A still from 'The Hustle'.
May 17, 2019
By Joshua Ray

A Criminal Enterprise

2019 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Chris Addison / Opened in wide release on May 10, 2019

One can’t begrudge the makers of The Hustle for wanting to update the Michael Caine and Steve Martin-starring cult comedy classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) – itself a remake of the forgotten Bedtime Story (1964) with David Niven and Marlon Brando. This gender-flipped con-woman comedy could have been an opportunity to upstage last year's wan, neutered Ocean’s 8 by upending the 1988 film’s raunchy spectacle of despicable men and allowing women to relish the opportunity to do bad. Instead, the finished product is even more of a disappointment than the Ocean’s sequel: an unfunny, empty-minded cash-in on a (just) cultural shift towards more women’s stories, fiction and not. 

The Hustle is ostensibly a vehicle for its star and producer, Rebel Wilson, the deadpan Aussie comedic actor known for scene-stealing in the Pitch Perfect franchise and in her breakout role in Bridesmaids (2011). It is with no joy to report that her low-level confidence woman, Penny, is largely an extension of the same familiar Wilson persona, complete with her laboriously extended scenes of the Apatow-ian faux-improvised bits that worked well in small bursts in her previous supporting work. Here, these moments – dead air that feels as if it takes up half the film’s runtime –  are antithetical to what could be (or maybe should be) a screw-tight, hijinx-filled romp.

Not that Scoundrels was anything like a balletic, zany farce of peak Hawksian screwball, but the leaden The Hustle retroactively makes it seem so. This remake, however, does mostly follow its precursor’s narrative beats and cringe-worthy political incorrectness but with some choice technological updates. After her Tinder catfishing scheme –  milking gross dudes for cash for her imaginary friend’s breast implant surgery – goes awry, Penny escapes to the South of France where she has a chance meeting with Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway). Josephine is, at first glance, a refined, erudite British society woman until she flaunts her own big-scale cons in an effort to dissuade Penny from infringing on her territory.

Having already portrayed an upper-crust criminal in the all-female Ocean’s reboot and cat-burglar par excellence Selina Kyle in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Hathaway would seem perfect for the haughty and sly Josephine. Hamstrung by an easily excised British accent that she can’t quite master (and not to mention the tedious, by-committee script), this is unfortunately not the case. Hathaway comes off as stiff in the worst way through most of the film, save in for some setups for gags that run for far too long. Her swindle of a diamond engagement ring from Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris is an easy highlight – until the joke is repeated for the next 15 minutes of screentime. 

Viewers might anticipate a twist in which Josephine is actually some country yokel putting on airs for her marks, but The Hustle goes beyond the obvious for the truly lowest-hanging fruit as it marches through the Scoundrels narrative. Josephine enlists Penny, but that too turns out to be a con. The two then go toe-to-toe by wagering on who can conquer supposed tech-wizard good-guy Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) first. What drives this rote and predictable plotting is a sheen of “wokeness” that actually carries veiled strains of ableism (two cons hinge on Penny feigning disabilities) and homophobia. Josephine appears to be a lesbian – although her queerness is desexualized to the point of nonexistence – but queer people and queerness are the butt of several nuance-free jokes. Penny’s sexual openness thankfully goes without shaming, but it later falls prey to humdrum rom-com machinations.

The film’s director, Chris Addison, comes from the school of Armando Iannucci, having appeared as an actor in Iannucci’s British political farce The Thick of It (2005-12); its quasi-film adaptation, In the Loop (2012); and as a producer and director on Veep (2012-19). With The Hustle, that comedy lineage is in no way apparent, as the results lack even a modicum of the acerbic wit, screwball tendencies, or subversive schadenfreude of those works. Even at its lowest, Veep earns its acidity through its “nasty women” characters’ humanism, whereas The Hustle simply evaporates upon contact.

Rating: C-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Under the Silver Lake'.
May 9, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

A Mystery Wrapped in a Riddle Inside an Enigma

2018 / USA / 139 min. / dir. by David Robert Mitchell / Opened in select cities on April 19, 2019; premiered online on April 22, 2019

“Break the code, solve the crime.” As FBI Agent Dale Cooper, Kyle MacLachlan asserted this maxim with the G-man’s typical rock-ribbed certainty during the first season of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s epochal series Twin Peaks (1990-91). Cooper was convinced that a methodical untangling of clues – both conventional and mystical – would allow him and his law-enforcement allies to riddle out the answer to the show’s central mystery: Who killed Laura Palmer? Indeed, much of the superficial appeal of Twin Peaks lay in the apparent density of its symbology, wherein every quirky detail seemed gravid with meaning, no matter how tangential it might have appeared to the question of who took the life of Twin Peaks, Wash.’s beloved homecoming queen. Of course, the perverse twist of Lynch and Frost’s series was that all the codes were a distraction, the murder mystery was beside the point, and righteousness was no bulwark against the cosmos’ unfathomable darkness. (A pessimistic view that was only reinforced by Lynch and Frost’s more radical and explicitly auteurist sequel series, Twin Peaks: The Return [2017].)

Under the Silver Lake, the third feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover [2010], It Follows [2014]) has a comparable relationship with mystery. On the one hand, the entire film is constructed around the seductive power of hidden messages, obscure symbols, and fringe conspiracy theories. The film’s protagonist gradually becomes obsessed with such minutiae, and Mitchell is counting on the viewer being similarly enticed by the feature’s wall-to-wall carpeting of Reddit-baiting clues. As with Twin Peaks, however, Under the Silver Lake frustrates the audience’s decryption efforts at every turn. The riddles pile up faster than the answers, and every other avenue of investigation seems to lead to a shaggy-dog punchline. Mitchell’s feature wants to have its cake and eat it too, pandering to conspiratorial thinking while also mocking its (typically male) practitioners as small-minded, insufferable crypto-narcissists. (It’s essentially the cinematic equivalent of that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia “Pepe Silvia” meme.) The film walks a razor-thin tightrope in this respect, and Mitchell doesn’t always maintain his footing, often teetering on the verge of endorsing what it aims to satirize. However, even when it fumbles, Under the Silver Lake remains a weird, audacious, and intoxicating work.

Vibrating to the discordant tones of Los Angeles-based slacker noir – especially The Big Lebowski (1998) and Inherent Vice (2014) – Under the Silver Lake centers on Sam (Andrew Garfield), an aimless, jobless thirtysomething deadbeat who’s a few days shy of eviction from his apartment. Sam’s also a bit of a creep when it comes to women: When he’s not accepting listless afternoon booty calls from an underemployed actress (Riki Lindhome), he’s using binoculars to ogle the habitually topless, bird-fancying GILF (Wendy Vanden Heuvel) whose second-floor balcony is catty-corner to his own. However, when Sam spies a leggy blond tenant he’s never noticed before lounging by the pool, this newcomer focuses his starry-eyed, lustful attention like no one other woman in his vicinity. He later arranges to “accidentally” bump into this enticing girl-next-door, Sarah (Riley Keough), who calls out his voyeurism with coquettish amusement. He admires her little dog and she invites him in for a drink. They get high, flirt, and kiss. She cuts the evening short when her roommates abruptly return home – with a mystery man dressed as a pirate; what’s that about? – but he extracts a promise for more romance to come: “See you tomorrow?”

Sam awakens the next day with an uncharacteristic spring in his step, but his good mood is deflated when he finds Sarah’s apartment utterly vacant, as though she and her roommates had packed up and moved out overnight. The complex’s manager doesn’t find the situation strange – “She wanted to leave. How does that not make sense?” – but Sam is baffled and more than a little hurt by this next-level ghosting. What truly triggers his nascent obsession, however, is a strange symbol he spies painted on the abandoned apartment’s wall. Later, an underground cartoonist (Patrick Fischler) explains that the sigil is hobo code for “Stay quiet.” (Fischler’s presence adds another layer of meta-movie weirdness to the proceedings, given that he previously appeared in Lynch’s Hollywood fever dream Mulholland Drive [2001], portraying a man whose nightmare comes to life in the alley behind a greasy spoon.)

There’s something bizarre about the whole situation, which is one reason Sam feels compelled to shadow a woman (Zoisia Mamet) who he catches rifling through a box of Sarah’s left-behind junk. She and two other women (Annabelle Dexter-Jones and Laura Leigh) criss-cross LA in a white Volkswagen Rabbit convertible – we see what you did there, Mr. Mitchell – while Sam tails them from a distance. The trio stop to watch as strange numbers blink on a football-field scoreboard, before eventually arriving at a hip rooftop party where a local act known as Jesus and the Brides of Dracula warble their goth-rock ballads. (Hey, didn’t Sam see them on the cover of a weekly alt newspaper earlier?) Everyone is talking about the mysterious disappearance of billionaire Jefferson Severence, as well as the depraved crimes of the “Dog-Killer” who’s been mutilating pooches in Sam’s neighborhood. What does it all mean? And what the hell happened to Sarah?

So it goes: down, down, down into the fetid crevasses of conspiratorial logic, where every Hollyweird curlicue seems to contain a hidden message, sinister connotation, or pointing finger directed at some other arcane signpost. Sam isn’t a novice to this sort of thinking, as it turns out. As he explains to his actress friend-with-benefits, he’s been taking notes on Vanna White’s eye movements on Wheel of Fortune for years, convinced that they comprise a secret code intended for a select few. “That sounds strange to you,” he observes, mid-rant, when he notices her incredulous, concerned expression. “I mean … a little,” she replies. Whenever Sam or one of his conspiracy-theory fellow travelers starts working themselves into a frenzy about everything being connected, man, one can’t help but think of The Maltese Falcon (1941): “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

Sam embodies a certain stripe of fevered slacker man-child, one who has substituted neurotic exegesis of political and cultural particles for the basics of adulting. Sam can’t (or won’t) hold down a job or do his own laundry, but he frantically sifts through album liner notes, hand-drawn local zines, and back issues of Nintendo Power in search of breadcrumbs. He even plays vinyl records backward to find subliminal messages, evoking the “Paul is dead” urban legend and the satanic panic of the 1980s (both of which proved to be bullshit, it bears noting). “There’s an entire generation of boys raised by movies and video games,” kvetches Sam’s similarly shiftless bar buddy (Topher Grace), but it’s unclear if either man thinks of himself in such terms, even as they unwittingly re-enact a scene from Body Double (1984) by playing peeping Tom with a laptop-linked drone. It never occurs to Sam that he might be on the wrong path – in life in general or specifically with respect to Sarah’s disappearance – even as he’s getting stalked, threatened, drugged, beat up, chained up, shot at, and sprayed in the face by a skunk. Indeed, Sam takes every roadblock as confirmation that he’s getting closer to the truth; he’s overflowing with the 4chan dirtbag’s version of anti-hater smarm.

Under the Silver Lake unfolds in a surreal, fantastical version of the City of Angels, whose slightly askew geography has rarely taken cinematic center stage in the way that it does here. In this – and other respects – Lake plays like the millennial SoCal cousin of Vertigo (1958), but with an added layer of unreality owing to the former film's proximity to the Hollywood dream factory. Indeed, Mitchell is quite cognizant of the extent to which real-world locales and pop culture can seem to blur together in Los Angeles. (How else to explain why a bust of James Dean graces Griffith Observatory alongside statues of Copernicus and Kepler?) Under the Silver Lake is so densely studded with allusions that Sam (and the viewer) is tempted to to discern meaning in every jot of on-screen information, even when that meaning is obvious, ambiguous, or just patently absurd. It’s no coincidence that Mitchell slips R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” into the soundtrack, an oblique reference to the notorious 1986 incident where a man randomly assaulted Dan Rather. Nor is it a coincidence that the bizarre, ominous demand screamed by said attacker didn’t amount to anything in the end. It was just the cry of a delusional, violent man lashing out at phantom oppressors. Also not a coincidence: Sam is seen reading David Kahn’s The Code-Breakers, which crops up in Zodiac (2007), another tale of obsession, dissatisfaction, and investigative dead ends.

There’s a discomfiting undercurrent of misogyny to the Under the Silver Lake’s paranoia, which Mitchell is trenchant enough to discern and bold enough to highlight in unflattering terms, but too cagey to explicitly condemn. As seen through Sam’s vaguely aggrieved eyes, every woman in Southern California resembles a ingenue, siren, whore, or mad, barking bitch. (Even the model on the Lasik billboard seems to be taunting him!) The feminine and the bestial are repeatedly intermingled in the film’s vocabulary, as when Fischler’s paranoid artist implants in Sam’s brain the legend of a naked, owl-masked succubus roaming nocturnal LA. Sam’s mostly obscure romantic history is given allegorical form in one of the feature’s animated zine interludes, wherein the Dog-Killer’s hatred of canines is linked to personal failures and misdirected resentment. Whether all this makes Lake itself misogynistic is unclear. However, it’s significant that while Sam is handsome and gawkily charismatic (given that he’s played by Garfield), the film takes pains to portray him as a self-absorbed scumbag, less anti-hero than un-hero. Even his purported white-knight concern for Sarah’s fate is rooted in asymmetrical horndog fantasies, not an ingrained sense of justice or decency.

The film itself seems to regard Sam’s worldview as pathetic rather than outright toxic. His conspiratorial mindset is even presented as understandable, to the extent the there is a natural human urge to sort signal from noise in the overstimulated landscape of modern life. However, Mitchell also cynically posits that all explanatory frameworks that involve secret knowledge necessarily create castes: the sheeple who just don’t get it and the keen-minded who can see through the illusion. It’s certainly not incidental that one of the weird, inter-linked conspiracies that Sam eventually uncovers – a ridiculous, patriarchal scheme that evokes the monumental hubris of the pharaohs – is itself obsessed with such unwashed masses vs. ascended elite distinctions. (Another hidden scheme alleges that every tune from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was penned by the same nefarious songwriting Methuselah, which would certainly explain why so many pop songs sound the same.)

By the time these and other outlandish plots are fully revealed, Under the Silver Lake has begun to go a bit off the rails, spinning its wheels to attain a 139-minute running time that the material, however compellingly daft, doesn’t really justify. Still, Mitchell’s film is exactly the sort of hallucinatory, ambitious swing for the fences that would feel like a disappointment if it didn’t go off the rails at some point. While it doesn’t peter out with the same subversive shrug that characterizes the conclusion of its spiritual kin, The Big Lebowski, the film does imply that some things aren’t worth investigating. “There’s nothing to solve, you know?” suggests one of the candy-colored vixens that drifts through Sam’s odyssey. “It’s silly wasting your energy on something that doesn’t matter.” Not that anyone will listen to such advice. Under the Silver Lake is the kind of film that will inspire dissertations that seek to unpack every reference, allusion, and production-design hat tip. (Admittedly, there aren’t many features that contain nods to both In a Lonely Place [1950] and Manos: The Hands of Fate [1966].) Mitchell will doubtlessly laugh himself hoarse when some poor, misguided soul inevitably rises to such a meaningless challenge.

Rating: B+

[Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google, iTunes, and other major online platforms.]

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Wind'.
May 1, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

The Wind

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Emma Tammi / Premiered online on Apr. 5, 2019

Loosely inspired by Dorothy Scarborough’s novel and the 1928 Lillian Gish vehicle of the same name, director Emma Tammi’s narrative-feature debut is a marvelously unsettling and elliptical tale of frontier terror. While her husband (Ashley Zukerman) is away for weeks at a time, homesteader Lizzie (Caitlin Gerard) is obliged to face down wolves, storms, paranoia, and a demonic presence that seems to ride on the prairie winds. Tammi cross-cuts Lizzie’s present-day travails with elusive snippets of the recent past: a rifle accident, a blood-drenched birth, a neighbor’s hellfire-tinged descent into madness. The scrambled chronology effectively places the viewer inside the heroine’s numb, twitching headspace, where the promise of the frontier has been revealed as a cold, lonely hell. (Think Repulsion [1965] and The Shining [1980] by way of Laura Ingalls Wilder.) Tammi’s nimble direction is epitomized by her intrepid handling of genre. The Wind is unambiguously a horror film, but it’s simultaneously a small-bore revisionist Western, one roiling with distinctly feminine fears and resentments. Rating: B+ [Now available to rent from Amazon.]

The Silence

2019 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by John R. Leonetti / Premiered online on Apr. 10, 2019

One is hesitant to label Netflix’s tedious creature feature The Silence an outright rip-off of last year’s A Quiet Place, given that the films were shot at roughly the same time. However, John R. Leonetti’s film does throw the taut brilliance of A Quiet Place into sharp relief, simply by doing everything wrong that the latter feature does right. There’s the clunky exposition for starters, from the pointless voiceover by star Kiernan Shipka to the unpersuasive news footage that the viewer is obliged to watch over the characters’ shoulders. There’s the too-large cast, cluttered up with family and friends who are virtually guaranteed to perish by the claws of the film’s prehistoric bat-monsters. There’s the strained attempt at post-apocalyptic world-building, which offers some legitimately creepy moments but makes little sense in a 90-minute stand-alone thriller. There’s the fact that hearing actress Shipka plays a deaf character, and her ASL is evidently laughably sloppy. Perhaps most egregiously, The Silence isn’t the least bit involving or frightening. Rating: D+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]


2018 / USA / 87 min. / Dir. by Dallas Jackson / Premiered online on Apr. 14, 2019

The kindest thing that can be said about director Dallas Jackson’s Thriller is that it has good albeit shallow intentions. Set in Compton, Calif., and featuring an African-American and Latinx cast, the film represents a belated attempt to diversify the 1990s slasher renaissance embodied by the likes of Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). Unfortunately, Thriller proves to be a chintzy, laborious dud of a film. Ostensibly, this is a revenge story: 18-year-old Chauncey (Jason Wood) returns to his old neighborhood to exact violent retribution on the classmates whose prank sent him to juvenile detention for five years. In practice, Thriller is a cliched and deadly-dull high-school drama, one where the unstoppable murderer on the loose is given less attention than petty, pointless subplots about street cred, romantic jealousy, and a local celebrity’s publicity stunt. It’s flimsy, boring, and often outright terrible, the latter typified by Jackson’s half-hearted attempts to wedge political allegory into a Z-grade slasher. Rating: D- [Now available to stream on Netflix and to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Body at Brighton Rock

2019 / USA / 87 min. / Dir. by Roxanne Benjamin / Premiered online on Apr. 26, 2019

The nickel summary of Roxanne Benjamin’s Body at Brighton Rock resembles the sort of spooky, quintessentially American horror story that Ambrose Bierce or Stephen King might have penned. While posting trail warnings in a remote mountainous area, tenderfoot part-time park ranger Wendy (Karina Fontes) quickly loses her bearings, but that’s not the worst of it: She also stumbles onto a bloody corpse. Ordered via radio to stay put until search-and-rescue can locate her, Wendy is forced to endure a long night in the wilderness with only a dead man for company. Writer-director Benjamin has a great concept, but she’s hamstrung by an underwhelming cast and her own indecisiveness with respect to tone. (Is this gritty survival horror, a hallucinatory campfire tale, or a farce at the expense of a clueless city slicker?) Once Wendy is stranded with her rotting companion, the film frankly loses most of its steam, gracelessly shambling from one plot incident to another and routinely deflating tension with all-a-dream fake outs. Rating: C [Now available to rent from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

I Trapped the Devil

2019 / USA / 82 min. / Dir. by Josh Lobo / Premiered online on Apr. 26, 2019

Writer-director Josh Lobo starts with an admirably lean premise that feels like it could have been plucked from an old Tales from the Darkside episode. When married couple Matt (AJ Bowen) and Karen (Susan Burke) call on Matt’s estranged, troubled brother Steve (Scott Pythress) during the holidays, it’s obvious that the man is unbearably anxious about something. Steve eventually reveals that he has the Devil locked in his cellar, a confession whose maddening quantum uncertainty becomes the central conflict of the film. Someone is whispering to Karen from behind the cellar door, but there’s no way it can be the Prince of Darkness himself, right? Right? The performances in I Trapped the Devil are regrettably subpar, and the feature’s pacing is frustratingly glacial in stretches. That said, Lobo manages to convey the dark appeal of the film’s conceit – an infernal twist on Pascal’s wager – with wily restraint, sprinkling in ambiguous clues and nasty complications that only serve to sadistically muddy the waters. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent from Amazon, Google Pay, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Avengers: Endgame'.
April 25, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Nothing Ends. Nothing *Ever* Ends.

2019 / USA / 181 min. / Dir. by Anthony and Joe Russo / Opens in wide release on Apr. 26, 2019

Perhaps more than any Hollywood blockbuster from the past 50 years, Avengers: Endgame could accurately be described as a “critic-proof” pop-cultural event. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter what this writer or any other film critic thinks of the 22nd feature that unfolds in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Endgame will make several gazillion dollars at the box office, and it will undoubtedly occupy the geeky pop-cultural zeitgeist for the better part of the year (reluctantly sharing the spotlight with the final season of Game of Thrones). It is a virtually guaranteed hit, not only due to legions of devoted Marvel fans, but also because of the studio’s commitment to a sturdy formula and strict quality control. The MCU includes its share of middling entries, but unlike corporate paterfamilias Disney, Marvel Studios hasn’t (to date) produced film that is both a critical and financial dud (e.g., John Carter [2012]; The Lone Ranger [2013]; A Wrinkle in Time [2018]).

However, the MCU’s seeming imperviousness to traditional critical assessment goes beyond mere assembly-line precision and the sort of “built-in audience” that is the envy of other Hollywood studios. The specific form that the MCU franchise has assumed – a narratively cohesive sequence of feature films weaving together dozens of characters and plots in a shared universe – is something unprecedented in cinema. The James Bond series is the only studio feature franchise that comes remotely close to the MCU in terms of total running time, and the 007 films are a different beast altogether (one hero played by different actors, repeated soft and hard reboots, and an overall disregard for continuity.) As for Godzilla, the King of Monsters remains a durable and adaptable metaphor, but the continuity of the 30-odd features produced by Toho alone is a unresolvable snarl, to put it mildly.

Marvel Studios films are cinematic features in the technical sense, in that they are two- or three-hour slices of entertainment designed for presentation on large screens in public theaters. Yet MCU films are consumed by viewers in a manner that resembles the serial short films that were ubiquitous at Saturday matinees in the first half of the 20th century. Like those serials, the MCU films constitute a long-form story designed to be watched in chunks, with each chapter setting the stage for the next. However, unlike the popular silent- and sound-era serials of yesteryear – Fantômas (1913), The Perils of Pauline (1914), Flash Gordon (1936), Dick Tracy (1937) – each of which comprises a discrete multi-part story, there are no built-in endpoints in the MCU, other than the expiration dates on the stars’ contracts. Nor does the franchise possess the season-oriented framework of episodic television, the other medium from which the MCU features draw some structural influence.

The traditional approach employed by critics – evaluating each feature film as a stand-alone object – is foiled to some extent by the MCU’s sheer sprawl. How does one tackle a 50-plus-hour story? Should it be reviewed film by film? By series, e.g., treat all the Iron Man films as a self-contained arc? As one mammoth work of serialized storytelling? Should one factor in MCU-integrated or -adjacent fare from other media, such as ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series (2013-19), which some fans contend is essential to the “experience”? Given these complications, not to mention how thoroughly Marvel sands down the auteurist inclinations of even its most eccentric and distinctive directors in favor of the studio’s house style, conventional film critics could be forgiven for throwing up their hands.

Perhaps reviewing the MCU and other emergent shared-universe franchises is a task better suited to a new species of critic, one dedicated to dissecting and evaluating these multimedia behemoths. Such specialization is arguably warranted, given that the form is obviously here to stay for the foreseeable future. Marvel Studios’ mastermind producer Kevin Feige speaks of discrete “phases” and whatnot, but the obvious appeal of the MCU to Disney executives and shareholders is that the series theoretically stretches out into infinity. It’s a bottomless well of intellectual-property and box-office gold – at least until the public sours on the franchise after a few abject failures and/or Marvel has given every fifth- and sixth-string superhero their own $150 million epic.

A meta-awareness of the MCU’s potentially staggering lifespan as a blockbuster-generation device is one of the reasons that Avengers: Endgame is such an intriguing departure, in its modest way. The film is less a climax than a self-reflexive summation of everything that’s come before. Although this results in some self-congratulatory backslapping and eye-rolling fan-service, it also finds the filmmakers – directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markas and Stephen McFeely, MCU veterans all – in an unusually reflective mood. That self-conscious pensiveness is an unexpected angle in a film that practically proclaims itself the Blockbuster to End All Blockbusters, featuring one of the most sprawling multi-character CGI battles ever put to film (er, pixels).

Last year’s Avengers: Infinity War discovered some welcome novelty by distorting the Marvel formula, ruthlessly embracing failure and loss in a way that PG-13 Hollywood fare rarely dares. (Never mind the unimaginative naysayers who snark that loss never matters in the reset-prone superhero sub-genre. They could stand to take Orson Welles’ line from The Big Brass Ring to heart: Happy endings depend on where you stop the story.) Endgame proceeds along this same forlorn thematic line, but it also reckons with the past in a manner that the breathless, overstuffed Infinity War never could. The previous Avengers feature was too busy simply fulfilling the promise of 10 years’ worth of storytelling, too preoccupied with its status as a culminating pop-cultural moment. At just over three hours, Endgame is an equally overstuffed film, but it takes the time to linger (often indulgently) on what has come before, both in the narrative and thematic sense. It makes for a sharp contrast with all the other MCU films and their endless table-setting and teasing. (“The Avengers Will Return!”) It’s not incidental that Endgame lacks those coy MCU calling cards, the mid-credits and post-credits scenes. In a franchise that often resembles one exhausting run-on sentence, Avengers: Endgame feels like a welcome period (or at least a semicolon).

Endgame is certainly more narratively stimulating than its predecessor, which for all its sturm und drang was essentially one marathon act about the Avengers’ unsuccessful efforts to stop the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) from assembling the Infinity Stones. Those uber-MacGuffins allowed Thanos – a sort of genocidal eco-terrorist – to snuff out half the life in a universe with a snap of his fingers, erasing trillions of creatures in a puff of ash and thereby relaxing pressure on the cosmos’ finite resources. Never mind that the scheme didn’t make much sense, ecologically speaking; the upshot was a universe-wide apocalypse, albeit one closer to the existential shell shock of The Leftovers (2014-17) than any nuclear-holocaust or killer-asteroid scenario. Endgame picks up a few weeks after Thanos’ snap, with the surviving Avengers – the six OG members, conveniently enough, plus a few B-listers – still reeling from the “Vanishing,” as it’s been termed. With the freshly arrived galactic heavy-hitter Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) in their corner, the team sets about tracking down Thanos’ current location, seizing the Infinity Stones from him, and (hopefully) using their power to undo the Mad Titan’s cosmic culling.

That’s about all that can be disclosed about the new film’s plot without delving into some major story swerves – and yet that summary still comprises only the first 20 minutes or so of the feature. Disney’s customary sweaty plea for spoiler-free critical treatment is a bit more defensible than usual in the case of Endgame. This is less about the unexpected guest appearances and inevitable character deaths than it is about the exact shape that the story assumes. While many of the individual elements in the film are well worn – a “putting the team back together” sequence; a timey-wimey quantum-flavored heist; an epic, all-hands-on-deck climactic rumble – Endgame assembles them in a way that feels relatively fresh and unpredictable, especially given the usual consistency of the MCU’s narrative beats. It’s perhaps the first Marvel film where it isn’t obvious where it’s all going at any given moment, and that sense of modest unruliness in the story is a pleasing change. It’s also the rare superhero film where the villain sniffs out the heroes’ plan relatively quickly and works to undermine them, adding some much-needed dramatic tension to a story that might have otherwise played out like a science experiment designed to blithely undo the events of Infinity War.

While Endgame takes pains to touch base with virtually every surviving character in the franchise, Marvel aficionados will be unsurprised that the “core trio” of Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are at the center of the new film’s story. There are plenty of character arcs to go around, however. Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, who was notably MIA during Infinity War, gets a hefty helping of screen time this outing, but the most surprising face pushed to the foreground in Endgame is Thanos’ cybernetic daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan). Although all the Avengers (and affiliated superfolk) have undergone notable internal struggles and realignments, no one has changed quite as much as Nebula, who has been performing a slow-motion heel-turn from villain to hero since she first appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Given its thematic focus on history, warts and all, Endgame makes a fitting showcase for the MCU character who likely harbors the deepest regrets. Nebula is dogged by a thick, clinging shame about her past mistakes, not to mention a lingering awkwardness in accepting the amity and purpose that a surrogate super-family can provide. The events of Endgame force her to look straight into the chasm between who she was and who she has become.

Most of the customary criticisms that have applied to all MCU features also apply to Endgame: competent but unmemorable action sequences; over-reliance on quippy, faux-improv humor; and a propensity for switching up the fantasy and science-fiction rules whenever it’s convenient to the plot. (To be fair, the latter is one of the original sins of superhero comics.) More than any other Avengers film – or even the Avengers-film-in-all-but-name, Captain America: Civil WarEndgame is prone to silly splash-page posing. Too often, the Russos are focused on eliciting easy cheers from the audience, to the detriment of any sort of spatial or narrative sense. At this late stage in the financial (if not artistic) dominance of the MCU over blockbuster cinema, these flaws are perhaps permanent features of the franchise. It’s become as tedious to remark on them as it is to endure them.

What’ refreshing and even kind of admirable about Endgame is how warmly and earnestly it embraces the geeky adoration of MCU devotees. Endgame is flush with callbacks and Easter eggs and droll echoes of past events. (Back to the Future Part II [1989] is explicitly derided for its nonsense physics, then cheekily evoked in the film’s restaging of familiar franchise scenes.) It’s a tightrope walk, but these moments (mostly) come off as joyous, clever hat tips rather than flattering, audience-directed winks. For once, it doesn’t feel like Marvel is doling out a morsel of entertainment while simultaneously teasing the viewer with how awesome the next morsel is going to be. Despite the film’s melancholic tone, the tear-jerking losses, and all the Wagnerian sci-fi spectacle, Endgame feels first and foremost like a big-hearted celebration of the MCU. Look closely and one can discern hints of the Marvel offerings to come – at least one imminent Disney+ TV series is seeded in the film’s epilogue – but the Russos consistently prioritize the past and present over the future. The final half-hour of Endgame feels like a long, grateful exhale after 22 films of hectic stuff, and credit to Marvel for recognizing that its fanbase deserves a gratifying, bittersweet coda to reflect on what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'High Life'.
April 25, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Space Oddity

2018 / UK, France, Germany, Poland, USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Claire Denis / Opened in select cities on Apr. 12, 2019; locally on Apr. 19, 2019

There are bucket-loads of bodily fluids – blood, semen, breast milk – in High Life, including some inexplicable substances that come pouring out of the “Fuck Box” after its use by a crew member of a spaceship prison. That’s probably enough information to sharply divide potential viewers into either “Ew, no” or “Yes, please” camps, but it’s also notable that this beguiling trip into a (literal) black hole comes from Claire Denis, a filmmaker whose 30-odd-year output has produced at least a couple of masterpieces – Beau Travail (2000) and 35 Shots of Rum (2008) – and several films that only fall slightly short of such high praise – including Trouble Every Day (2001), Friday Night (2002), and Let the Sunshine In (2018).

Although the wonky and ponderous High Life is Denis on a large scale – with its space-odyssey milieu, an all-English-speaking cast, marquee star of Robert Pattinson, and backing from distributor A24 – it is nevertheless of a piece with the French master’s body of work. Her elliptically structured films – crafted from elegantly rendered pieces sewn together with emotional rather traditionally narrative purpose – often suspend viewers in a state of confused awe until everything miraculously clicks, often to devastating ends. Within these halls of mirrors, Denis is concerned with colonialism, sex, violence, abuses of power, and the experiences of the othered, but these are all explored in the context of her primary foci: desire, intimacy, and the great gulf that often exists between them.

In this regard, High Life is a compendium of Denis’ predominant working modes and themes. Structurally, the film is built around three shifting narrative modules. The first centers on Monte (Pattinson), the lone adult passenger of claustrophobic spaceship with an interior that bears the marks of a turbulent past. Monte’s only company is a baby whom he’s raising with the help of an automated computer teaching it language (imagine HAL 9000 repeating “da da” ad nauseam) and the ship’s organic garden. (The natural and the oppressive manmade commingle throughout the film.) High Life’s aesthetic values also extend the metaphor. The ship’s minimal, lo-fi design reads Silent Running (1972) by way of Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-lit grunginess. Meanwhile, French special-effects house BUF (David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return [2017]) handles the realization of warping into black holes (and whatever happens in that Fuck Box) with its purposefully handmade-looking digital effects.

This largely dialogue-free section of High Life resembles the best and most patient filmmaking of Denis’ career, including a title card that promises an unfortunately unfulfilled wit. The second narrative module makes up the bulk of the film and is less successful. Although the filmmaker would likely shudder at the thought of this kind of pat focalization – she’s stated she thinks the most interesting parts of films lie within the cuts –  it’s ostensibly a flashback to the ship’s origins, purpose, and violent downfall. Monte is a just one of the inmates of this co-ed prison ship, which was blasted into space with two lofty missions in mind: harvest the energy of a black hole in order to save Earth, and determine if procreating in space is a possible alternative. All of the passengers are criminals, and the ship becomes a hotbox of mounting interpersonal tension between already volatile and hopeless individuals.

Unlike Denis’ other stab at genre revisionism with the spare and melancholy vampire tragedy Trouble Every Day, these sections of High Life are prone to narrative hand-holding and overexplaining, lacking her trademark elegance and nuance. Chief among the issues with this particular “act” is its superficiality, especially with supporting characters lacking depth and acting simply as pretty ciphers (Agata Buzek as Chandra and André Benjamin as Tcherny, for example). This even largely applies to Boyse (the always otherworldly Mia Goth), Monte’s would-be romantic foil. Even after her agency is completely stripped away and her futile attempt to regain it goes awry, the character mostly just represents thematization of the abuses of power. Elsewhere, the superficial is just as prevalent: Boyse’s playful moment with the gravity-defying glove from her space suit should be one of classically Malickian wonder, but it instead resembles the surface preciousness that characterizes Malick’s recent works.

This can likely be blamed on these fresh-faced performers being unattuned to the Denis universe, the script – by the director, her frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, and newbie Geoff Cox – lacking the foundation necessary for subtlety, or a combination of both. Pattinson, easily one of the best of his generation, transcends the material with the right modulations of boredom, grace, regret, and guilt. He’s matched by Juliette Binoche (returning just a year after her remarkable turn in Let the Sunshine In) as his antagonist, Dibbs, the hypersexual “mad scientist” hellbent on accomplishing “Mission B” by any means necessary. More so than the other performers, Binoche carries Denis’ reduction of human behavior into animal urges both carnal and carnivorous – her bucking-bronco ride in the aforementioned Fuck Box is among the most presentational scenes in any Denis film, for better or worse.

Thankfully, the third module forgoes the banal provocations of the second, warping into a contemplative existentialism that nearly erases (but cannot fully justify) any qualms about what precedes it. Here, Monte attempts to carry out “Mission A” with the help of a femme fatale figure – a film noir archetype Denis says was partially the impetus for High Life. The conflation of heady science fiction with hard-nosed noir helps to realize the portrait of human fatalism throughout, but the film’s final mind- and time-bending beats beg whether humanity can transcend its innate navel-gazing in an attempt to fully understand its role in the cosmos. If the final question Denis proposes is worthy of exploration – whether of the self, others, or beyond – she’s proven that she’s the one to take that journey with, no matter how bumpy it might be.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Curse of La Llorona'.
April 18, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

From This Moment On, I’ll Be Crying, Crying, Crying

2019 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Michael Chaves / Opens in wide release on April 19, 2019

The Mexican-accented ghost story The Curse of La Llorona is the latest horror feature cranked out by Warner-owned New Line Cinema under director-producer James Wan's The Conjuring branding. Like viritually all such films, it takes pains to underline its connections to the Conjuring-verse (ugh), both in its marketing materials and in the text of the film itself. Unfortunately, Wan's franchise has set the bar so spectacularly low in terms of novelty, pathos, and genuine chills that a modestly moody and well-executed entry like David F. Sandberg’s Anabelle: Creation (2017) looks like a soaring achievement. Last year, Corin Hardy’s listless, illogical The Nun did nothing to redeem the series, but at least that film possessed a heightened design sensibility perched somewhere between classic Universal horror and the vivid lunacy of Mario Bava.

When compared to The Nun and its misty graveyards and cobwebby catacombs, director Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona has all the personality of a wadded-up snotty tissue. It’s a case study in how ruinously bland and boring 21st-century studio horror can be while still doing the bare minimum to function as a story. Granted: Curse isn’t technically incompetent or laughably nonsensical in the manner of so many contemporary low-budget, direct-to-streaming horror offerings. The visual-effects work is solid for a lesser Conjuring-verse entry; the performers wring some believable emotions out of the thuddingly obvious character beats; and the story evades the standard Screenwriting 101 pitfalls. It’s not amateurish – just dull, plodding, and criminally un-scary. The fact that this is the first Latinx-flavored horror feature in the franchise just makes Curse’s failings sting that much more acutely. If this is what representation looks like, Latinx horror fans could be forgiven for taking a hard pass.

Things start off poorly from the jump, with a confusing prologue allegedly set in 17th-century Mexico, which looks a hell of a lot like 19th-century Mexico. Dreamy flashes of a father, mother, and two young sons happily cavorting in the grass are abruptly interrupted by a scene of horror: One of the boys witnesses a white-veiled figure violently drowning a child in a creek. (The folk-tale provenance of this opening scene is eventually explained by an Exposition Character, but their account doesn’t remotely jibe with what’s shown on screen, and in fact retroactively makes it more perplexing.) Flash-forward to 1970s Los Angeles – and the non-diegetic thump of “Superfly,” because the ’70s! – where the viewer is introduced to middle-aged widow Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her young children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchem). Anna’s late husband was a Latino LAPD officer slain in the line of duty, and his presence continues to haunt their household, at least in the figurative sense.

Anna works for a child-protection-services agency, and in that capacity, she is dispatched to the home of Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), whose two young sons haven’t appeared at school in several days. Anna has encountered Patricia before, but she is shocked by what she finds in the woman’s apartment: the frightened Alvarez boys, padlocked into a closet that is covered with scribbled mystical wards against the evil eye. Patricia attacks Anna when she attempts to extricate the boys, and that assault plus the child-neglect charges land the former woman in jail. The boys – who insist that an ambiguous “She” is responsible for the ugly burns on their arms – are placed into the custody of a Catholic charity for the night.

A few hours later, the Alvarez boys are dead, inexplicably turning up drowned in the shallow, murky water of the Los Angeles River channel. Even though it’s the middle of the night, Anna rushes to the scene in disbelief, leaving her bleary-eyed kids in the car while she confers with the police. (Perhaps not an ideal decision, but half a point to Curse for depicting how logistically difficult it can be to be a working single parent.) It’s at this point that Chris hears what sounds like sobbing coming from an overgrown passageway, and it’s there that he first catches a glimpse of a spectral, weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez). This wraith terrorizes Chris with the sort of aimless funhouse tactics that typify these films, only to vanish when his mother returns to the car. Over the course of the ensuing days, this tearful apparition – which a venomous, glassy-eyed Patricia calls “La Llorona” – appears to both Chris and Samantha on several occasions, frightening the bejeezus out of them and leaving burns on their bodies. Then Anna herself encounters the entity in all its screeching glory, and from there the story proceeds along the well-worn path laid out by The Conjuring and its ilk. (Is there a third-act exorcism set piece that concludes in a gout of murky digital effects? You bet there is!)

Curse doesn’t have much going for it beyond the ostensible distinctiveness of its Mexican mythos. Not lived-in period detail, certainly, of which there is little beyond Cardellini’s feathered hair and tin-foil TV dinners. Not the grounded specificity of its setting, given how shallowly the film regards its multicultural Southern California milieu. (Also: In what universe is it always raining in LA?) La Llorona herself is a ghost in the tragic gothic mold: Having murdered her own offspring in an appallingly misdirected act of retaliation against her adulterous husband, she wanders in search of “replacement” niños y niñas. Unfortunately, the Conjuring-verse – Curse included – tends to treat its specters, even the ones with vivid backstories, as little more than animatronic haunted-house props. They spring out at regular intervals, shriek horrifically, and toss objects and people around with their telekinetic powers, all without any discernible goal. It’s industrial scare-generation that’s entirely audience-directed, and although ancillary characters may show up to elucidate the motivations of the unquiet dead, as Tony Amendola’s priest does here, it never enriches the story. It’s just a cursory excuse for the same old tired theatrics.

Even the film’s basis in real-world Mexican and Mexican-American folk traditions – the only mildly novel thing about Curse by a substantial margin – doesn’t amount to much in practice. There’s no substantive engagement with real-world Latinx family or religious life, or any suggestion as to how Anna’s mixed-heritage children think about their identity, if they think about it at all. The only cultural insight the film seems to proffer is the suspect generalization that Latinx people are highly religious and/or spiritual, in contrast to faithless gringos like Anna. (There’s that dose of The Conjuring’s smug, idiot-simple religious apologetics.) Curse’s scripters – the Five Feet Apart writing team of Mikki Daughty and Tobias Iaconis – seem to think that sprinkling a dash of un-subtitled Spanish into the dialogue and swapping post-Exorcist Jesuit trappings for syncretic Mexican ones makes the film “diverse.” (Coco, this is not.) At least when Raymond Cruz’s curandero finally shows up to battle La Llorona, he brings a little deadpan levity to the proceedings. Otherwise, Curse is a thoroughly joyless piece of work – not to mention monotonous and mechanical.

Rating: C- 

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Missing Link'.
April 12, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Some Bigfoots to Fill

2019 / Canada, USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Chris Butler / Opens in wide release on Apr. 12, 2019

The title of Laika Studio’s latest, Missing Link, has at least three meanings. It ostensibly refers to the erudite yet naive Bigfoot character, Mr. Link A.K.A. Susan (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). This furry fellow calls on the charlatan British explorer, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), to spirit him away from his hermetic life in the Pacific Northwest to the Himalayan mountains, so that he might join his possible Yeti brethren. However, the title also alludes to the animated adventure’s content and form, bridging the gulf between classic Hollywood action films – via allusions to Gunga Din (1939), John Ford’s Westerns, and the serials that inspired the Indiana Jones films, et al. – and digital-era populist filmmaking.

A more successful meta-meaning lies in the studio’s further integration of their trademark stop-motion technique with the more commonly deployed CGI animation – an inch-by-inch closing of the gap between the uncanny, herky-jerky, old-school style and the more polished, still-developing one. This technological advancement is quite apparent in Missing Link’s gorgeous sights: shimmery and cavernous icescapes; lived-in Victorian-era English architecture and design; a dirt- and mud-caked Western town straight out of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971); and (as odd as it may be to say) incredibly lifelike human skin stretched over angular caricatures of faces and bodies.

Unfortunately, the film’s borrowing of tried-and-true, old-fashioned narratives is less successful than these miniature wonders. Laika’s previous outing, the superlative Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), presented a visually inventive and emotionally-resonant fantasy rooted in Japanese myths and folklore. Accordingly, one might anticipate that Missing Link would contain the keen wit, great stakes, and careful character building of the former. It doesn’t, exactly. That’s not to say that it completely lacks these qualities, but the few moments that exhibit them lack the exhilarating originality with which Laika films are often credited.

Missing Link also stands apart from the studio’s previous works in that, while their features are purportedly for kids and families, it’s difficult to imagine that the youngest cohort of viewers will be satiated by this outing’s leisurely pacing, sparse laughs, and lack of a child proxy. With that, it is surprisingly similar to another recent, albeit more revisionist, exploration film, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2016). While that feature’s fresh take on the genre presented its protagonist on a hamster wheel of obsession, Missing Link eschews any new ideas about the inextricable strands of discovery and colonialism for a more traditional globe-trotting narrative.

Nevertheless, similar beats and characters are present. Much like Lost City’s protagonist, Frost is a foolhardy dilettante scorned by a society of explorers due to his presentational manner and lack of evidence for his proposed discoveries. The cold open presents a bungled attempt at capturing a picture of the Loch Ness Monster, a debacle that results in a near-death experience for the man’s partner – which Frost glibly tosses off as a mere occupational hazard. He then receives an anonymous letter stating the whereabouts of the legendary Sasquatch, prompting him to boast about his planned trip to capture the beast to his main rival, the respected elder Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry).

Frost arrives in the States to find that the the letter’s author was the elusive, hairy hominid himself, who wrote to Frost after seeing the Englishman’s exploits plastered on the front pages of newspapers. Frost is surprised to learn that not only is this creature – which he later dubs “Mr. Link” – capable of speech, but he is also a being of great intelligence, save for his inability to grasp sarcasm. (This results in the film’s best comic moments.) After striking a mutually beneficial deal to get Link to the mountains of Central Asia, the two traverse the globe with Link traveling incognito in uncomfortably small gentleman’s attire.

What follows is an episodic journey through various classic genres and their associated locales. A stop in a gunslinger’s saloon results in an all-out bar brawl. Frost and Link heisting a map from the Southwestern U.S. home of the explorer’s former partner’s wife, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), results in her joining their journey. A boat ride across the Atlantic presents a rip-roaring action setpiece with the three confronting a hitman, Willard Stank (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Piggot-Dunceby to eliminate Frost and crew. (Again, who exactly is this for?). Although these episodes often lack purpose other than creatively updating tropes with new tech, each section is still handsomely realized, with direction by Chris Butler of Laika’s ParaNorman (2012) that resembles a less-precious version of Wes Anderson’s ornate dollhouse style, complete with a camera that moves smoothly along the horizontal axis.

The players meet in the denouement, which is set in the fictional paradise Shangri-La from James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon (itself adapted twice into adventure yarns in 1937 and 1973). The Yeti overlords reject “redneck cousin” Mr. Link – now going by Susan, after Frost allows him some much-needed autonomy – raising the possibility that the title Missing Link may have yet another meaning about the journey of self-discovery and self-actualization. That notion, although entirely earned through its two leads’ arcs, nevertheless tows the line between touching and trite. With that, the film ultimately fails to transcend to anything beyond its technological achievements, becoming a minor misstep in Laika's nearly unbreakable chain of artistic success.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Diane'.
April 10, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Vivre sa vie

2018 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Kent Jones / Opened in select cities on Mar. 29, 2019; locally on Apr. 5, 2019

Diane (Mary Kay Place) is a caretaker – not in any professional sense but as an overriding aspect of her identity. The middle-aged New Englander is a star exerting a gravitational pull on the planets that orbit her. Diane’s hospital-bound cousin, Donna (Deirdre O'Connell), has ovarian cancer and requires her companionship. Her wayward son, Brian (Jake Lacy), is drug-addled, unable to perform basic daily functions. Her other friends and family rely on her as much as the patrons of the free church supper where she volunteers weekly. As those bodies gradually spin off their axes and away from Diane, either by gaining their own agency or eventually dying, she experiences a whittling away of her supposed core self. 

Director Kent Jones’ Diane is the antithesis of Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, another recent exploration of a middle-aged woman questioning her existence. While the latter takes a frothy approach to aging through the titular character’s quest for romantic fulfilment, Jones’ narrative-feature debut is spare and melancholy, realizing its protagonist’s dark night of the soul with visual and narrative austerity. Taking equal inspiration from patron saint of cinema Robert Bresson and the New Hollywood films of the 1970s, Diane is an impressive first outing by one of the best living film critics. It’s also a rich and moving character piece, anchored by a masterclass performance from one of the great unsung actors of the past 40 years, Mary Kay Place. 

Much as the sun-drenched Los Angeles setting of Gloria Bell lent that film an appropriately light tone, the brittle Massachusetts winters of Diane reflect the insular, cloistered community that surrounds the eponymous character. For Diane, small-town life is not the oppressive force it is so many other films with similar settings. It’s simply that her seemingly menial existence is all she’s ever known. She exchanges casseroles with a next-door neighbor regularly. She launders Brian’s clothing as a means of checking on him. She plays gin rummy with Donna in her hospital room. She carts her Aunt Mary (Estelle Parsons) around to see Donna and to family dinners. She frequents various down-home buffets with her best friend, Bobbie (comedy legend Andrea Martin). With each cycle of these routines, however, Diane struggles to balance her increasing resentment with her sense of duty. Jones makes this tension easy to sympathize with due to the repetitive structure of the film’s first half, an approach dictated by Diane’s regimen of selfless acts. 

Place, however, creates a fully empathetic entry point into the character’s struggles. The actor got her start in earnest on Norman Lear’s cult soap-opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975-76), and although that television program was short-lived, she’s persisted ever since as a great supporting performer in such diverse films as The Big Chill (1983), Being John Malkovich (1999), and It’s Complicated (2009). Diane is Place’s compendium of the types of roles in which she’s usually cast – doting mother, cheery best friend, or benevolent authority figure – but the character is also a striking opportunity to share an authorial mark on a film through performance. (O’Connell also demonstrates she is capable of the same showcase portrayal.) In the hands of another performer, Jones’ occasionally sedate scripting might have been more obvious, but Place miraculously carries Diane’s lifetime of memories with her, lending nuance to even the humblest of scenes in a small, on-the-surface film. 

That naturalistic approach means that there are thankfully no grandstanding monologues about a life never lived. Rather, each scene is suffused with a reckoning for a past that dictates the present. A family dinner filled with oft-told anecdotes perfectly encapsulates generational inheritance and rifts, and the revelation about Diane’s summer fling with Donna’s boyfriend gently reverberates through the film. Those memories consume Diane while her purpose as a communal anchor fades away. Jones then smartly structures the latter half of the narrative to mirror the perceived exponential compression of time that comes with aging, relying on increasingly elliptical – and sometimes even surreal – passages as Diane grows older. She turns to writing in a journal, capturing her dreams and attempting to reckon with her desolation through poetry: “My shadow is always with me,” she writes.

The Bressonian influence on Diane is clear from the start – the focus on process in the diegesis, the paring down of visual and narrative flourishes, the central figure in an existential and spiritual crisis – but the French master’s recurring theme of human communion with God becomes the main thrust of Diane’s latter half. The church binds Diane’s community, but when Brian, fresh from rehab, joins an oppressively evangelical Christian sect, she begins to doubt her own Christian focus. When she expresses these doubts to a former patron of the free church dinners, he attempts to comfort her: “When you served me, I always felt sanctified.” Diane ultimately becomes about leading a life in service of others, but its abrupt and alienating ending puts a fine point on the futility in giving up complete autonomy for a life of service. How do you value your life’s supposed purpose when all you’re left with is yourself, your memories, and your regret? Diane doesn’t have the answers, but its power lies in its questions. 

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from "Pet Sematary'.
April 4, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

The Cat Came Back the Very Next Day

2019 / USA / 101 min. / Dir. by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer / Opens in wide release on April 5, 2019

[Note: This review contains minor spoilers for the 1983 novel Pet Sematary and its 1989 film adaptation.]

Unhappy endings are hardly a recent phenomenon in horror cinema. No less a film than Night of the Living Dead (1968) boasts one of the bleakest finales of all time. Over the decades, the genre has offered up endings characterized by howling shellshock (The Last House on the Left, 1972; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974), disturbing ambiguity (The Shining, 1980; The Thing, 1982) and sadistic fake-outs (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978; A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984). Something definitive shifted in 1999, however, with the one-two punch of The Ring and The Blair Witch Project. Those films offered not just unhappy endings but doom-drenched assertions of Evil’s might, reach, and inexorable triumph. In the 21st century, it’s now the norm for horror films to punch out on a malicious twist, undoing whatever victory the heroes thought they had achieved against the forces of darkness. (Just look at last year’s theatrical horror features: The majority boast endings that range from cryptic to sorrowful to downright pitch-black.)

Outside of the zombocalypse subgenre, few modern horror tales have been able to top the sheer, perverse bleakness that characterizes the final stretch of Pet Sematary. That would be the 1983 novel by Maine’s master of the macabre, Stephen King – as well as the book’s 1989 film adaptation, which boasts a screenplay penned by King himself. Over the decades, the author has generally resisted the darkling allure of unhappy endings. At least in his novels, King tends to favor conclusions where Evil is ultimately vanquished, albeit typically in a manner that entails great sacrifice. (It’s in his short stories that King is disposed to indulge his skepticism, pessimism, and taste for utter desolation.) Pet Sematary is the exception that proves the rule: a morbid and supremely nasty piece of work that King himself purportedly regards as his most upsetting novel, one where he perhaps pushed things a little too far. And that’s coming from the man who wrote It’s notoriously icky Scene That Shall Not Be Named. There’s nothing even remotely bittersweet about Pet Sematary: It’s a meticulous character study, a primally repellent occult fable, and a deeply unsettling rumination on death and dying.

Director Mary Lambert managed to preserve that gangrenous sensibility in her 1989 film adaptation. In part, this was because Paramount Pictures didn’t expect the film to do well: The diminished scrutiny from the studio gave both her and King the freedom to go much darker than mainstream horror features typically dared at the time. Admittedly, Lambert’s Pet Sematary hasn’t aged all that well: Everything except the ghoulish makeup effects is cheap-looking, some scenes feel repetitive, and the pacing is inexcusably sluggish in spots. Still, it’s a solid and remarkably faithful adaptation, especially where the novel’s rotten, gnarly core is concerned. Notwithstanding Paramount’s expectations, Lambert’s feature proved to be a sleeper hit, and it helped cement the late 1980s through mid-1990s as a fecund period for adaptations of King’s works.

King’s brand of pulpy New England horror has been experiencing yet another renaissance over the past couple of years, with adaptations of 11.22.63, 1922, The Dark Tower, Gerald’s Game, It, and Mister Mercedes, as well as the “King universe” series Castle Rock. It’s unsurprising, then, that Paramount decided to take a 30-years-later whack at Pet Sematary, whose repulsive and despairing tone makes for a snug fit in the current landscapes of both multiplex and arthouse horror. The filmmakers that have birthed this new version of King’s tale are co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Absence, Starry Eyes, Holidays), with a story and screenplay credited to Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler, respectively. Forebodingly, the most promising item on these filmmakers’ collective résumé is probably Buhler’s script for the nascent 2008 cult classic The Midnight Meat Train. No matter: The new Pet Sematary might be a decidedly mixed bag, but it’s still a creeping, squirming, tendon-slicing bad time in all the right ways. 

Kölsch and Widmyer deviate from Lambert’s film right out the gate, by giving the viewer a flash-forward glimpse of their story’s cryptic, bloody aftermath. It’s a questionable opening flourish, but one that’s admittedly consistent with King’s penchant for dribbling ominous, omniscient-flavored forewarnings into his third-person subjective narratives. Even audiences who have not read the novel or seen Lambert’s adaptation will likely find the film’s setup familiar. The Reed family – physician Louis (Jason Clarke), homemaker Rachel (Amy Seimetz), pre-tween Ellie (Jeté Laurence), toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and Ellie’s beloved cat Church – are relocating from the bustle of Boston to sleepy small-town Maine, where Louis has recently accepted a position at a university campus clinic. From the moment that the Reeds’ station wagon pulls into the driveway of their new, perfectly quaint Yankee homestead, however, a shadow is discernible. For starters, there’s the terrifying speed with which the Orinco Petroleum tanker trucks thunder down the country road in front of their house. There’s also the pet cemetery, which Rachel and Ellie discover when they spot a silent procession of masked children reverently carrying a dog’s remains across the family’s property.

Ellie later explores this eerie burial ground, which is tucked away just behind the house in the adjacent woods. There, she runs into the family’s elderly neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), who sharply warns her against climbing on a massive tree deadfall, and then softens to explain a little bit of the place’s history. (It turns out his own childhood dog is buried there.) In the following days, the Reeds quickly warm to Jud, a widower and lifelong local fixture, and he in turn takes a shine to Ellie’s precocious energy. The cemetery nags at Ellie’s thoughts, however, eliciting uncomfortable questions about mortality, the afterlife, and how such matters might apply to her cat. Louis favors a blunt, rationalist approach to these inquiries, but Rachel – whose own childhood was spent caring for an older sister twisted physically and mentally by the ravages of meningitis – prefers to shield their kids from such horror with a liberal application of benevolent lies.

Louis has morbid preoccupations of his own, unfortuantely. When a grievously injured auto-accident victim, Victor Pascrow (Obssa Ahmed), is rushed into the university clinic, Louis quickly ascertains that the man cannot be saved. Even though his brains are spilling out of his skull, Victor manages to sit up one last time and uses his final breath to wheeze out an enigmatic warning, calling Louis by name and admonishing that “the barrier must not be broken.” As if this encounter wasn’t harrowing enough, Victor’s gruesome shade later visits Louis in a dream, leading him to the pet cemetery and offering yet another warning, this time regarding the woods beyond the deadfall: The ground is sour. Louis is inclined to chalk it up to a trauma-induced nightmare – if not for the fact that he awakens in his bed with muddy feet.

Late one afternoon, Jud discreetly escorts Louis to an unwelcome scene: Church, stiff and bloody on the side of the road, evidently struck by one of those speeding tankers. Louis makes the fateful decision to conceal the animal’s death from Ellie, and Jud offers to help him bury Church in secret after nightfall. When the time comes, however, the older man doesn’t stop at the pet cemetery, but instead leads Louis over the deadfall, through a swamp, and up a set of ancient hewn stairs to a stony plateau. There, tiny cairns mark what is self-evidently sacred ground. “What are we doing here, Jud?” Louis demands. “We’re burying your daughter’s cat,” is the matter-of-fact but evasive reply. Jud insists that Louis must dig Church’s grave in the thin, rocky soil himself – and then build the cairn as well. Louis does so, and the men return home in silence, with Jud extracting a final promise to keep their nocturnal mission a secret.

What unfolds the following day will be unsurprising to the canny viewer, but it’s still horribly unsettling. Church comes back: disheveled, stiff-limbed, and cockeyed. “Church, you stink!” Ellie exclaims, but whatever is wrong with the girl’s pet goes way beyond the stench of the grave. The animal has become furtive, irritable, and simply off in some elusive but undeniable way. Louis demands an explanation from Jud, who reveals that the place they interred Church is a forgotten Mi’kmaq burial ground, a secret place known only to a handful of locals. Whatever is buried there returns, a phenomenon that Jud witnessed with his own childhood dog – before his father put a bullet into the animal for a second time. Which begs the question: Why the hell did Jud think it was a good idea to bury Church in such a place? Whatever the problems with Buhler’s screenplay – and it has plenty – this Pet Sematary alludes to the dark, otherworldly nudges from King's novel that Lambert’s film elided: “That place … all at once it gets hold of you … and you make up the sweetest-smelling reasons in the world.” This sets the stage for a much more profound tragedy for the Reeds, as well as a downward spiral into blasphemous evil that will haunt many a viewer – especially those with children.

The 1989 film was often plodding and raggedy – the inclusion of the subplot about Rachel’s dead sister was a fruitless miscalculation that the new adaptation repeats and amplifies into a full-blown sub-Insidious haunting – but King’s screenplay possessed something invaluable that Buhler’s script lacks. Namely, the novel’s rich, gradually escalating atmosphere of inescapable doom. Plot points in Pet Sematary 2019 unspool with a kind of dutiful obligation, absent the immersive illusion of cause and effect. It’s a fine distinction, but one that is essential in a story that hinges on the viewer accepting the story’s slow-motion supernatural tragedy. Some of this inelegance is attributable to the substantial changes that Buhler makes to the novel’s plot, and some of it is due to subtler shifts in emphasis. Louis is no longer the only point-of-view character, which makes it difficult for the film to steep in the surrogate father-son relationship the develops between Louis and Jud – a bond that forms the emotional spine of the novel's story. However, the screenplay doesn’t deserve all the blame here. Kölsch and Widmyer seem eager to rush negligently through the story’s first act, so impatient to get to the grave-robbing and grief-wracked madness that they neglect the slow burn. It doesn’t help that Lithgow seems oddly miscast; certainly, he doesn’t have Fred Gwynne’s ease and credibility in the role of a hard-bitten Maine old-timer. (The late Gwynne nailed the region’s characteristic “ayuhs” better than any other actor in any King adaptation.) Lithgow’s performance just feels too soggy and anxious, a poor fit for a character that demands a certain oaken steadiness.

There are plenty of other missteps in this iteration of Pet Sematary. Victor’s apparition never becomes the literally haunting presence he was in the novel or the 1989 film – there’s that whiff of obligatory inclusion again – and Kölsch and Widmyer indulge in one too many winking, sadistic callbacks to the previous adaptation. Morsels of more expansive world-building are sprinkled into the film – such as those creepy masked kids glimpsed at the beginning, or a hulking, shadowy presence in the swamp that may or may not be an evil Algonquin spirit – but these never result in anything other than the most negligible payoff. 

Perhaps it’s for the best: Pet Sematary works precisely because it’s an intimate, domestic story, one concerned with universal experiences as seen through an intensely personal lens. Kölsch and Widmyer’s version of the tale might be clunky in terms of storytelling, but it still handily conveys that fundamental stench of wrongness that undergirds King’s novel. The revisions that Buhler makes to the plot don’t necessarily result in a story that’s “better” or “worse,” just one with different shadings to its horror. What the 1989 screenplay left somewhat mysterious, the 2019 film underlines in hellfire. What was conceptually grotesque 30 years ago is now more explicitly revolting, thanks to some truly unnerving makeup and visual effects. Kölsch and Widmyer never quite replicate the hideous (if cheesy) transgressiveness of Lambert’s film, but they make a respectable go at it – capping things off with a new ending that feels delightfully appalling for a multiplex horror feature.

Regardless, it’s undeniable that the new Pet Sematary is a more formally polished film than its forebear. The shots composed by the directors and cinematographer Laurie Rose are more striking, and the production design by Todd Cherniawsky is more lavish and redolent. Some of this is simply attributable to the film being a $20 million production in 2019, but Kölsch and Widmyer don’t approach the material with mercenary dispassion. They’re self-evidently besotted with King’s disturbing vision, and they often find ways to put an artful yet creepy spin on the genre’s visual and narrative conventions. Indeed, some of the feature’s more self-consciously fakey effects – a creeping white mist straight out of a classic Universal monster movie or an obviously green-screened nocturnal sky roiling with thunderheads – serve to position the film within a slightly older and scruffier cinematic context.

Among the adult performers, the perpetually undervalued Seimetz acquits herself most effectively, although even in its expanded and more phantasmagorical form, Rachel’s subplot still feels somewhat unnecessary. (One can envision a more resonant version of said subplot if the novel were adapted into a limited series and Rachel given her own stand-alone episode.) It’s the 10-year-old Laurence who runs away with the film, however, in a role that requires her to be endearing but a little uneasy, and then later oozing with overripe sweetness – like candied fruit that’s begun to ferment into mold-furred mush.

There’s plenty of little things in this Pet Sematary that linger: that gargantuan deadfall of bone-white trees, more intimidating here than in the novel; the twilit aerial shots of the blue-gray forest crown, more primeval than seems possible for New England (the film was actually shot in Quebec); even the way that zombie Church’s droopy, unblinking eyes never quite seem to follow each other. There’s a moment late in the film when an undead abomination launches into a brief spasmodic frenzy that’s so chilling it’s guaranteed to squat in a corner of the viewer’s subconscious for years. These details notwithstanding, however, it’s the ineffable darkness at the heart of the story that makes Pet Sematary worth revisiting, no matter how imperfect its form. It’s the same darkness that once made King shudder and file his manuscript away, fearful that he had dug too deeply into the festering bowels of love – love for a pet, a child, a partner, or whoever might compel one to do the unthinkable.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Mercy Black'.
April 2, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Mercy Black

2019 / USA / 88 min. / Dir. by Owen Egerton / Premiered online on Mar. 31, 2019

Writer-director Owen Egerton’s Mercy Black brazenly and tastelessly repurposes the real-world 2014 Slender Man stabbing for its central conceit. Unlike last year’s unrelated and jaw-droppingly inept Slender Man, however, Mercy Black is at least a functional work of cinema. Indefensibly drab and dull, but functional. By dropping the film just before April Fool’s Day with no warning, Netflix was perhaps hoping for a viral hit, but there’s little that distinguishes Mercy Black from seemingly countless ghost stories featuring creepy kids and rote jump-scares. Lead performer Marina Hess does her best to breathe some life into this tale of a former juvenile perpetrator who is struggling to re-enter society – and begins to suspect that the bogeyman she created as a child may have taken on a life of its own. There is some Candyman-adjacent potential in Mercy Black, but Egerton clings to the tiresome aesthetics and rhythms that presently dominate the genre, even as he’s chaotically cramming together ambiguous and seemingly contradictory plot twists. Rating: C- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt