernardo Bertolucci: Last Tango in Paris, 1900
  • Peter Bogdanovich: The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, What’s Up, Doc?
  • John Boorman: Deliverance, Point Blank
  • James Bridges: The Paper Chase; September 30, 1955
  • Mel Brooks: Blazing Saddles, The Producers, The Twelve Chairs, Young Frankenstein
  • John Cassavetes: Faces, Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Woman Under the Influence
  • Michael Cimino: The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
  • Francis Ford Coppola: Apocalypse Now; The Conversation; The Godfather; The Godfather, Part II; The Rain People
  • Jonathan Demme: Citizens Band, Melvin and Howard
  • Brian De Palma: Carrie; The Fury; Greetings; Hi, Mom!; Obsession; The Phantom of the Paradise; Sisters
  • Clint Eastwood: High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Play Misty for Me
  • Milos Forman: Hair, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taking Off
  • Bob Fosse: All That Jazz, Cabaret, Lenny
  • William Friedkin: The Exorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer
  • Ulu Grosbard: Straight Time
  • John Hancock: Bang the Drum Slowly
  • Monte Hellman: Cockfighter, Ride the Whirlwind, The Shooting, Two Lane Blacktop
  • Walter Hill: The Driver, Hard Times, The Long Riders, The Warriors
  • Alfred Hitchcock: Family Plot, Frenzy
  • Dennis Hopper: Easy Rider, The Last Movie
  • John Huston: Fat City, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Man Who Would Be King
  • Lamont Johnson: The Last American Hero
  • Philip Kaufman: The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid; Invasion of the Body Snatchers; The Wanderers; The White Dawn
  • Stanley Kubrick: Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Richard Lester: The Four Musketeers, Petulia, Robin and Marian, The Three Musketeers
  • George Lucas: American Graffiti, Star Wars, THX 1138
  • Sidney Lumet: Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico
  • Terrence Malick: Badlands, Days of Heaven
  • Elaine May: The Heartbreak Kid, Mikey and Nicky, A New Leaf
  • Paul Mazursky: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice; Blume in Love; Harry and Tonto; Next Stop, Greenwich Village; An Unmarried Woman
  • John Milius: Big Wednesday, The Wind and the Lion
  • Mike Nichols: Carnal Knowledge, The Graduate
  • Alan Pakula: All the President’s Men, Klute, The Parallax View
  • Gordon Parks: The Learning Tree, Shaft
  • Sam Peckinpah: The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Getaway, Junior Bonner, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch
  • Arthur Penn: Alice’s Restaurant, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, The Missouri Breaks, Night Moves
  • Frank Perry: Diary of a Mad Housewife, Rancho Deluxe
  • Roman Polanski: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby
  • Sydney Pollack: Jeremiah Johnson; They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; Three Days of the Condor
  • Bob Rafelson: Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, Stay Hungry
  • Karel Reisz: The Gambler, Who’ll Stop the Rain?
  • William Richert: The American Success Company, Winter Kills
  • Michael Ritchie: The Bad News Bears, The Candidate, Downhill Racer, Semi-Tough, Smile
  • Martin Ritt: Conrack, Sounder
  • Nicolas Roeg: Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Performance, Walkabout
  • Alan Rudolph: Remember My Name, Welcome to LA
  • Richard Rush: The Stunt Man
  • Jerry Schatzberg: The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow
  • John Schlesinger: The Day of the Locust; Midnight Cowboy; Sunday, Bloody Sunday
  • Paul Schrader: American Gigolo, Blue Collar, Hardcore
  • Martin Scorsese: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; “American Boy”; “Italianamerican”; The Last Waltz; Mean Streets; New York, New York; Raging Bull; Taxi Driver; Who’s That Knocking at My Door?
  • Don Siegel: The Beguiled, Dirty Harry, The Shootist
  • Joan Micklin Silver: Between the Lines, Hester Street
  • Steven Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Duel, Jaws, 1941, The Sugarland Express
  • James Toback: Fingers
  • Melvin Van Peebles: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
  • Claudia Weill: Girlfriends
  • Haskell Wexler: Medium Cool
  • Billy Wilder: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
  • Robert Zemeckis: I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars
  • Howard Zieff: Hearts of the West
Tags: Golden Anniversaries

A still from 'Luce'.
August 23, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Luce Lips Sink Ships

2019 / USA / 109 min. / Dir. by Julius Onah / Opened in select cities on Aug. 2, 2019; locally on Aug. 23, 2019

The single thing that connects Luce and The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) is director Julius Onah’s ability to start conversations with his films. If it weren’t for his name in the credit, there’s no indication that these features could have come from the same person — one’s a searing drama, the other’s the third entry in an ongoing series of science-fiction films. However, in spite of their thematic differences, both are surrounded by clouds of buzz. Dropped by surprise on last year’s Super Bowl Sunday, The Cloverfield Paradox was watched by nearly a million Netflix subscribers in a single night — critical opinions were mostly negative, but an overwhelming majority agreed that this release strategy was novel. Luce’s rollout is practically the opposite, premiering at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and then receiving a limited release and steady expansion six months later. Whereas The Cloverfield Paradox got people talking because of its spontaneous distribution, Luce is bound to be controversial for its smorgasbord of hot topics.

By opening with a speech from disarmingly confident high-school student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the film presents the audience with all the information they’ll need going forward: Adopted from Eretria and effectively rescued from a future as a child soldier, Luce has undergone years of therapy under the doting eyes of his American parents, Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, reunited as another married couple after Michael Haneke’s 2007 U.S. remake of Funny Games). Luce is now a model student and a star athlete, and it’s clear how much the school’s staff fawns over him. Well, everyone but his history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), that is. She’s the only one who seems to view his exceptional behavior as some sort of façade.

After one of her assignments calls for students to emulate an important historical figure’s key talking points, Luce’s paper from the perspective of a radical activist gives Ms. Wilson enough reasonable doubt to search his locker. As it turns out, her suspicion that Luce has the potential to be violent proves (apparently) correct, and a concerning discovery inside a paper bag results in a phone call home. This unleashes a storm front of paranoia and lies that sweeps up Luce, Ms. Wilson, and anyone closely associated with them. Slowly, family and friends begin to turn on one another as the general atmosphere of anxiety and distrust continues to spike.

This slow-burning discord is largely fueled by Luce’s subtext: Every main character embodies a different political archetype. As a young black male, Luce feels confined to either exceptionalism or failure, with no in-between. Amy, who drives a Toyota Prius and frequently voices concerns for social-justice issues, represents the modern upper-middle-class liberal. Peter, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about politics — he could be seen as representing the swath of American non-voters. Ms. Wilson constantly indulges in identity politics by singling out students of color during her American-history lectures, much to the disdain of Luce and his friend Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang). By trying to keep all this discourse under wraps, principal Dan Towson (Norbert Leo Butz) stands in for those in positions of power who turn a blind eye to the problems facing their constituency. The combination of competing interests and worldviews proves to be volatile.

Luce couldn’t succeed without the sheer amount of talent attached to the project. Watts and Roth make for a believable couple, perhaps because of their past collaboration. (After all, nothing could bring a pair of actors closer together better than co-starring in one of Haneke’s darkest features to date.) Their hopelessness and inexperience is palpable as the two bicker about how to handle the escalating tension in their home and at their son’s school. Spencer delivers an unhinged performance akin to the one she gave in Tate Taylor’s Ma (2019), toeing the line between deranged and reserved in a way that is uniquely her own. Harrison exhibits exceptional talent, especially for an up-and-comer. All four are pulling equal weight, a quadruple punch that bewilders and disorients the viewer relentlessly.

Although the characters and the actors portraying them are vital, it helps that director Onah employs a few unnerving stylistic flourishes throughout Luce. It’s unsurprising that the dialogue is calculated and the acting is top-notch — Onah and J.C. Lee adapted the script from the former writer’s original play, and the words the characters speak feel tightly crafted and controlled. Editor Madeleine Gavin’s jarring juxtapositions are what help this adaptation soar above and beyond a stage performance. Her cuts transport the viewer from Luce to Ms. Wilson to Amy and back again, often suddenly and without warning. Never knowing where the film’s gaze might go next heightens the looming sense of mistrust. Composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, the team behind Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018), only elevate this feeling. Their sound is abrasive and confrontational, just like the conversations unfolding onscreen.

Luce has plenty of moving parts, many of which it juggles quite well. Still, it would take a masterful director to balance everything perfectly, and Onah isn’t quite there yet, despite a respectable list of credits in just four short years. There’s no denying the impressive skill he brings to the table, but he doesn’t quite stick the landing on this complex story. Luce’s final moments feel like an ending that has a lot to say but doesn’t actually end up saying anything at all. The themes are crystal clear, but the solutions, if any, to the problems depicted in the film remain murky.  It’s one thing to leave the viewer with something to ponder, but it’s quite another to send them off confused about the real-world implications of such a politically and culturally charged story. Still, regardless of how ambiguous the film’s message might be, Luce is bound to initiate discussions.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'Ready or Not'.
August 21, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

One Mississippi

2019 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett / Opens in wide release on Aug. 21, 2019

Anxious bride-to-be Grace (Samara Weaving) has been looking for a family for most of her life. A former foster child with no peers she can count as close friends, she feels like she’s hit the jackpot with fiancée Alex (Mark O’Brien), who is handsome, attentive, and well attuned to her silly, sardonic vibe. After a whirlwind romance of 18 months – what Grace not-so-blushingly calls their “bone-a-thon” – she is ready to get hitched, but Alex insists that the nuptials be performed according to his family’s traditions. That would be the Le Domas family, a glowering, tight-knit clan of WASPs whose fortune was originally built on playing cards, board games, and other amusements. (Imagine Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers as as a proper 21st-century billion-dollar dynasty, complete with ownership of multiple major-league sports franchises.) The down-to-earth Grace regards the Le Domas fortune as more of a millstone than a glittering enticement, a sentiment that Alex – the wary black sheep of the family – wouldn’t dispute. Of course, he still toes the line where family tradition is concerned, reluctantly returning home to hold his wedding on the grounds of the sprawling Le Domas estate.

Even Alex’s regal but approachable mother, Becky (Andie MacDowell) – who was herself once an unwelcome interloper in the Le Domas “dominion” – can’t quite put Grace at ease on her wedding day. The bride longs for a proper family, but perhaps not this one: Alex’s pompous, tightly wound father, Tony (Henry Czerny); his boozing brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), and his icy social-climber wife, Charity (Elyse Levesque); his batty, cokehead sister, Emilie (Melanie Scrofano), and her hapless husband, Fitch (Kristian Bruun); and, most menacing of all, his widowed Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni), Tony’s gnomish, unsmiling elder sister. The relatively modest outdoor wedding ceremony rushes by in a blur, and it’s only after the knot is tied that Alex sheepishly reveals the most august of the Le Domas’ matrimonial traditions: a midnight game session to officially initiate the new daughter- or son-in-law into the family. Despite Alex’s visible apprehension, Grace chalks this oddball custom up to the eccentricities of the one percent and sportingly plays along.

When the family is gathered around the game table, Tony produces an antique puzzle-box and regales Grace with a hoary Le Domas legend: Great-granddad allegedly struck a hazy deal of some sort with a wandering gambler named Le Bail. The family now honors that pact with a random wedding-night game, selected by a card dispensed from the clockwork box. “I got chess,” explains Charity; “I got Old Maid,” guffaws Fitch. To Grace’s amusement, the card she pulls is Hide and Seek, but no one else is smiling, least of all Alex, who has abruptly gone white as a sheet. Tony explains the straightforward rules of the game – remain inside the mansion, try not to get caught – before Grace dashes off to hide, sensibly removing her wedding pumps along the way. Things quickly turn from ominous to alarming when the family members proceed to arm themselves with an assortment of antique weapons plucked from the game-room walls, including a shotgun, crossbow, and headsman’s axe. Even viewers who haven’t seen The Most Dangerous Game (1932) – or Run for the Sun (1956) or Bloodlust! (1961) or Hard Target (1993) – will already have some inkling of where this is headed, but it turns out there’s more at stake here than slaking the bloodlust of the ultra-wealthy. The Le Domases are obliged to offer Grace up as a ritual sacrifice to their infernal benefactor or their entire dynasty will collapse by dawn (or so they believe).

Gory, profane, and a hell of a lot more fun than it has any right to be, Ready or Not is co-directed by longtime collaborators Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Best known for their contributions to horror anthologies like V/H/S (2012) and Southbound (2015) – as well as the better-forgotten “Satanic fetus” dud Devil’s Due (2014) – the filmmakers have unquestionably turned out their tightest, most effortlessly enjoyable genre work to date with Ready or Not. As with several other recent survival-horror features, there’s a half-baked satirical streak to the film’s ambitions: The Belko Experiment (2016), Assassination Nation (2018), and Mayhem (2017) (the latter also starring Weaving) all come to mind as comparable late-model films that attempt (and fail) to serve up cutting cultural insights. Fortunately, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett seem to apprehend that their acerbic swipes at the super-elites – Spoiler Alert: Wealth turns people into heartless monsters! – aren’t especially shrewd or original. Accordingly, Ready or Not prefers to lean into the adolescent spectacle of over-the-top carnage, a near-constant barrage of f-bombs, and the bickering, bumbling ineptitude of the Le Domases themselves. (Count Zaroffs, they are not.)

Quite unexpectedly, the feature achieves a dexterous balance between the appalling and absurd that it capably maintains for a lively 95 minutes. Although this results in an ostensible horror film that is rarely outright scary, it does manage to be delectably thrilling and grotesquely funny, often simultaneously. Ready or Not is also distinguished by its ravening enthusiasm to make good on its R rating, without resorting to the sort of pugnacious, boundary-pushing cruelty that characterizes many contemporary horror films, even satires like Cheap Thrills (2014). Indeed, there’s something almost charming about the film’s reliance on old-fashioned splatterstick and vulgarity, which – combined with the convincing faux-35mm look of its digital photography – suggests the unrated special edition of some lost Joe Dante/Stuart Gordon collaboration. Unquestionably, the film’s exploitation-flick subject matter is given a striking Hollywood polish by the jaw-dropping opulence of the De Lomas estate – actually Ontario’s renowned Casa Loma and Parkwood mansions – which cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz saturates in a dense, coppery-orange gloom.

The supporting players range from tolerable to enjoyable, with the veterans the clear standouts: Czerny is always a delight when he’s allowed to go unhinged, while MacDowell lends a familiar, misleading warmth to Becky’s chilling, family-first zealotry. However, Weaving is unquestionably the film’s star attraction, both in billing and in fact. Most familiar to genre fans for her roles in Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015-18), The Babysitter (2017) and the aforementioned Mayhem, the actor winningly and emphatically shrugs off any lingering “off-brand Margot Robbie” typecasting with a performance that’s at once B-movie juicy and rousingly authentic. Critically, Weaving, her co-directors, and screenwriters Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy all refrain from turning Grace into a steely action star once the games begin. The actor plays the hunted bride as a deft blend of frightened victim, dogged survivor, and exasperated heroine in a screwball comedy. Second only to pants-shitting terror, Grace’s prevailing mode is one of furious, sputtering disbelief, as in, “I can’t believe this is happening to me on my goddamn wedding night.” Which perhaps points to her potentially lethal error in judgment: Where money and family are concerned, one should always expect the worst.

Not that the De Lomases are all that threatening as villains. What’s modestly refreshing about Ready or Not’s nefarious clan of devil-worshipping Brahmins is their utter cluelessness. In contrast to the sinister cabals that populate most horror films, the De Lomases are cartoonishly incompetent, stymied at every turn by Grace’s desperate cunning even with all the advantages at their disposal (i.e., numbers, weapons, and familiarity with the mansion’s nooks and crannies). Indeed, except for the bloodthirsty Aunt Helene and the family’s brutish butler, Stevens (John Ralston), the household treats the ritual slaughter of Alex’s new wife as a kind of miserable familial duty. There’s nothing gleefully malevolent about the De Lomas’ cultish traditions; they’re simply paying the Devil his due to protect the family’s staggering wealth and power. This, in its low-key way, might be the film’s most biting and cynical theme: Evil is less about cackling malfeasance than grubby, self-serving pettiness, where the wealthy will gladly lower themselves to hacking up corpses if it means preserving the comforts of the status quo. It’s telling, perhaps, that many of the De Lomases are willing to toss out their hallowed customs – Why rely on Civil War-era weaponry? Why not exploit the estate’s security cameras? – when Grace proves to be a slippery quarry. Decorum, traditions, and allegedly inviolate moral codes are all discarded the moment they become inconvenient to people who have everything to lose.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Mike Wallace Is Here'.
August 16, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking

2019 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Avi Belkin / Opened in select cities on July 26, 2019; locally on Aug. 16, 2019

The title of Avi Belkin’s Mike Wallace Is Here may be a nod to the phrase used to introduce the television journalist on his influential news magazine show 60 Minutes, but it also cleverly points to the late Wallace’s authorial presence within this documentary. Culled together exclusively from a treasure trove of archival footage, it’s ostensibly Wallace spinning his own yarn through his preferred medium – the news television interviews for which he became a household name – as both interviewer and interviewee. With that in mind, Mike Wallace Is Here has a surface resemblance to the trendy archival footage-only mosaics like this year’s hit docs Apollo 11 and They Shall Not Grow Old. However, the wrinkle Belkin adds – shaping the film so that the subject seems to interrogate himself – allows for a uniquely rewarding, sometimes opaque, and often very funny experiential montage.

Wallace is not a co-author in the sense that he’s helped shape the material here; he died in 2012, so this is emphatically not auto-biography. However, his braggadocious technique and intrepid reporting comprises the film’s content, and it also informs the lean shape Mike Wallace Is Here takes. Interviews with a cavalcade of both famous and infamous 20th-century notables – Bette Davis, Arthur Miller, Eldon Edwards, Richard Nixon, to name just a few – flash through the title cards, set to the Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock,” the propulsive rhythm-section-only track that previously scored the opening robbery in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). From this, it’s clear that Belkin is uninterested in traditional documentary technique, attempting to move the dial of a more staid mode of talking-head docs into a possibly more involving and modern one. It’s also a move analogous to what Wallace and Don Hewitt were up to when they entered the stately CBS newsrooms to eventually modernize that medium.

That hyper-slickness does make for one of the most entertaining biodocs in recent memory, given that this particular milieu could bore the hell out of an uninitiated viewer. (Although it’s worth noting that the newsroom frequently makes for compelling narrative cinema: His Girl Friday [1940], Network [1976], Broadcast News [1987], et al..) Mike Wallace Is Here is at once a biography and an exploration of how the parasitic nature of politics, culture, and the media has increasingly mutated into something more insidious since Wallace first appeared on local radio programs in the early 50s. In this way, the film introduces big ideas while jumping through Wallace’s greatest hits and misses. While they’re not dished out and then dispensed with in a perfunctory manner, many of these ideas may require more mulling than what Belkin allows for within his tight 90-minute feature. 

In a prologue of Wallace’s interview with persona non grata Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, the conservative huckster and braggart draws a line from his own political firebrand methods to Wallace’s take-no-prisoners style, the latter having helped shift news from simple reportage to “entertainment,” as some pigeonholed the now-venerated Wallace throughout his career. It is, like many things that come from O’Reilly’s word-hole, a false equivalency, but Wallace’s unlikely reaction suggests at least some culpability on his part.

Belkin weighs O’Reilly’s assertion throughout the film, but the director thankfully leaves the question open-ended while still attempting to mark the points at which such a thing might have occurred. Wallace’s early days in television as an actor, game show host, and cigarette spokesman meant that his entrée into news with his heavy-hitting interview programs, Night-Beat and The Mike Wallace Interview, initially prompted scoffs from establishment journalists. He persevered, landing a gig at "America’s most trusted" news outfit CBS News, but his more traditional cohorts there, including Walter Cronkite, saw him as a rowdy upstart.

The cycle of two steps forward and one step back is a constant for Wallace, and it's here where the biodoc draws parallels between Wallace’s professional trajectory and the sensationalization of television journalism. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini calls for an Egyptian uprising against their president, Anwar Sadat, in an interview with Wallace, seemingly resulting in the assasination of Sadat shortly after. This, along with the increasing proliferation of news magazines and tabloid programs – as well as a lawsuit from General William C. Westmoreland against CBS News on the basis of a Wallace interview – casts a national black cloud over the established media.

Throughout his narrative of causality, Belkin is occasionally prone to obvious comparisons to our current political and media landscape, sometimes with blunt force, as when he features Wallace with a then-late-30s Donald Trump who denounces any intention of running for public office – although the real estate mogul believes he’s the type who could get the job done. The moment is chilling, sure, but it all feels like warning signals that have arrived far too late, touching a raw nerve just to provoke reaction. That inclusion does, however, allows Mike Wallace Is Here to function as a case study in media ethics, both in its content and its very storytelling.

Elsewhere, particularly when dealing with Wallace’s insecurities and personal life, the director deploys a lighter touch and creates a much greater impact. Eisenstein would be proud (or at the very least, intrigued) by Belkin’s trick of cutting between Wallace’s hard-nosed interviews of various subjects and the multitude of times the reporter was the subject himself; he was a celebrity in his own right, after all. He challenges Bette Davis’ assertion that all she ever needed in her life was work, not people, and whether that could be true for any human – and then voices virtually the same sentiment himself in a retirement-era interview with a 60 Minutes producer. He prods Larry King about his personal relationship woes, later shutting down a similar question posed to him as “bullshit.” Most revealing regarding the schism between his private and public self is his seemingly insensitive line of questioning to Leona Helmsley’s about her son’s death, juxtaposed against the suicide of Wallace’s own son and the lifelong trauma it inflicted on the newsman.

While the conceit of using pre-existing interview material exclusively doesn’t allow for a fully formed biography of Wallace – although, admittedly, the film and the man himself suggest that his work was the sole reason for his existence – this complex documentary is likely the closest any filmmaker can get to the contradictory truths surrounding the legendary journalist. If he truly was the swaggering blowhard this film presents, he’d likely raise hell and red flags about the entire enterprise. It would be hard for him to present a defense against it, however, since Belkin has lovingly crafted a paen as complicated and rich as Wallace’s legacy itself.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Dora and the Lost City of Gold'.
August 15, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

She Can Lead the Way

2019 / USA, Australia / 102 min. / Dir. by James Bobin / Opened in wide release on Aug. 9, 2019

Nickelodeon tried to make Dora the Explorer (2000- ) relevant to older audiences once before. A television staple for many Millennials and Gen Zers, Dora’s a young girl who — along with her talking animal friends and an animate backpack and map — aims to teach basic Spanish words and phrases to children between the ages of two and seven. It remained on air for nearly two decades before Nick decided to try something new. Trading the original iteration of the show for a more mature version aimed at tweens, Dora and Friends: Into the City! (2014-17) saw the character swap her animal comrades and jungle setting for a fictional city filled with other girls her age. It was not remotely as successful as its predecessor, as evidenced by its mere three-year run. However, just two years after shuttering Into the City!, the studio is back at it again: This time, Dora’s a real-life high schooler (Isabela Moner) in search of ancient artifacts. Unlike the last attempt to make the pint-sized adventurer relevant, Dora and the Lost City of Gold modestly strikes it rich.

From the highly stylized opening sequence that sees a young Dora (Madelyn Miranda) and her cousin Diego (Malachi Barton) swinging through the jungle singing the show’s opening theme song, it’s apparent that the film is dedicated to its source material. That is, until Dora’s parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) call the kids’ names and reality snaps back into place. The suggestion that the cartoon is nothing more than Dora’s imagination drives the new film’s narrative. She’s living in her own world — one where she’s the host of an infantile adventure show. When Diego moves to the city for his mom’s new job, the film flashes forward a decade. Now 16 years old, Dora is still sporting the same brightly-colored outfit and touting around her trusty companions as she rollicks through the jungle without an iota of fear. This reckless behavior results in a tough decision for her mom and dad: Dora will head into the city to finish her schooling while they complete their career-long search for a lost Incan civilization. As it turns out, high school is the one adventure Dora has yet to tackle.

Her parents aren’t the only ones searching for the lost city of gold, however. A team of villainous mercenaries know they can beat Dora’s parents to the treasure if the adolescent explorer leads them straight to it. What transpires is a mashup of Elf (2003) and all four Indiana Jones films, with Dora serving as the adventurer/fish-out-of-water hybrid. After an unexpected turn of events, Dora, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), and fellow classmates Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe) must make their way through the South American rainforest with the help of family friend Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) while also making sure to avoid the bad guys hot on their trail. Their journey contains plenty of what Randy dubs “jungle puzzles,” most of which are boosted straight from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Last Crusade (1989), before heading into a third act that is more Temple of Doom (1984) and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). (Considering that the Indiana Jones franchise was roped into Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm back in 2012, Dora is odd but admittedly sensible candidate for an off-brand Indy substitute.)

However obscure or arbitrary the idea might sound initially, Nickelodeon’s decision to produce a feature film based on Dora the Explorer makes sense. Not only does it qualify as a nostalgia mine, but it’s also the longest-running show in their educational programming block Nick Jr. From toys to books to home videos to video games, Dora is intellectual property that Nickelodeon would be foolish not to cash in on (especially when their rival Walt Disney Studios looming like a juggernaut over the multiplex landscape). Co-writer Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin are the ideal choices for an adaption of this kind — the pair are responsible for The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014), while Stoller has also written successful animated films like Storks (2016) and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017). The sense of humor is more family-friendly than some of Stoller’s R-rated comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and Neighbors (2014), but his signature brand of British cynicism turns what could have been a tiresome money-grab into a decent live-action adaptation that far exceeds Disney’s recent efforts.

Along with co-writer Matthew Robinson, the two have found a way to honor the original program while refusing to be bound by it. Dora’s sanguine attitude and sing-songy nature are openly mocked, while the animation style of the show is reduced to a particularly memorable sight gag. Meanwhile, Boots’ alleged ability to talk is questioned by anyone who happens to see Dora "conversing" with her CGI monkey sidekick. (For whatever reason, Swiper the Fox, voiced by Benicio del Toro, openly talks to his gang of soldiers-for-hire, who don’t bat an eye at this. Shouldn't Dora’s crew be just as accommodating to Boots’ anthropomorphism?) It’s a shame when Dora resorts to easy potty humor because the majority of the comedy actually works quite successfully. The film’s blend of high- and low-brow gags conjoined with big-time thrills and a real sense of peril culminate in an unpredictable outing that ranks among some of the more amusing live-action remakes to date.

In the wake of The Lion King (2019) and Disney’s apparent determination to dully remake all of its animated features, it’s admirable to see something as imaginative as Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Isabela Moner operates as a human cartoon character who embodies the film’s namesake with ease. Who would have thought that the stand-out pairing of Moner and del Toro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) would be replicated within the year? And in a self-aware adaptation of an educational TV series, no less? There’s no telling if Nickelodeon will continue to go down a similar route with some of their other Nick Jr. titles — perhaps a Blue’s Clues (1996-2006) neo-noir?  — but even if Dora ends up standing alone, it will remain a stand-out in a time where profit seems more important than ingenuity. At least The Lost City of Gold seems to give the two equal weight.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'The Nightingale'.
August 13, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Revenge Is Never a Straight Line. It's a Forest.

2018 / Australia, Canada, USA / 136 min. / Dir. by Jennifer Kent / Opened in select cities on Aug. 2, 2019; locally on Aug. 16, 2019

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

The Nightingale is a film of staggering cruelty. The feature’s writer and director, Jennifer Kent, established a formidable international reputation with her creepy, psychologically transgressive horror hit The Babadook (2014). While the director’s sophomore feature isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense, The Nightingale is a work steeped in the sort of unforgiving, authentic brutality that would make a grindhouse gorehound blanch. Set in Tasmania in 1825, Kent’s film is unsparing in its depiction of the everyday monstrousness of 19th-century British colonialism – as well as that system’s close yet complicated connection to misogyny. It’s a sharply political work that doesn’t feel didactic for one moment of its intentionally exhausting 136-minute running time, in part because the director is so adept at thrusting the viewer into the rawboned, harrowed headspace of her protagonist, 21-year-old Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi, in an undeniable breakout performance).

Over the first half-hour of The Nightingale, Kent expressively sketches Clare’s miserable circumstances with a keen-eyed affinity for detail – such as the kitchen knife that the woman clutches defensively while walking along a wooded path, even as she sings sweetly to her infant child. Convicted of theft at a young age, Clare now lives as a glorified slave to a British lieutenant, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), at a remote wilderness outpost in colonial Tasmania (then Van Dieman’s Land). Although she is married to fellow Irish Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and is caring for her newborn, Clare is obliged to work long, grueling hours as a scullery maid in the garrison kitchens, to sing for the troops on command, and to submit to the lieutenant’s vicious sexual assaults. It’s technically been three months since her sentence was completed, but Hawkins has no incentive to issue the letter recommending Clare’s release. Resentful at his backwater posting and burdened with a platoon of hard-drinking, ill-disciplined soldiers, the lieutenant humiliates and abuses Clare as an outlet for his seething frustrations – in between murderous sorties against the local Aboriginal people.

During an inspection, a visiting captain reveals that Hawkins has not been recommended for the promotion and reassignment he desired, setting off a terrible chain of events for Clare. His confidence bolstered by drink, Aidan confronts the already-livid lieutenant about his wife’s overdue release, and raised voices eventually escalate to blows. This incident only compounds Hawkins’ burning sense of professional disgrace, and later that night he storms into the couple’s hovel with his drunken infantrymen in tow. In a scuffle that spirals into atrocity with nightmarish speed, the soldiers inflict a veritable horror show of unfathomable violence against Clare and her family. Everything in her life collapses into one shattering singularity, leaving Clare utterly alone and broken – or so Hawkins and his men assume, to their eventual peril.

Kent presents these awful events in a manner that emphasizes Clare’s agony and powerlessness, and for this reason, it has a sickening intimacy. While the director’s choices reflect a female filmmaker’s sensitivity to the psychological details of Clare’s ordeal – such as the way the woman’s glassy gaze fixates on her shack’s dusty ceiling as a means of dissociation – there’s no point in glossing over the severity of the feature’s graphic violence. The Nightingale will test many viewers’ ability to stomach unblinking cinematic depictions of human barbarism. The night that incites Clare’s unholy mission of vengeance is only the opening act in the film’s litany of rape and murder, much of it salted with unapologetic (even gleeful) racism. Indeed, the film’s screening at the Sydney Film Festival in June reportedly prompted the inevitable indignant walkouts from some audience members. (The feature's U.S. distributor, IFC Films, prudently included frank content warnings with screeners issued to critics.)

The obvious question is whether all this misery – however accurate in its depiction of Australia’s colonial history  – adds up to something meaningful, or just the contemporary prestige version of an exploitation rape-revenge flick such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978). Like Jen and Sylvia Soska’s American Mary (2012), Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. (2017), and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017), Kent’s feature employs the sub-genre’s lowbrow conventions for revisionist, feminist ends. However, The Nightingale lacks the self-aware sleaziness and gallows humor that typically characterize such neo-exploitation works. In terms of setting and tone, it is a closer relation to the Aussie “meat pie Western,” especially that subgenre’s grimmer, de-romanticized 21st-century entries like The Tracker (2002), The Proposition (2005), and Sweet Country (2017). Kent puts her own haunted spin on this sort of blood-soaked bush tale, slowing things down to a crawl and submerging the film in her heroine’s bad dreams and black hate.

The morning after her old life is obliterated, Clare discovers that Hawkins has abruptly departed the outpost with a small band that includes soldiers, convicts, and an Aboriginal guide. Headed overland on foot to his company’s headquarters to the north, the lieutenant is under the perhaps-myopic assumption that his boldness will secure him the captaincy that he has been denied. Clare, who is so hungry for blood that she doesn’t even take time to bury her dead, seeks out an Aboriginal guide of her own in the form of Billy (newcomer Baykali Ganambarr, just as impressive as Franciosi). A sullen yet hard-headed young man, he is persuaded by the promise of an eventual payday, once Clare hocks the jewelry and other mementos the lieutenant has gifted to her over the years. Their tetchy, cross-gender, cross-racial alliance thus struck – a kind of rancorous historical forebear to Walkabout (1971) – the pair race to gain ground on Hawkins’ party, even as Britain’s Black War against the indigenous Tasmanians rages around them. Although Billy doesn’t yet know of Clare’s murderous intentions, her dead-eyed zeal is plainly burning white hot. Indeed, her recklessness puts both of their lives in jeopardy on more than one occasion as they traverse the bush’s buzzing forests, stony hills, and swollen rivers, perpetually nipping at Hawkins’ heels.

While The Nightingale functions quite fantastically as a pitiless revenge thriller – one that unavoidably recalls the hell-and-back intensity of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015), absent that film’s fable-like qualities – Kent is ultimately up to something more akin to the meditations on violence and vengeance in The Great Silence (1968), Unforgiven (1992) and True Grit (2010). (Or, to venture outside the Western genre, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 cloak-and-dagger masterwork, Munich.) In contrast to the rape-revenge exploitation pictures of yesteryear, Kent’s feature doesn’t endeavor to titillate viewers with the spectacle of righteous violence. When Clare finally has one of the soliders in her clutches, the struggle that ensues is ugly stuff, as ungainly in its scrabbling desperation as John Wick’s homicidal rampages are elegant. Simply put, revenge doesn’t look daring, exciting, or even all that satisfying in The Nightingale. It looks like a journey into the bowels of hell.

This is at least partly attributable to Kent’s choice to build her tale around outsiders who have both suffered at the hands of British colonizers: an Irish woman enslaved and exiled for a petty offense and an Aboriginal man whose clan has been slain and scattered. The filmmaker walks a fine line here, depicting the way her lead characters – who initially boil with mutual, unconcealed contempt – gradually become aware of the cruelties they have both suffered, all without permitting the screenplay to slip into implausible kumbayas. (Green Book this is not.) The fumbling, uncertain empathy that Clare and Jimmy discover as they trek through the Tasmanian wilds is probably the closest thing to real humanity to be found in The Nightingale. However, their bond is less a friendship than a two-way acknowledgement that their pain is real and their grievances are deep. (Though Kent suggests, in the most delicate way possible, a longing for something more, as fleeting as a hand reaching out momentarily in the darkness.)

The Nightingale advances that, in contrast to the extraordinary injustices that often motivate cinema’s white male vengeance-seekers, the wrongs perpetrated on Clare and Jimmy are, by definition, un-extraordinary. Slavery, rape, and slaughter: It’s all in a day’s work for the British Empire. Although it would be a century and a half before “intersectionality” entered the lexicon of the social sciences, Clare and Jimmy exhibit a nascent awareness that they share a common devil draped in the Union Jack, and that battling him will require a kind of crude solidarity. Moreover, The Nightingale is deftly and consistently attuned to the ways that power manifests along innumerable axes: man and woman; white and black; native and colonist; freeman and convict. That this never feels like an anachronism is a testament to Kent’s nimble cinematic storytelling and to Franciosi and Ganambarr’s credible performances.

Implicit in the film’s sociological reflections, however, is a sour skepticism towards personal acts of retribution, especially when the villains’ actions are underlain and protected by a vast, powerful system of patriarchy and white supremacy. Left unsaid is the truism that if slain, Hawkins will simply be replaced by another cog in the colonial machine, perhaps one equally malevolent (or worse, if such a thing is possible). By offering glimpses of the intricacies of the story’s hierarchies – illustrating, for example, how Hawkins pulls an indentured orphan boy into his confidence by dangling the promise of a pistol, that totem of imperial authority – Kent cunningly questions the broader, utilitarian effectiveness of the classic revenge quest. She does this, impressively enough, without diminishing the howling pain of her heroine’s losses or suggesting that Hawkins and his men deserve anything less than death for their evil deeds.

On a more psychological level, The Nightingale also expresses a pessimistic view of revenge as an ultimately fruitless and self-destructive endeavor. An aphorism often attributed to Confucius could very well be the film’s alternate tagline: Before embarking on a journey of revenge, first dig two graves. The observation that vengeance poisons the soul might not be especially original, but Kent underlines it evocatively by means of heightened, horror-film flourishes. Clare’s nights are initially bedeviled by ghoulish visions of her slain family, but eventually her victims begin to haunt her dreams as well, gibbering from mutilated faces and wheezing through collapsed lungs. The pernicious nature of revenge can be a resonant theme; Game of Thrones (2011-19) vividly and subversively explored it before disappointingly retreating into more shopworn fantasy tropes. Kent’s feature evades such a fate, partly through the screenplay’s emotional and philosophical rigor, and partly through the hard-nosed, often horrifying authenticity of the period setting, which grounds the film in the inescapable grasp of history.

Indeed, Alex Holmes’ grimy, ragged production design only heightens the film’s intense atmosphere of stultifying doom. (As in Jane Campion’s New Zealand-set 1993 masterpiece The Piano, most of the non-indigenous characters seem to be perpetually clammy and filthy.) Frequently, the viewer feels as trapped as Clare does by this hellish environment, an island at the end of the world that is improbably swarming with the same redcoat demons that plagued her distant emerald homeland. Who could fault her for believing that she has nothing left to cling to other than her bottomless sorrow and incandescent rage? Jimmy, for his part, nurtures a myth-embellished clan pride beneath his bitterness, playfully expressing his spiritual kinship with the native blackbird and speaking fondly of his past initiation into his people’s ritual culture. It’s not until he learns of his far-flung clan’s fate that he begins to exhibit the same hollowed-out fury as Clare, the same zombified conviction that he has nothing left to live for except the annihilation of his enemies. Kent never takes her characters to task for this vindictive compulsion, but she does venture – particularly in her film’s final, aching shot – that the cold satisfaction of vengeance might be a poor substitute for the warmth of human connection.

Rating: B+

Viewers take note: The Nightingale features potentially triggering acts of sexual violence towards women, violence towards children, and violence motivated by racism.

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Them That Follow'.
August 8, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Snake, Rattle and Roll

2019 / USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage / Opens in select cities on Aug. 2, 2019; locally on Aug. 9, 2019

Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s debut feature, Them That Follow, suffers greatly from its lack of an interesting point-of-view. Set in secluded foothills of the Appalachian mountains in which a community of evangelical Pentecostal devotees deploy venomous snakes as a ritual test of faith, this hyper-indie-movie vision of a toxic community gone awry makes an early promise to which it just can’t commit. It may be cut from the same quasi-thriller cloth as Sean Durkin’s 2011 debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, but Poulton and Madison only retain that slow-burn identity-mystery's sensationalism and almost none of its acute exploration of the allure of cults and the trauma they inflict on their members.

Casting Walton Goggins as Lemuel, the rattlesnake-catching and blustery preacher of this church, should be a major coup for these new filmmakers and screenwriters, but even the performer’s seething insidiousness for which he’s best known (as in television’s Justified [2010-15]) coupled with his innate charm (see his scene-stealing turn in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight [2015]) can’t truly elucidate the pull such an obviously dangerous dogma has on its believers. Poulton and Savage’s script is simply too basic and too rote in its mechanics to elevate the material beyond its mix of soap opera and suspense trappings – and there are enough of these to propel a viewer through it – burdening the resulting film’s incredible cast with all the heavy lifting.

Shouldered with most of that weight is Alice Englert as Lemuel’s daughter, Mara, and she carries the young and troubled woman with great dignity and doubt, making her a credible center for both the narrative and the community that surrounds the character. Arranged marriages and the protection of one’s virginity are the norm here, and Mara has broken the latter vow with her secret boyfriend, Augie (Thomas Mann), who’s already distanced himself from the church to which his mother, Hope (Olivia Colman), and father, Zeke (a straight-faced Jim Gaffigan), are so devoted. Mara’s lustful “sin” sends her into a downward spiral.  She steals a pregnancy test from the convenience store Hope runs and (of course) it reads positive, forcing her to conceal – even to her best friend and surrogate sister, Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever of Booksmart [2019]) – not only her relationship and condition but also the increasing schism between her upbringing and her diverging beliefs.

Complicating matters is a newcomer to the community, Garret (Lewis Pullman), and his romantic interest in Mara – interest Lemuel so wholeheartedly endorses, he convinces them that a nuptial union is in order. As per tradition, Mara is given the opportunity to decline, but the timing is all too convenient for her to pass up. Her intended ruse doesn’t last long after Hope performs an invasive “rite of passage” on the bride-to-be and discovers her secret. What follows gives Them That Follow its thriller components as community members are pitted against each other in a test of faith vs. logic: Two instances of reptile-as-absolution end with wildly different results as the film pivots from hillbilly soap opera into a gory race against the clock.

Throughout, surface-level assessments and depictions of the religion don’t allow for an audience to identify with the given theology or its members’ unmoved devotion. Accordingly, there’s condescension towards the lifestyle and characters presented here, although to convince any viewer differently may be an absurd task, given the particulars of it. Poulton and Savage are likely too green to imbue their film with the same sort of subversive attraction Paul Thomas Anderson lent to the faux-Scientology of The Master (2013). Their script mostly just lifts aspects of snake-worshipping for the purpose of by-the-numbers filmic conflict, resolution, and exploitation, as opposed to the more multifaceted exploration of influence and identity seen in Anderson’s superb work.

That said, Colman, fresh off a Best Actress Oscar win for The Favourite (2018), sells this sort of depth through her performance. Her Hope is a solemn worshiper who bears the heavy cross of her past – the character alludes to the rough road of sins that led her to the church – until the weight of it virtually crushes her when she’s forced to choose between the source of her supposed salvation and a life-or-death matter. Once the pressure ruptures her already unstable constitution, the actor pushes the film into its most humane moment. In a production filled with dressed-down Hollywood-types acting as the new silent majority (director Debra Granik navigates similar territory with both Winter’s Bone [2010] and Leave No Trace [2018] to better results), Colman is the best embodiment of what could simply be an unconvincing stock-type in a film unfortunately filled with them.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Otherhood'.
August 8, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Bad Moms

2019 / USA, UK / 100 min. / Dir. by Cindy Chupack / Premiered online on Aug. 2, 2019

Long-time television writer Cindy Chupack’s directorial debut, Otherhood, was supposed to be released around Mother’s Day but was pushed to August because of actress Felicity Huffman’s legal proceedings. In March, Huffman and nearly 50 others were arrested for their involvement in a nationwide college entrance exam cheating scandal. Huffman and fellow members of America’s rich and famous were charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, with Huffman specifically paying $15,000 for a proctor to correct any wrong answers on her daughter's SAT. The intention is clear — what parent wouldn’t want their child to get accepted into their dream school? — but the ethical ugliness is even more obvious. It’s exactly the kind of well-meaning but completely inappropriate thing Helen Halston, Huffman’s character in Otherhood, would do for her son.

Despite plainly being a Mother’s Day film, the early August release date still works with the film’s theme (to some extent). Moms undoubtedly get their feelings hurt when their kids don’t call on Mother’s Day, but the same disappointment can surface when children head off to college and communication tapers off. It’s a topic that pervades the film: Grown-up children disappoint their parents without meaning to. Helen, Gillian (Patricia Arquette), and Carol (Angela Basset) have been empty-nesters for so long, they’ve grown tired of the way their adult sons treat them — ignored phone calls, unanswered text messages, forgotten holidays. They’re fed up. After another Mother’s Day goes by with little-to-no contact from the three boys, the moms — drunk on whiskey before noon on a Sunday — devise a scheme to forcibly involve themselves in their sons' lives again. On a whim, they pack their bags and head from upstate New York into the city, showing up unannounced at their sons’ apartments. (Less than 10 minutes in, it’s clear why their children don’t give these domineering women the attention they think they deserve.)

One by one, Helen, Gillian, and Carol are dropped off outside their destinations. Only Carol dares to directly confront her son Matt (Sinqua Walls) — Helen and Gillian both get cold feet and put off their surprise reunions until the next day. From here, the plot splits into three overlapping threads. For example: Gillian’s son Daniel (Jake Hoffman, son of Dustin Hoffman, playing a dollar-store version of Ben Braddock from The Graduate [1967]) walked in on his hairstylist girlfriend Erin (Heidi Gardener) having an affair, so she’s determined to get them back together so her boy can be happy again. When Carol’s son Matt tells her she needs to focus on herself after the death of her husband, Gillian leaps at the opportunity to suggest a makeover at Erin’s salon. Gillian and Erin’s conversation then inspires Helen to resolve unspoken issues with her son Paul (Jake Lacy), who has always felt neglected by her. Their respective journeys intertwine like this for a solid hour before the trio realize the only way they can improve their relationships with their sons is to improve their relationships with themselves.

This sort of three-pronged plot should be expected from someone who has spent most of her career writing for television. Chupack has penned episodes of modern sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005), Sex and the City (1998-2004), and Modern Family (2009- ), so it makes sense for her first screenplay to preserve the episodic structure to which she’s accustomed. Unfortunately, the resulting film doesn’t flow smoothly; Otherhood plays like several episodes of a Netflix Original Series loosely strung together. Major plot points are either abandoned or resolve themselves off-screen, all so that Chupack can add more twists and turns to a story that’s barely there in the first place. Another component that feels imported from the commercial-heavy network sitcom model is the film’s overt product placement. The moms fawn over a box of Dunkin’ Donuts at their Mother’s Day brunch. Once in New York, Gillian raves about her hotel’s one-of-a-kind amenities with the brand name conveniently centered in the frame. These embedded ads are as distracting as a commercial break, made worse by the legitimately talented, veteran performers doing the hawking.

It’s a shame that these characters aren’t as good as the actresses playing them. Patricia Arquette won an Academy Award for bringing nuance and grace to the role of a mother in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014). Angela Bassett has played important figures such as Dr. Betty Shabazz in Malcom X (1992), Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), and the titular heroine in The Rosa Parks Story (2002). In direct contrast to their undeniable talent, Otherhood limits its three leads to caricatures — the extent of Arquette’s character is Overbearing Mom, Bassett’s is Grieving Mom, and Huffman’s is Entitled Mom. The script leaves no room for further development, instead choosing tired jokes over meaningful moments. Their lines sound like Chupack and her co-writer Mark Andrus were trying to replicate what they imagine a group of fifty-something moms would sound like, with the trio griping about social media and cell phones and “the world today.” One line near the beginning of their trek into the city remains particularly confounding: When Bassett sees a new bridge being built, she says, “What was wrong with the old bridge?” The likely answer is “It was structurally unsound,” but for some reason this perplexing query is regarded as wise and profound. It’s baffling dialogue like this that makes the viewer wonder what drew these actresses to the project in the first place.

As the film ends, the credits list Arquette, Bassett, and Huffman as executive producers while an outtake of the three of them laughing and dancing plays to the side. Even Cindy Chupack can be seen in the corner of the frame, beaming along with the rest of the cast and crew. It’s enough to evoke dissociation. How could these stars not realize how bland this film is? It looks like they’re having a blast. Then it hits: These talents must realize how hard it is for women in Hollywood to get roles past a certain age. Despite her Oscar, Arquette hasn’t landed a significant role in a serious film since 2014. Hoffman’s career post-sentencing has a big question mark looming above it. Bassett is the only one who continues to score consistent work in genre franchises like Marvel Cinematic Universe and American Horror Story (2011- ), but even she seems to struggle to find work that challenges her dramatic acting abilities. It’s possible that these actresses saw Otherhood as a solution to their problems, in some small way — or a corrective to similar issues plaguing the entertainment industry at large — but if that’s the case, they were woefully off the mark.

Rating: D+

Otherhood is now available to stream from Netflix.

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch