A still from 'The Mustang'.
March 28, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

I Watched You Suffer a Dull, Aching Pain

2019 / France, USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre / Opened in select cities on March 15, 2019; locally on March 29, 2019

On paper, the plot of The Mustang – the lyrical, touching, and hard-bitten debut feature from writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre – seems like fodder for an orthodoxly heartwarming breed of American-indie cinema. (Indeed, The Mustang premiered not in Clermont-Tonnerre’s native France but at the Sundance Film Festival, and was developed in the creative laboratories at the fest’s parent Sundance Institute.) Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a convicted felon, currently serving out a prolonged prison sentence in an unspecified Western state. Perpetually oscillating between seething rage and slump-shouldered silence, he’s the dictionary definition of antisocial.  An early scene with a prison psychologist (Connie Britton, in a glorified cameo) establishes that Roman has routinely been moved in and out of isolation for various violent infractions. “I’m not good with people,” he admits, squinting impatiently. It’s perhaps for this reason – plus some Hail Mary exasperation – that the psychologist slots him into a maintenance job in an unusual federal rehabilitation program. Under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, select inmates assist with the taming of captured wild horses for eventual auction to law-enforcement agencies and other buyers.

Within the first 15 minutes or so of The Mustang, most viewers will have figured out where this story is headed. Although initially assigned to a shit-shoveling detail, the reluctant Roman is eventually paired up with a particularly headstrong mustang, which he dubs Marquis. The two gradually establish a tenuous bond that offers Roman’s troubled soul the tantalizing possibility of spiritual absolution. Given the wretched conditions inside the prison – which is presently simmering with racial tensions and a drug-trafficking turf war – as well as Roman’s icy, stunted relationship with his pregnant daughter, Martha (Blockers’ Gideon Adlon), the dusty little corral where the convict trains his horse feels like a relative sanctuary. These sessions are not without their challenges, however, between Roman’s volatile temper and the mustang’s almost insolent refusal to even acknowledge commands, let alone accept a saddle and rider.

It’s the stuff of trite but serviceable indie drama, right down to the feisty fellow convict (Jason Mitchell) who shows Roman the (literal) ropes, and the grizzled veteran trainer (Bruce Dern) who offers the protagonist both caustic reproach and folksy reassurance. However, two things serve to sharply distinguish The Mustang from similar films about an unlikely animal-human connection. First is the screenplay – co-written by the director, Mona Fastvold, and Brock Normal Brock – which trades in familiar archetypes but never leans on them excessively for color. Indeed, The Mustang is a remarkably sparing film, dialogue-wise, preferring to allow the bulked-up Schoenaerts’ marvelously sensitive performance to do the emotional heavy lifting. Roman might be a reticent loner, but he’s also the sort of man who wears his surface-level feelings on his sleeve, despite himself. This obligates Schoenaerts to convey bold strokes of emotion with the sort of non-verbal acting that it is at once forceful and fettered, and the actor rises to the occasion splendidly.

De Clermont-Tonnerre and her co-scripters are keenly attuned to how easily their scenario could slip into unearned, maudlin cliché, and their approach to Roman’s arc is sagely and refreshingly restrained. Contrary to what one might glean from a nickel summary of the plot, The Mustang doesn’t fully embrace the notion that taming Marquis offers Roman a chance for a transformative redemption. There’s little sense that freedom – or, at least, an eventual return to the world outside the prison walls – holds much allure for Roman, who seems to regard his physical confinement as a justified penance for his crimes. When the viewer ultimately learns exactly what offense landed him in prison, it proves to be shocking in both its viciousness and its awful banality. During a tense visiting-room conversation with his daughter, Roman briefly (and naïvely) seems to indulge the idea that breaking a mustang will somehow atone for or counter-balance his heavy karmic burden. Fortunately, the film slaps this down, and slaps it down hard – not with lugubrious miserabilism, but stony realism. There’s no un-doing all the terrible things Roman has done, and a few weeks of one-on-one time with a wild animal isn’t going to work some profound change on his deeply etched patterns of behavior.

This kind of hard-nosed pragmatism is consistently employed to gently rein in the story’s drama, preventing it from straying into florid hyperbole or simplistic tidiness. Indeed, The Mustang’s glib marketing tagline – “Untamed Souls. Kindred Spirits.” – is almost hilariously off-the-mark when one considers the actual content of the film. The horse’s wild nature is not used to re-cast Roman’s rage and penchant for violence as admirable traits in the cowboy idiom. If anything, Marquis’ untamed animal purity makes for an unflattering contrast with the convict, who is, at this point in his life, a perhaps hopelessly maladjusted ball of toxic impulses. What Marquis does offer to Roman, however, is a means to discover within himself some modest capacity for compassion and selflessness. “Empathy” is often used as little more than an empty, moralistic buzzword these days, but that doesn’t diminish the essential psychological epiphany that it denotes: looking into the eyes of another individual – human or animal – and recognizing that the pain glimpsed within is the same as one’s own pain. In the confines of the little prison corral, Roman grows attuned to Marquis’ fear, fury, and suffering, and it wounds him in a way that he hasn’t permitted himself to be wounded before. (Or, at least, not in a long, long time.)

The second way in which The Mustang sets itself apart is its downright cinematic loveliness. In terms of its subject matter and its dust-caked realism, the film perhaps inevitably invites comparison’s to last year's superb character study from director Chloé Zhao, The Rider. However, although Zhao was attuned to the mythic resonance of that film’s South Dakota landscapes, her feature unequivocally embraced a stripped-down verité look. In contrast, de Clermont-Tonne and cinematographer Ruben Impens – who so fantastically captured the ugly modernist spaces of the French-Belgian horror feature Raw (2016) – amplify the poetic in The Mustang’s visual vocabulary.

Actor-turned-director de Clermont-Tonne previously appeared in painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), and although it’s probably a stretch to suggest that the feature was formative for her as a filmmaker, it’s undeniable that The Mustang favors a Schnabel-like impressionism. One can discern it in de Clermont-Tonne’s affinity for gauzy shallow focus and tight, handheld closeups; in the purposely chaotic editing that Géraldine Mangenot at times employs to emphasize terror and confusion; and in the film’s evocative establishing shots, which serve as both pointed metaphors and almost abstract meditative images. Perhaps most gratifyingly, the director and her crew often swerve away from the expected rhythms of the indie drama – smash-cutting to the aftermath of an event rather than lingering on it, for example, or winnowing the hackneyed “training montage” down into a handful of lean, expressive glimpses and then scattering them sparsely throughout the narrative. (There is more than a little Terrence Malick in de Clermont-Tonne’s style as well – a point reinforced by a Days of Heaven-evoking voice-over monologue that closes the film.)

Overall, it’s a lovely work, aesthetically speaking, and a potent reminder that the sort of grainy, washed-out digital photography that The Mustang employs needn’t be synonymous with ugliness. It’s also a fitting look for a film that manages to be at once a gritty character study and an elegiac tone poem. The adroit way that de Clermont-Tonne syncretizes these two aspects of her feature, such that they resemble a rider and a steed working in wordless harmony, is the most intricate achievement in an exceedingly accomplished debut.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Gloria Bell'.
March 24, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Lost in Translation

2019 / Chile, USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Sebastián Lelio / Opened in select cities March 8, 2019; locally on March 22, 2019

Whether art should be evaluated on its own merits and removed from its cultural context or makers’ intentions is a question that has persisted throughout the history of criticism. That conundrum won’t be solved here — countless think pieces comparing remakes, sequels, and/or cinematic universes are probably being written right now — but Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, an American transposition of the director’s earlier Chilean feature Gloria (2013), proves that the matter is particularly thorny.

When a directors choose to remake their own material, they render both versions almost impossible to evaluate sans context. What is the purpose of the update? How do the two works compare? What conversation are they having with each other? Should those questions even be asked? Alfred Hitchcock’s two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much almost avoid the issue: His 1956 update uses mere germs of the ideas from the 1934 original, turning his pair of films into a case study in artistic and cultural development. Michael Haneke refreshed his 1997 Austrian provocation, Funny Games, remaking it shot-for-shot for American audiences in 2008 and adding yet another meta-textual layer to further implicate U.S. viewers as the ultimate spectators of screen mayhem. 

Unlike Haneke’s self-reflexive remake, Gloria Bell is not a trip down a condescending rabbit hole. However, it does beg the question: Why? Lelio’s latest is not a shot-for-shot remake, but it does use structure, dialogue, and shot set-ups similar to those of the original, even deploying comparable editing within analogous scenes. If anything, the film is actually closer to a band covering their own earlier material for a new fan base, albeit with more money to burn and new knobs with which they can fiddle. This is not to say that the new film is inherently wrong-headed, as Gloria Bell is a largely enjoyable facsimile, but who wouldn’t press play on New Order’s original “Temptation” over “Temptation ’87”? It’s the same old song, but the nuance is gone — or, at least, a new glossy veneer has been applied, obscuring a charming roughness. 

Because it shares virtually the same script as the first Gloria, the narrative is light on plot, turning on just a few incidents to realize a portrait of self-actualization in the midst of ennui. Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) is a 50-something divorcée with two millennial children (Michael Cera and Alanna Ubach). Between a mundane office job and living alone in an apartment beneath her landlord’s explosive son, she attends singles-only dance mixers. “I like to dance,” she shouts to a potential mate over the booming disco music. She finds herself taken with a retired naval officer, Arnold (John Turturro), who now runs a theme park complete with a paintball war zone to which Gloria takes a particular liking. (Take notice that “Chekhov's gun” also applies to paintball.) 

Arnold, divorced for just one year now, also has two children, but he’s not as willing to share in his family life as Gloria is with hers. That point of contention comes to a head during Gloria’s family dinner party, when Arnold comes face-to-face with her former husband, Dustin (Brad Garrett). The ensuing (non-)confrontation forces Gloria to examine her decisions and self-worth, with the help of a bag of pot her upstairs neighbor accidentally leaves behind. She waffles back and forth about her relationship with the off-kilter Arnold, before he ultimately decides their fate during a Las Vegas trip. 

The opening zoom shot into Gloria’s neon-lit face among the crowd of middle-aged partygoers reveals not only the character’s timidity in the sea of strangers, but also that Lelio is keen on staying rooted in his protagonist’s experience and her quest for romantic fulfillment. In both versions, the loose camera stays close to the central figure — forcing a viewer’s empathy with an all-too-underrepresented type. However, Lelio has also changed as a director over the years since the original Gloria’s release, winning a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar in 2018 for A Fantastic Woman and releasing his first English-language film, Disobedience, that same year. To that end, the relative visual austerity of Gloria in 2013 has been alternatively supplanted in the update by the Almodóvarian color-flooding of Woman and the art-house polish of Disobedience

Gloria Bell does contain gorgeous evocations of its Los Angeles setting, with the radiant Moore basking in the always-sunny city’s ambient glow, but all that visual lacquering begins to read as reverence for an actor rather than observation of a character. Paulina García, a legendary Chilean actor and winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival for the first Gloria, played the character as a stoic charmer who buries her strife until it ultimately erupts. Moore, however, is a Movie Star (probably the best of her kind), and here she is as effervescent as she’s ever been. Although she performs the woman as sometimes doddering and well meaning, there is nevertheless a bright resiliency that always shines through, even when the actor deploys her trademark tear-filled face-crack in a late scene.

Other modifications work to reconfigure the experience. A shimmery score by Matthew Herbert (who also composed strikingly similar music for Woman and Disobedience) replaces the strictly diegetic soundscape of the original. Two additional female characters are shoehorned in — Gloria’s mother (Holland Taylor) and her close work friend (Barbara Sukowa) — allowing for a couple of trite girl-power conversations to take place. The most monumental shift is in Turturro’s performance as Gloria’s romantic interest. The actor is capable of the disarming charm Sergio Hernández brought to that character before, but Turturro’s low-key, antisocial turn makes this film’s two leads’ on-again/off-again relationship less credible, Gloria’s desperation greater, and their ultimate uncoupling a relief instead of a heartbreak. 

Early in their courtship, Gloria brings Arnold to a double date with her best friend (Rita Wilson) and her husband (Chris Mulkey). A minor political disagreement about gun ownership causes the two women to exchange knowing glances about Arnold’s right-leaning views. It’s a beat absent from the original that’s emblematic of Lelio’s increasing penchant for telegraphing and audience hand-holding. Gloria Bell is filled with minor tweaks like these — the handling of Arnold’s shapewear for laughs is another — that come across as if an American studio was handing Lelio notes on his original to make the film more palatable for a mass audience. Nevertheless, both Glorias go down like glasses of fine wine, but one’s enjoyment is completely dependent on whether the preference is for a full-bodied red or a sweet white. 

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Us'.
March 21, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Double Trouble

2019 / USA / 116 min. / Dir. by Jordan Peele / Opens in wide release on March 22, 2019

Early in Gaspar Noé’s recent feature Climax, the notorious French provocateur literally puts his cinematic influences on display. On an old-school CRT television, ambitious young dancers speak frankly of their hopes and dreams in snippets plucked from a series of Real World-style audition tapes, ca. 1996. However, the viewer’s eye is irresistibly drawn to what lies outside the TV screen: stacks of VHS tapes, each emblazoned with a title that signals one of Noé’s inspirations. In contrast to the MTV français banalities on display in the interview footage, these titles comprise a catalog of turmoil, terror, and transgression: “Un Chien Andalou” (1929); Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975); Suspiria (1977); Zombi 2 (1979); Possession (1980); Angst (1983); and numerous others. Before the narrative proper has even begun, Noé cheekily establishes a tension between the canned positivity that his characters project and the sordid madness that lurks at the film’s periphery, waiting to pounce.

In what can only be presumed to be uncanny meta-cinema coincidence, writer-director Jordan Peele uses an almost identical device in the prologue to his eagerly anticipated sophomore feature, Us. On a living-room television, retro commercials establish the year as 1986. The content of those advertisements will prove to be significant to the film’s plot, but, once again, it’s the surrounding production design that ensnares the viewer’s attention. Arranged on the entertainment center shelves are video cassettes that include The Right Stuff (1983), The Goonies (1985), and – most salient to the story and themes of Us – Douglas Cheek’s cult horror-satire C.H.U.D. (1984). Elsewhere, Peele drops in overt references to Jaws (1975), Home Alone (1991), and John Landis’ legendary music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983). Subtler allusions abound to The Shining (1980), The Lost Boys (1987), Funny Games (1997), The Sixth Sense (1999), and “New French Extremity” landmarks like Inside (2007) and Martyrs (2008).

Peele is effusive and unapologetic about his cinephilia, which tends to skew post-Jaws, and about the way that his personal obsessions have aided his rapid ascent to contemporary genre filmmaking’s highest ranks. Considering the director’s avowed fanboyish inclinations, what’s most impressive about Peele’s features – in his galvanic Oscar-winning debut Get Out (2017) and now in Us – is that they never scan as hollow indices of cinematic references, or even as reverent homages. They are ferociously original nightmares: built on a scaffolding of cult-horror fandom and blockbuster (and Blockbuster) history, but conveying a cynical, fractured, and morbidly hilarious spin on the American experience. 

Apart from its sheer craft, Get Out resonated to a great degree because of the perceived novelty of is vision and voice. It was certainly not the first instance in which an African-American artist transmuted deeply felt African-American anxieties into cinematic horror, but it was arguably the most mainstream feature to do so in such a piercing fashion. (Rusty Cundieff’s unexpectedly provocative Tales from the Hood achieves a similar trenchancy, but that 1995 anthology remains something of an underseen curio, especially among white horror aficionados.) Us doesn’t have Get Out’s frank post-Obama racial acerbity, although being a horror feature by a black filmmaker with a black lead cast, it unsurprisingly includes some incisive racial subtext. However, the new film does share with Peele’s debut a daft and profoundly pessimistic view of America. Both features have sci-fi-flavored backstories that are logistically ludicrous, but also oddly credible from a cultural and psychological angle. With the caveat that sweeping metaphors about auteurs based on just two films are always provisional, Peele’s features are like the faerie changelings swapped for human infants in folk tales. They aren’t perfectly accurate reflections of reality, but their horror stems from their uncanny, slantwise resemblance to reality, from the deep cuts inflicted by their perverse exaggerations.

Us is itself proximally rooted in this terror of uncanny resemblance. It is part of a rich tradition of doppelgänger horror that encompasses works ranging from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to Sisters (1973) to Enemy (2013). (To say nothing of the prevalence of twins, doubles, and fetches in Vertigo [1959], Persona [1966], Lost Highway [1997], and many other macabre masterworks from a variety of genres.) If there is a direct antecedent to Peele’s latest film, however, it is – by the director's own admission  – the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image,” in which Vera Miles portrays a woman haunted by a double who mimics her movements. Unlike many episodes in Rod Serling’s classic series, “Mirror Image” is enigmatic rather than heavy-handed, but it shares with Peele’s more explicitly allegorical film the motifs of malicious replacement and imitative action. Us also possess a certain wry, high-concept audacity that feels of a piece with The Twilight Zone – although tonally the film is closer kin to Serling’s sister anthology series Night Gallery and George Romero’s Tales from the Darkside. To this, Peele adds the apocalyptic elements of modern zombie fiction, and the result is a story that feels equal parts resonant, fascinating, and preposterous.

In the film’s 1986-set prologue, a little girl who is eventually revealed to be Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) visits the Santa Cruz, Calif., boardwalk with her mother and father (Anna Diop and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Quarrelsome and distracted, Adelaide’s parents do not notice when she wanders away to the beach, and then into an apparently deserted hall-of-mirrors attraction. Inside, she encounters another little girl who appears to be her exact double – down to the “Thriller” T-shirt her father just won for her at a carnival game. Peele does not show exactly what befalls little Adelaide when she encounters this doppelgänger, but it’s clear that the incident is disturbing and traumatic, driving the girl’s parents further apart and necessitating therapy under the guidance of a child psychologist (Napiera Groves). The doctor suggests creative expression as a means for Adelaide to process her repressed trauma, and it is ultimately ballet that ends up sustaining the girl through the ensuing years.

However, the past is not so easily buried, as the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) eventually discovers. Now married to good-natured goofball Gabe (Winston Duke) and a mother to adolescent Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and preteen Jason (Evan Alex), Adelaide is presently uneasy about a family holiday to Santa Cruz. Her parents have passed away, and her former childhood home now serves as a seasonal vacation residence for her family. However, that inexplicable funhouse encounter so long ago continues to haunt Adelaide, and she is accordingly alarmed when Gabe suggests a visit to the boardwalk. She reluctantly agrees out of deference to her husband’s pleas, as well as politeness to their wealthier white friends, the Tylers: Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), Josh (Tim Heidecker), and twin girls Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide remains on edge, a state exacerbated by a succession of weird omens: eerily familiar faces, portentous numbers, and unlikely synchronicities.

After a brief scare on the beach – Jason wanders away, sending Adelaide into a panic – the family hastily returns to the summer house. Later that night, they make an unnerving discovery: A mysterious family of four is standing in their driveway, mute and motionless. Clad identically in red jumpsuits, sandals, and right-hand leather gloves, these figures seem creepy rather than overtly dangerous – at least until Gabe puts on his alpha-papa pants and threatens them. Whereupon the interlopers abruptly burst into the house and hold the Wilsons hostage in their living room, menacing them with large, golden pairs of scissors. It’s at this point that the baffling reality of the situation becomes apparent: The invaders are the Wilsons’ doppelgängers, each one a twisted reflection of a family member. (The film’s performers play both the originals and the doubles.)

Grunting, wailing, and chittering like animals, the doubles don’t speak, save for Adelaide’s twin, Red. In a croaking, wheezing voice that seems comical at first – before slowly mutating into terrifying – Red explains her history in halting, fairy-tale terms. She describes herself as a pitiable shadow, forced to crawl in the darkness below while her twin was allowed to walk in the light. The doppelgängers are damned to be puppets, insipidly miming the actions of their counterparts but lacking any agency of their own. When Adelaide married Gabe and gave birth to Zora and Jason, Red was obliged to couple with Abraham and to spawn Umbrae and Pluto. Now, however, things have changed: Red speaks of an “Untethering,” an uprising in which the doubles will sever this one-way spiritual connection – by killing their originals. Fortunately, Red is feeling generous, in a sadistic sort of way: The Wilsons will be given a sporting chance to fight back.

So begins a run-and-gun waking nightmare in which the Wilsons pair off to confront their malevolent doubles, only to regroup and spilt up again as the evening’s horrors unfold. Over the next 24 hours or so, the full, shocking extent of the Untethering – which goes way, way beyond one family – becomes dreadfully apparent. However, the bedrock survival-horror aspects of Us remain consistent, even as the science-fiction strangeness spirals into some truly outlandish, hallucinatory territory. The same could be said of Get Out, to an extent. If that film has a nagging flaw, it’s the third-act indulgence of stock Blumhouse survival-horror beats, in contrast to the novelty of the film’s wild, paranoid tone and razor-sharp social critiques. Still, Peele’s debut had its share of memorable images and motifs – that clinking teaspoon! – and Us turns that facility for indelible visuals up to 11.

The director and production designer Ruth De Jong deliver a disorienting combination of the familiar and the surreal. It’s an approach that eschews digital unreality for a dreamlike eccentricity that shades into Kubrick and Tarkovsky without ever ditching its multiplex flash. At one point, Adelaide stumbles her way into a secret underground corridor, which is tiled in institutional white and swarming with live rabbits. Within the bounds of the film’s universe, there is a sort-of explanation for this place, but the imagery has less to do with plausibility than with evoking shivers. The efforts of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who lensed It Follows (2014) and the recent Glass, are less consistent. He and Peele make cunning use of shallow focus, wide shots, and split-diopter effects, finding novel ways to convey familiar horror situations. The lighting in some scenes works splendidly – the eerie, slightly greasy blues of the funhouse sequences are pure black magic – but elsewhere Gioulakis leans artlessly on shadowy murk that is more obscuring than atmospheric.

Us is every inch a sophomore feature: ambitious, inspired, and at times ungainly. Scene to scene, the film doesn’t click together quite as well Get Out. This is partly because the writer-director is here committed to a more eccentric mythology, and as a result the new film isn’t as structurally disciplined or self-contained as its predecessor. (Story-wise, the entirety of Get Out is analogous to the first act in Us.) Editor Nicholas Monsour, who cut the Peele-co-scripted comedy Keanu (2016), also makes his share of missteps. There are some wonderfully assembled sequences in Us – including a climactic hand-to-hand duel that is spectacularly cross-cut with two different ballet routines – but also some distractingly jarring scene transitions.

The supporting performances are all solid, particularly Duke as a dorky middle-class dad who is a little insecure about his second-in-command standing, albeit in the mildest and most endearing way. Moss gets the opportunity to play against type as a vapid, prickly, faintly dissatisfied suburbanite, the sort of woman who says “vodka o’clock” unironically. However, the film unambiguously belongs to N’yongo, who essentially fills both the lead protagonist and the lead antagoist roles. Initially, Peele’s screenplay doesn’t afford Adelaide much of an interior life beyond her bottled-up trauma – which comes spurting out in tearful gouts once the doppelgängers appear – and her generic Mama Bear protectiveness, but N’yongo sells those with every ounce of her being. Eventually, as the film’s backstory comes into sharper focus and the final twists snap into place, Adelaide (and Red) become much more intriguing characters. Like The Sixth Sense, Oldboy (2003), and Shutter Island (2010), it’s the sort of film that will reward multiple viewings, demanding close attention to the nuances of the lead actor’s performance.

Considering Get Out’s success as both a mainstream box-office hit and a seismic force in the cultural conversation, it’s perhaps inevitable that some viewers are going to walk away baffled and disappointed by Us. It’s certainly weirder, clumsier, and cagier than Peele’s directorial debut. It also feels somehow less urgent and less pointed, its metaphorical meanings more expansive and open to interpretation. Granted, threads of racial consciousness are undeniably woven into Us. They can be discerned in the film's sensitivity to the way that racist inclinations can be concealed but not eliminated by a veneer of political correctness, or the way that the white bourgeoisie subtly bigfoot their aspirational black counterparts. However, Peele’s latest is just as concerned with class, labor, violence, and ignorance as it is with race, not to mention more personal, psychological themes such as trauma and guilt. Lest any viewer think that the director has blunted his blade now that he has an Oscar on his shelf, Red underlines the wokeness that lurks beneath Peele’s midnight-movie gleefulness. When asked who she and her fellow doppelgängers are, she replies with a rictus grin: “We’re Americans.”

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'My Night at Maud's'.
March 19, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Revisiting the Cinematic Landmarks of 1969

Throughout 2019, Cinema St. Louis will feature films celebrating their 50th anniversaries, with major works from 1969 screening during the Robert Classic French Film Festival, QFest St. Louis, and the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival. In addition, CSL will co-present Golden Anniversaries — a stand-alone festival of six key films from 1969 — on three consecutive weekends this fall (Aug. 31-Sept. 1, Sept. 7-8, and Sept. 14-15) at the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library. The Lens will present essays on many of those films, beginning with this entry on director Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s. Note: This essay contains a detailed discussion of the film's plot and therefore includes major spoilers.

My Night at Maud’s will screen at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, 2019 at Washington U.'s Brown Hall Auditorium as part of the 11th Annual Robert Classic French Film Festival. Purchase tickets here.

‘My Night at Maud’s’: Design for Living

By Robert Garrick

1969 / France / 105 min. / Dir. by Éric Rohmer / Premiered May 15, 1969, at the Cannes Film Festival; opened in select U.S. cities on Mar. 22, 1970

On the 50th anniversary of My Night at Maud’s, it’s helpful to remember what the world was like back in 1969. The sexual revolution was in full flower thanks to “the pill,” which had gained wide acceptance by the late 1960s. Movies, under the new MPAA rating system instituted in 1968, were suddenly full of profanity, nudity, and sex. An X-rated picture about a male prostitute, Midnight Cowboy, was 1969’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. It was the era of free love and busted taboos.

It was against this background that Éric Rohmer made My Night at Maud’s, a deadly serious film about moral choices, about living a Christian life, and — most of all — about the constant struggle between the human impulse to reason and the Catholic requirement to have faith.

Maud’s was the third and probably the most heralded of Rohmer’s six Moral Tales. These films, which catapulted Rohmer into the first rank of world directors, all took the form of a first-person narrative. The narrator — always a male character — would seek a woman. He’d be distracted by a second female, often a highly physically attractive one, but eventually he’d return to the first one. This is the model of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), a film that Rohmer knew and admired.

Rohmer’s Moral Tales were not stories with a “moral”; nor were they held up by Rohmer as examples of “morality.” Instead, they were films about characters who were guided by fidelity to a moral idea. In My Night at Maud’s, one character is a dedicated Marxist and another is struggling with Catholicism. “What interests me,” Rohmer said, “is showing men who are not absolutely certain of the validity of their adherence to a doctrine, and who interrogate themselves about it and place a wager on it.”

There’s no violence in My Night at Maud’s, no crime, no explicit sex, no action, and not much plot. There’s no music — just lots of beautifully written dialogue. The talk is of religion, philosophy, Catholicism, morality, math ... and Blaise Pascal. (More later about him.)

Through it all, there are sexy scenes between men and women, which no doubt contributed to the film’s success. After a rocky showing at Cannes in 1969, My Night at Maud’s became a popular hit in Paris, then in London. It was a sensation at the 1969 New York Film Festival, after which it became a major commercial and critical success in the United States in 1970. Andrew Sarris rated Maud’s one of the three best films of 1970, and ultimately he included it as one of the four best films of the decade. Richard Schickel said it was the best film of the year. At the Oscars, My Night at Maud’s was nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.

The critics who wrote about Maud’s mostly zeroed in on the male/female dynamic. Rohmer has said that the original idea came to him in 1945, and it involved a man trapped in a room with an extremely attractive woman for an extended period. So that is the heart of the film, and that scene in Maud’s — the titular “night” — consumes half of its running time.

But Maud’s is not a film about sex or romance. Nor is it a comedy, as some have written. Rohmer’s film is about religion and Catholicism. It’s about living an ascetic life and obtaining eternal salvation. It’s a sermon, built around one man’s spiritual adventure

The first shot in My Night at Maud’s is important. It’s a bird’s-eye view of a small town in the mountains, a jumble of gray houses and rugged terrain, with some church steeples. We’re in the French provinces — the hinterlands — and the scene is just outside the town of Clermont-Ferrand. The winter sun is rising on the Forez Mountains.

The next shots reveal that this is the point of view of the narrator, who is nameless throughout the film. Let’s refer to him as Jean-Louis, after Jean-Louis Trintignant, the actor who plays him.

That cluttered opening shot is a reflection of Jean-Louis’ moral state. He’s confused; he’s looking for rigor and meaning in his life. He’s single, 34 years old, recently returned to France from South America, where he worked as an engineer. Now he’s employed at the local Michelin plant.

Jean-Louis is personable, attractive, and doing fine professionally. He’s had a series of girlfriends, all serious relationships, and he’s maintained the connection to the Catholic Church that he inherited from his parents. But it’s not enough, and Jean-Louis knows it. He’s marking time; it’s not a “life.”

In church (Notre Dame du Port) the same day, Jean-Louis spots a single blond woman in profile. She appears to be serious about the services. She turns slightly in the direction of Jean-Louis, showing that she feels his gaze. Jean-Louis is fascinated with this woman — perhaps she is the ideal he has been looking for. They don’t speak, but the woman knows that she’s being examined. She leaves church on a motorized bicycle, and Jean-Louis follows her in his small car through the narrow streets of Clermont-Ferrand.

This scene — which is straight out of Vertigo (1958) — is telling. When Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) tailed Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) in his car through the streets of San Francisco, he appeared to be a hired detective watching a wealthy woman who was in the thrall of a psychic deception. That’s what we thought — but the reality was something quite different. Madeleine was not the woman Scottie thought she was. And Scottie was more than a detective: He was a detective who was becoming dangerously infatuated.

Rohmer was a Hitchcock scholar — he and Claude Chabrol wrote the first book-length study of Hitchcock in 1957, right around the time Vertigo was released. It’s likely that this scene was intended as a quote from Hitchcock, and as a form of shorthand. Jean-Louis is becoming infatuated with this woman, whose name (we later learn) is Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault). And Françoise is not quite what she appears to be.

As Jean-Louis pursues “the girl on a bicycle,” we are in the car with him. It’s small, constricted, noisy. The street is narrow, with lots of obstacles. Françoise moves effortlessly through this terrain on her more primitive vehicle, but Jean-Louis is ultimately blocked by another car and loses her. He’s frustrated, but he will not forget François.

A day or two later, Jean-Louis enters a café in Clermont. He bumps into an old classmate, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), whom he hasn’t seen in years. Vidal is a Marxist, an atheist, and a university professor in philosophy. Neither Jean-Louis nor Vidal are regulars at that café. The meeting seems almost mystical, a remarkable chance occurrence.

It’s Dec. 24, Christmas Eve. Vidal and Jean-Louis eat, and there’s a discussion of the ideas of Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician and theologian whose birthplace was Clermont-Ferrand. Pascal is famous for his “wager” — the notion that it is rational to commit to Christ. Pascal’s logic: If the wager proves wrong — if life was meaningless — nothing would be lost. But if the wager is right — if Christ was the Lord — eternal salvation would await.

Jean-Louis finds Pascal’s wager too “rigid” and says so. Vidal says that in his own life, he’s applied the wager to Marxism. Vidal personally doubts that history has any meaning, but he’s “wagered” that history does have meaning and that Marxism is the future. That’s the wager — the only one, Vidal says — that allows him to live.

Rohmer has talked of the importance of fidelity: fidelity to a woman, to an idea, or to a dogma. Pascal’s wager says you have to pick a side; you have to make a bet. You can’t reason your way through life; you must pick a guiding principle and stick to it.

Following the meal, Vidal has tickets to a violin performance, and Jean-Louis comes along. Then Jean-Louis says that he plans to attend Midnight Mass, at the start of Christmas Day. Vidal agrees to come, too, and says that he later wants Jean-Louis to visit the apartment of his friend, who is getting a divorce.

That friend turns out to be Maud (Françoise Fabian), and Jean-Louis’ “night” with her begins in the wee hours of Christmas Day.

The night at Maud’s apartment consumes half of the film. Vidal is there at first, but he ultimately gets drunk and leaves. He and Maud had been occasional lovers, but on this night Maud is more interested in Jean-Louis. So they are alone in Maud’s apartment, together.

Maud is beautiful, all right. She’s a brunette. She’s charming, smart, talkative, congenial. It’s snowing outside — perfect Christmas weather — and Maud convinces Jean-Louis to sleep in “her spare room,” because it would be too dangerous to drive home.

As it turns out, there is no spare room, and Maud spends most of the night gently trying to seduce Jean-Louis. They talk of religion, of philosophy, of romance, of Pascal. Maud asks for her cigarettes and for a drink of water. She’s trying to get Jean-Louis closer to the bed, where she sits in her nightshirt.

Jean-Louis blunders his way through the session, saying this and that, somehow resisting the stunning Maud, but never completely closing the door on sex with her. Eventually he sleeps, chastely wrapped in blankets, next to her on the bed. In the morning, he almost succumbs to Maud’s advances, but she says no. “I like people who know what they want,” she says harshly.

They agree to meet later in the day, in the mountains, at a planned event. Maud teases him: “There’s a girl you might like ... a blonde.”

Now the sun is up on Christmas morning, and Jean-Louis is having breakfast in a café. Through the windows, he sees the blonde woman from church, Francoise, go by on her motorbike. He leaves the café, without his coat, and runs after her in the street. He meets her and makes a clumsy but effective introduction, telling Françoise that he would like to get to know her. They agree to have lunch the next day, after church.

We are now in the final third of the film. Through a series of remarkable “chances,” Jean-Louis spends the night in the apartment of Françoise, in the mountains above town. (Again, the weather forces him to stay.) It’s the opposite of the night with Maud. Françoise does have a spare room, and she parks Jean-Louise there. There’s never any question about sex — there will not be any. Françoise is proper and chaste throughout. She even resists a kiss from Jean-Louis.

It’s Françoise, though, whom Jean-Louis craves. He tells her he loves her. Up in the mountains, outdoors, she confesses that she is not the girl he thinks she is. She had an affair — with a married man. Jean-Louis is shaken but he accepts the news. Françoise says: “Let’s never speak of it again.”

Five years pass. Françoise and Jean-Louis have married — in the Catholic Church, of course — and they have a son. We see the three of them climbing down a hill, to the beach, on a hot sunny day. They run into Maud, who is climbing up the hill, alone. Françoise looks uneasy and (after a quick introduction) continues on, and Maud speaks to Jean-Louis alone. She is as beautiful as ever. She says she’s remarried, and that it’s not going well. She cuts off the discussion because she can see that Françoise is uncomfortable. She continues up the hill, and out of the film.

Down on the beach, we learn that the married man with whom Françoise was having an affair was Maud’s husband. As Françoise makes this confession, Jean-Louis lies to her, telling her that Maud was “his last fling.” Again, Françoise says: “Let’s never speak of it again.”

And they run, together, with their son, toward the water, with the clear skies overhead. The film ends.

In My Night at Maud’s, Jean-Louis is forced to choose between Françoise and Maud. Françoise is mostly a cipher, an idea. She never says much, and she doesn’t seem to have much of a personality. But to Jean-Louis she is associated with the Church, and she represents a possible marriage, a family, and a lifetime commitment.

Maud, on the other hand, is beautiful and exciting and nice. But she represents passion. Maud is looking for sex first and maybe something else later. Somehow, Jean-Louis resists Maud’s advances during their “night,” in the early hours of Christmas Day.

Much has been made of the differences between Maud and Françoise. Maud is brunette, dark, educated, older, urban, well off, quite comfortable indoors and at night, worldly, divorced. She’s sexually eager. She’s not a believer, and Rohmer calls her a “socialist.” She’s gorgeous, but there’s something vaguely threatening about her looks. She could be a beautiful witch. In the last scenes of the film, where she’s outdoors and in the sunlight, she’s uneasy, out of her element.

Françoise is the opposite in almost every way. She’s blond, young, still getting her education. She’s religious, a Catholic student in biology. She’s quite comfortable outdoors, on her motorbike, on the beach, and in the mountains where she lives. She’s at home in the sunlight. She’s not talkative, not all that interested in ideas. She’s quiet and a bit awkward. She’s sexually restrained. She’s never been married.

These opposites are part of the look of the film as well: black and white — and a lot of gray. Clermont-Ferrand is depressing and gray in the depths of winter, but there is also “color.” Rohmer: “It’s a film in color in a way, except that the colors are black and white.” The dreary nature of Clermont-Ferrand represents Pascal’s idea that grace awaits in another life, not on Earth. As for the blacks and whites, in the clothing, in the volcanic rock buildings of Clermont — they represent the different paths available to Jean-Louis.

The previous discussion of the Hitchcockian scene early in the film, where Jean-Louis tails Françoise in his car, makes Rohmer’s affinity for that director clear. Most of the writers at Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, Rohmer included, regarded Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks as two of the greatest directors. (Andre Bazin would refer to Rohmer, with amusement, as a “Hitchcocko-Hawksian.”) Hawks favored an eye-level camera, with long takes, natural dialogue, and medium shots. That’s the formula used by Rohmer in Maud’s. There are few close-ups, and there’s no fancy editing. It all seems quite relaxed. The focus is on the players, not on the director.

Obviously, the core of the film is the choice between Maud and Françoise. All of the players are nice people — attractive, well spoken, pleasant. There are no heroes or villains. But there are profound differences nevertheless. Jean-Louis spends most of the film in a state of confusion, but he is able to stick with his original feeling that Françoise is the answer. He resists the more worldly and sexy Maud.

Françoise represents faith. She represents Catholicism, marriage, simplicity. She also represents the natural world — the outdoors. Maud represents reason. She is her own master. She works her way through life logically.

Faith vs. reason. Jean-Louis chooses faith. At the very end of the film, after his final commitment to Françoise, the world opens up for the two of them and their child. They run to the ocean in what appears to be a moment of great joy. Jean-Louis, who began the film staring at a mess of buildings and mountain crags, has found peace and simplicity.

More than a few critics are unhappy with this interpretation of the film. Marion Vidal, for example, finds Jean-Louis appalling. He’s “a master of mental restriction and lie by omission.” Maud is honest, gracious, sensual, and direct: “When I say yes, it’s yes; when I say no, it’s no.” The critic describes the marriage to Françoise as “a fantasy marriage, founded on lies and secrecy.”

Frank Cunningham agrees with Marion Vidal. He sees Maud as an exemplary character, albeit a tragic one. (She loses two men to Françoise and is now involved in another failing marriage.) He describes the last scene of the film: “Hand in hand, holding their child, they run from the prying camera’s eye into the sea, secure in their illusions, their conventional marriage, their need not to be honest with one another, far from the moral struggle and ambiguity faced daily by Maud.”

Cunningham and Marion Vidal are not wrong, and neither is Maud. They believe in reason — in the ability of humans to forge their way through life, logically and honestly, one action at a time.

That’s one approach. In the film, it doesn’t work well for Maud, or for Vidal, the man who introduces Jean-Louis to Maud. Maud and Vidal are not happy, and they’re not successful in their relations with the opposite sex.

Rohmer has said that if Jean-Louis had slept with Maud, the affair “would have lasted a week and then it would have been over.” The priests in the film — whose words were carefully chosen by writer/director Rohmer — come down solidly on the side of faith. At the second church visit, the Dominican priest says that “Christian life is not a moral code. It is a life … the adventure of saintliness.” He goes on to say that “one must be mad to be a saint.” Only by making the “bet,” by being all-in, can you be mad. Once you’re on the path, you have to stay there, with faith that things will work out.

Critic C.G. Crisp, who wrote a major work on Rohmer, points out: “Maud is the opposite of mad. She has learned to live in a relative world.” That sounds positive. But then Crisp writes: “Rohmer allows her point of view full expression, so that it is easy to come away from the film feeling that he supports her. The devil is convincing; his arguments are always more plausible than God’s, because he has reason on his side. And some of the arguments prove immensely attractive to our hero, who is guilty of the most specious bad faith in defending his mediocrity and his lack of total commitment.”

It’s chilling to remember that Maud’s presence in the film comes courtesy of Vidal, who appears out of nowhere in the cafe. The very name “Vidal” is an anagram of “dival,” or devil. Vidal is an atheist and a Marxist; Rohmer has called Maud a “radical socialist.” To Rohmer, these are not good things. Maud is not a believer, and when the evening begins, with the two men arriving from Midnight Mass, Maud says they “reek of Holy Water.” Maud is charming, but so was Count Dracula. Both of them are uncomfortable around religious symbols.

Crisp reminds us that for much of the film Jean-Louis is boxed up — in his car, staring out of his windshield; in Maud’s apartment; in the apartment of Françoise. Only at the very end does Jean-Louis break free, running with joy toward the open world of the beach and the sky. Crisp points out that by fully committing to Françoise at the end of the film, Jean-Louis is “choosing a rigid code of religious doctrine, a tightly structured system — a ‘prison’ — in preference to the looser, more liberal system of the freethinker, Maud. Yet the visual imagery works in the opposite direction, to suggest the ultimate escape from such a prison.” Rohmer is saying: Only through faith, even mad faith, can one become truly free.

At Midnight Mass, on Christmas Day, just before his night with Maud, Jean-Louis hears the priest say: “The birth, at which we rejoice, is not above all the birth of the infant Jesus, it is our own. Something must be born in each of us this night.”

Robert Garrick — attorney, board member of the French-preservation nonprofit Les Amis, and former contributor to the davekehr.com film blog — will introduce and discuss My Night at Maud’s at 7 p.m. Sunday, Mar. 24, at Washington U.’s Brown Hall Auditorium. Purchase tickets here.

Tags: Golden Anniversaries

A still from 'One Child Nation'.
March 11, 2019
By Cait Lore

The Highs and Lows at the Premiere Documentary Film Festival

For the last 16 years, the True/False Film Festival has challenged the way audiences think of documentary filmmaking, but it’s also reshaped expectations for the film-festival experience as a whole. Immersive art installations, a live game show, and the “March March” parade overtake the streets of downtown Columbia, Mo. Waiting is just part of the show, as buskers perform live at festival venues before film screenings begin. And then there are the “Q Queens” — seasoned True/False volunteers in Comic Con-ready looks — who reign over the festival’s queue lines. Rarely is nonfiction cinema made into such a spectacle.

However, it’s the top-notch programming that brings True/False festival-goers back year after year. Even narrative films can find their way into True/False’s lineup, so long as they wrinkle the line between fact and fiction. A great example from this year’s fest — held from Feb. 28-March 3 — is Our Time, the world-class Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas’ newest feature, which operates as a paranoid dissection of love and relationships when an open marriage begins to break apart. Biographical forces dominate every frame, given that the director has chosen to cast himself and his real-life spouse, Natalia López, as the central couple. Shot by Diego García (Cemetery of Splendour, Neon Bull), Our Time’s imagery warrants a firm recommendation alone. That being said, Our Time might pose as an honest investigation into what, for Reygadas, are very real forces, but what is conveyed onscreen feels far more self-indulgent than it is self-aware. 

This years’ iteration of True/False saw an end to the festival’s secret screenings, in which films with world premieres at festivals later that year — such as Cannes or SXSW — would play first to a unknowing True/False crowd. Early cuts of high-profile films have screened at these events, which provide directors with the opportunity to test-drive their film before their official premieres. The catch? No one could write or talk about the True/False secret screening until after the official world premiere months later. 

Functioning as a substitute for the secret screenings this year was Nathan Fielder’s Finding Frances. At that film’s screening, a True/False programmer took the stage to thank the crowd for years of loyalty on the secret-screenings front. In a similar fashion, he requested that audiences refrain from recording the never-before-seen bonus footage accompanying Finding Frances’ post-screening Q&A. The film is a series finale to Fielder’s hit show Nathan for You, and the audience was informed that, like the secret screenings, the True/False debut was a trial run to see how Finding Frances will play to moviegoers unfamiliar with Fielder’s series.

Still: Does a 2017 made-for-TV comedy feature belong at True/False in this capacity? That’s a tough sell for this critic, who, full disclosure, thinks Fielder’s brand of comedy is mean-spirited. Even the most diehard Fielder fan should be able to understand why screening a two-hour special, which debuted on basic cable, might appear to lower the standards of the festival. In theory, attendees could have seen the same two-hour footage on their Columbia-motel TV, had it been playing that night, making Finding Frances a frustrating waste of time for serious festival-goers. Furthermore, the film is just more of the same comedy from Fielder, whose character is something like David Brent of the U.K. version of The Office, albeit if the world were laughing with him. 

If Chinese conglomerates take over American industry, what does this mean for working-class Americans, labor unions, and the (so-called) American Dream? Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory chases answers in Dayton, Ohio, where Fuyou, a Chinese-owned manufacturing company, opened its first U.S.-based factory in 2014. For many locals, the opening of Fuyou Glass America meant a restoration of jobs that evaporated after the 2008 recession, but at what cost? The Sundance-approved American Factory makes a strong case for workers’ unions, but ethnocentrism clouds this film’s line of sight. 

Both Chinese Portrait and Up the Mountain bring a painterly gaze to China’s landscapes and its people. The former, directed by Wang Xiaoshuai, blurs the line between video installation and nonfiction filmmaking. Since 2009, Wang has been travelling across his home country, taking moving video portraits of people, posing as they would for a still photograph. Admittedly, the impact of these images waxes and wanes. However, Wang’s ultimate goal, it seems, is to give insight into unseen corners of contemporary China; there, he certainly succeeds. Up the Mountain, meanwhile, takes a more literal approach to a painterly composition. Filming over the course of a year, director Zhang Yang records the lives of a community of artists living in the mountains of China’s Yunnan Province. Teacher Shen Jianhua and his pupils — a gregarious gang of grannies — document the daily lives of the Bai ethnic minority community through their paintings. Framed in a 1:1 aspect ratio, Zhang’s camera acts as another canvas, imitating their compositions and saturated color palettes. One of Shen Jianhua’s most devoted pupils, twentysomething Dinglong, finds himself pressed to leave village and move to the big city. Change is inevitable for both Dinglong and the Bai lifestyle that informs his practice. However, these paintings, as well as Zhang’s film, offer a way to preserve a way of life threatened by modernization. Visually stunning and a precious cultural document, Up the Mountain is sure to see heavy festival play this year.

State-enforced sterilizations, kidnapping, and systematic murder — these are but everyday realities for Chinese citizens under the nation’s one-child policy. At the start of One Child Nation, filmmaker Nanfu Wang — born under the policy herself — admits to not questioning China’s population-control methods until she emigrated to the U.S. and became pregnant herself. This revelation, and the end of the policy in 2015, prompted Wang to return the rural village she grew up in. What at first begins as an exercise in radical empathy and healing for Wang’s family spirals out into the global ramifications of this government-enforced social experiment. There are no villains in One Child Nation. It does, however, offer a warning. “This is not just a Chinese issue. It’s all around the world,” observed Nanfu Wang to a True/False crowd. “Not questioning anything — that’s what leads to propaganda.” The film certainly benefits from Wang’s ability to question everything, to convey her perspective and press on into the most difficult of issues. By following the story where it takes her, she reveals a ripple effect across two continents. Wide-eyed and daring, One Child Nation is a remarkable piece of investigative filmmaking, one that is highly recommended.

Tags: Festivals Cait Lore

A still from 'Captain Marvel'.
March 7, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

I Love the 90s

2019 / USA / 124 min. / Dir. by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck / Opens in wide release on Mar. 8, 2019

Last year’s bite-size post-Infinity War digestif Ant-Man and the Wasp – which, in fact, unfolds shortly before the Avengers’ doomed confrontation with the Mad Titan Thanos; do try to keep up, people – was the first clear sign that the feature films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) might be teetering away from “good enough” and into “forgettable.” Granted, there wasn’t anything overtly dislikable about AM&tW, which did a fine job of replicating the comparatively small-scale storytelling (pun intended) and playful action of its predecessor. Less than a year later, however, one is hard-pressed to remember anything substantive about the film, or even what the central conflict might have been. (Something about Michelle Pfeiffer being shrunk down to the size of a Higgs boson?) Summer blockbusters that cost well north of $160 million typically emerge as either beloved pop events or utter fiascos. There’s something oddly disheartening about a film made on such a scale attaining little more than functional, ephemeral blandness, especially given the MCU mega-franchise’s track record. (The studio nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nomination early this year, after all.)

Which brings one to the much-anticipated Captain Marvel, which is rather unbelievably the first MCU film to feature a female superhero protagonist (following a whopping 20 male-dominated entries). The better-late-than-never significance of this moment from a representation standpoint has focused attention – mostly from excited comic fans, plus a handful of the usual fragile manchildren – on this inaugural MCU appearance of Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers, who is a sort of intergalactic living superweapon. (Both the title and Carol herself have convoluted Marvel Comics backstories that are not worth delving into here.)

Accordingly, the most immediately disappointing thing about Captain Marvel is how dispiritingly middling it proves to be, and how palpably desperate it is to establish its feminist-but-not-y’know-too-feminist credentials. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold the MCU’s latest feature up alongside the first woman-led film in the rival DC Extended Universe, but a comparison to Wonder Woman (2017) is nonetheless instructive. Where Patty Jenkins’ film expressed its unabashedly female worldview through burning conflicts and graceful characterization, co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) – who co-wrote Captain Marvel’s screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet – seem content to sneak fist-pumping girl-power bromides in between the lines of a generic imperial space-war plot. Perversely, while Captain Marvel has been positioned as a vital moment for pop-cultural gender equality, it sometimes feels as though its feminism is almost incidental, an accessory affected in the same manner as the nostalgia-stoking nods to its 1990s setting.

The film’s story revolves around the conflict between the authoritarian Kree and the shape-shifting Skrulls, both alien space-faring civilizations that have evidently been battling each other for millennia. Vers (Brie Larson), pronounced “veers,” is a member of Starforce, a kind of Kree special-forces wing that focuses primarily on battling the Skrulls and other threats to their intergalactic empire’s expansionist ambitions. Vers – who looks an awful lot like a human woman, blue-green blood excepted – has the mysterious ability to project devastating energy blasts from her hands, but her training under the tutelage of her humorless commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), has focused on keeping both her powers and her emotions in check. The Kree prioritize imperial glory and cold-hearted collectivist action, and after a pyrotechnic outburst during an early-morning training exercise, Vers is sent to commune with the Kree civilization’s AI potentate, the Supreme Intelligence, for a bit of re-education. In the virtual world of this entity’s electronic brain, the S.I. supposedly takes the form of a familiar face, but Vers doesn’t recognize the smartly dressed woman (Annette Benning) who appears before her.

After reprimanding Vers, the S.I. sends the Starforce team to rescue a Kree spy, whose cover has been blown and is now pinned down by Skrull terrorists on a backwater planet. There, the squad is ambushed and Vers is captured, at which point she is whisked off through a wormhole for high-tech interrogation by a slippery Skrull leader, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). The Skrulls are looking for something very specific buried deep in Vers’ memories, which inexplicably look a lot like the recollections of a human Air Force officer, not an alien warrior. No one is more surprised and distressed by this than Vers herself, who has no memory of her life before the Kree found her hovering near death some years ago. Vers escapes, only to discover that she is being held on a starship in orbit over “shithole” planet C-53, also known as Earth. Both she and her Skrull pursuers disembark to the planet’s surface, and Vers is quickly swept up into the mainline MCU continuity. When reports come in that a superpowered woman has fallen out of the sky and through the roof of a Blockbuster Video in suburban LA – Get it? It’s the ’90s! – S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) show up to contain the situation. (The digital de-aging of Jackson is, admittedly, pretty damn flawless.)

Everything prior to Vers’ fish-out-of-water arrival on Clinton-era Earth is essentially prologue, and largely generic prologue at that. The Kree-vs.-Skrull conflict is a long-running and vitally important aspect of the Marvel Comics universe, but in Captain Marvel the film it largely comes off as bland, off-brand Star Wars goofiness, comparable to the least memorable “cosmic” plot elements that run through the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy films. (Quick: Who was the villain from Thor: The Dark World? Can’t remember? Don’t worry: No one does.) There’s far too much awkward exposition in the service of idiot-simple world-building, including some painfully clunky “As you know ...” exchanges between Yon-Rogg and Vers.

Things improve substantially once Vers and Fury team up, and not only because the latter becomes the eager vessel into which Vers can pour quick-and-dirty explanations for what the hell is going on. Larson and Jackson make for an enjoyable odd couple, and while the MCU has leaned into buddy-comedy humor before, the vibe of Captain Marvel isn’t quite the same relentless deadpan quippiness that has come to dominate the franchise. After some initial wariness, Vers and Fury strike up an unexpectedly warm alliance, one characterized by equal parts respect and low-key teasing, a mixture that lacks the prickly, dick-measuring edge of the series’ intra-Avengers posturing. (Conversely, there’s not even a hint of romance in the relationship, which is a welcome absence.) Initially, Larson’s strait-laced acting style seemed like it might have been a poor fit for the MCU, but it arrives as something of a mellow balm, allowing the actress to focus on Vers’ earnest crisis of confidence and identity without the need to wedge in a sarcastic jibe every five seconds. What's more, one of the distinctive pleasures of Captain Marvel is the sight of a less put-upon and abrasive iteration of Nick Fury, at this point a canny 40-something field agent who trusts his instincts and rolls with whatever sci-fi weirdness he encounters.

The story’s conflicts shift about halfway through the film, sometimes in unexpected directions but usually along entirely predictable lines – e.g., the amnesiac Vers previously had a human life on Earth as “Carol Danvers,” complete with an illustrious Air Force career and a best friend (Lashana Lynch) who thinks she is dead. Suffice to say that Carol uncovers some startling truths about, among other matters, the origin of her potent abilities, the MacGuffin that the Skrulls are seeking on Earth, and the ugly side of her adopted Kree family. Whatever dramatic and emotional resonance these comic-flavored story beats possess is attributable primarily to the film’s performances, which are uniformly solid and occasionally even stirring. The uncanny yet effusive reunion between Carol and her fellow USAF pilot and BFF Maria (Lynch) is quite affecting, for example. The same can’t be said of the screenplay, which is hamstrung by its own commitment to those aforementioned plot twists. Keeping the truth from both the audience and the heroes demands a frustrating, characterization-starved caginess for the first third or so of the film, during which there’s not much for the viewer to engage with other than some generic space-opera visuals and typical MCU to-and-fro action. (Captain Marvel has one of those exasperating plots that could be deflated if characters would simply stop and explain themselves.)

The filmmakers lean into the story’s period setting in the most pandering and superficial way possible, as though simply showing a thing that existed ca. 1997 is enough to inspire Millennial glee. Accordingly, the viewer is subjected to endless sight gags that amount to a “Remember this?” wink-and-nudge, from the knotted flannel fashion to the agonies of dial-up Internet. It makes the 1980s-humping in Netflix’s Stranger Things seem seamless and nuanced by comparison. In truth, Captain Marvel’s approach isn’t all that different from Ready Player One’s (2018) more gonzo and shameless nostalgia-prodding, although a better parallel might be justifiably forgotten indie “period” comedies like The Wackness (2008). Captain Marvel is on firmer ground when it simply alludes to other films at the plot or motif level, as in its nods to Superman, The Last Starfighter, Starman, Top Gun, Terminator 2, and, improbably, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It goes without saying that the soundtrack is chock-a-block with Elastica, Garbage, Salt-n-Pepa, and the like, although the only truly groan-worthy moment is the non-diegetic use of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” during a climactic fight scene.

It’s a choice that reflects not only the film’s skin-deep 1990s infatuation but also its lip-service feminism. On the one hand, Larson’s amnesiac space warrior is one of the more agreeably understated and human protagonists in the MCU’s run to date, her tabula rasa qualities notwithstanding, a hero whose arc borrows elements from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Loki’s backstory in the first Thor feature (2011). However, when the screenwriters attempt to use Carol’s story to highlight the universal tribulations that women encounter – the barriers, the underestimation, and the never-ending condescension – their efforts come off as timid, shallow, and vaguely tin-eared. There are, undeniably, some authentically rousing girl-power moments in the film, especially a trailer-spoiled montage of Carol at different ages, rising again and again from defeat. (A feminist-flavored Raiders of the Lost Ark-indebted gag at the film’s tail end is also a highlight.) Mostly, however, the feature’s gender politics feel like a bit of a pose: too superficial to convey the source material’s fiercely feminist mythology – again, the Wonder Woman film makes for a sharp contrast – and too desperate for applause for it to be regarded as sincere.

None of this is to say that Captain Marvel is a failure as a work of escapist entertainment or as a revelation-packed chapter in the never-ending MCU saga. The filmmakers do manage to answer some nagging questions and ostensible plot-holes that have persisted since the first Avengers film, at times with a cheeky sense of humor. For Marvel aficionados, the sight of an unflappable pre-eyepatch Nick Fury tooling around in a boxy American sedan or belting out a Motown standard in cracking falsetto is practically worth the ticket price all on its own. However, only MCU completionists and pre-minted fans of Carol Danvers will likely have much in the way of durable enthusiasm for Captain Marvel, especially as it becomes apparent that the film’s visuals, action, and storytelling are simply “good enough” — albeit just barely.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Greta'.
March 6, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Tale as Old as Time

2018 / Ireland, USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Neil Jordan / Opened in select cities on March 1, 2019

Neil Jordan’s Greta is unlikely to replicate the sensation of his breakout neo-noir, The Crying Game (1992). That feature helped usher in a wave of independently produced films going quasi-mainstream, with its modest success and cultural cachet predicated on a much-publicized twist that would (rightfully) not play out so well these days. What surrounded that reveal was an amalgamation of Out of the Past (1947) and Vertigo (1958), a tale of a death-haunted man whose violent past interrupts a newfound obsession. Exquisitely performed and written, it earned Jordan an Original Screenplay Oscar in 1993.

Compared to Jordan’s calling-card film, there’s nothing quite so fresh about Greta, a routine thriller only elevated by some taut craftsmanship and a central performance from everyone’s favorite working European actress, Isabelle Huppert. She plays the titular middle-aged, disinclined loner, a French piano teacher (Huppert’s second portrayal of that profession after her incendiary turn in Michael Haneke’s aptly titled 2011 film The Piano Teacher). Greta meets the young and plucky Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) when she returns the older woman’s lost clutch.

Frances is new to New York City, having just moved from Boston and into a Manhattan loft with her uninhibited best friend, Erica (Maika Monroe, lead of It Follows [2014]). Her roomie chastises the naive Frances for even picking up the purse in the first place, suggesting packages left behind in NYC subways are best dealt with by bomb squads. Erica is suspicious of Greta, sight unseen, due to her interest in Frances. Even when flurries of late-night text messages from Greta begin appearing on her phone, Frances is still endeared to the lonely older woman, having just lost her own mother. She identifies with the familial absences in Greta’s life, and the two begin to form a tight-knit bond.

That bond, however, turns tenuous after a wine-fueled dinner in Greta’s apartment during which Frances discovers a cupboard filled to the brim with duplicate handbags – each affixed with a sticky note listing the names and phone numbers of various women. Greta veers quickly into Single White Female (1992) territory –  largely and thankfully foregoing the problematic killer-lesbian trope of that film – by mounting increasingly nerve-jangling set pieces of Greta’s psychotic obsession with Frances. Voicemails and text messages begin to accumulate as Frances avoids her would-be stalker, triggering, in a highlight of the film, Greta to go full table-flipping Teresa Giudice in the middle of the restaurant where Frances works.

In these escalations, Jordan’s film is at its best, exemplifying the economy of the 1980s and 1990s Hollywood thrillers to which his film is indebted, albeit with a classical approach. But Greta also has a tongue planted firmly in cheek, especially when it comes to its titular character’s behavior and Huppert’s performance. Axial cuts of Greta lurking outside the restaurant elicit more laughs than trembles, and her twinkle-toed ballet just before she performs a particularly dastardly act is presented with gleeful abandon: Huppert hasn’t had this much fun with a role since David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004).

Meanwhile, her counterpart, Moretz, is as thuddingly performative as ever. The actor, always prone to back-of-the-house actorly tics and dead line readings, has rarely elevated herself beyond her contemporaries in terms of craft, but filmmakers nevertheless persist in curiously choosing her for high-profile projects. Only Olivier Assayas and Luca Guadagnino have used her to their benefit by casting her as a bratty movie star in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and a zombie in Suspiria (2018), respectively.

Because of this, Greta lacks an audience proxy, forcing the viewer to both root for and be repelled by its villain. Maybe that’s Jordan and co-screenwriter Ray Wright’s purpose, as the mix of horror and comedy points to them working in a satirical mode, justifying a Hitchcockian complicity in audience identification with bad behavior. However, other than cheap shots at Millennials – Erica’s trend-hopping is a running gag straight out of a Boomer’s brain – what’s actually being satirized is unclear. If anything, Greta and Frances’ programming toward honoring a nuclear-family unit is what causes their downfall, but those motivations feel necessary only as plot device rather than as threads sewing this pastiche together.

Instead, Greta is best looked at as a modern Grimm Brothers fairy-tale update, and the third-act “twist” reveals this probable inspiration. The eponymous stalker becomes the Big Bad Wolf or, more appropriately, the witch of “Hansel and Gretel” (which sounds quite a bit like “Frances and Greta”). The film’s glossy veneer certainly supports the idea by luring its audience into a twisted web through color-coded fantasy, but those oft-told tales still resonate because of their didactic purpose. Greta unfortunately lacks one.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Braid'.
February 26, 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.


2018 / USA / 82 min. / Dir. by Mitzi Peirone / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb. 1, 2019

With a potentially fatal drug debt looming over their heads, prickly party girls Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hay) devise a Hail Mary solution: robbing their mentally disturbed childhood friend, Daphne (Cam’s Madeline Brewer), who dwells alone in the moldering New England mansion where the trio once played as children. However, this betrayal requires that the prodigals re-immerse themselves in Daphne’s surreal imaginary world, where skin-crawling mockeries of twee role-play scenarios are governed by violent, arbitrary rules. Writer-director Mitzi’s Perione’s hallucinatory debut feature doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, which is both its most frustrating flaw and its greatest asset. Freely plucking scenarios and motifs from Alice in Wonderland, Great Expectations, and Psycho, Perione creates a debauched atmosphere where the boundaries between reality, fantasy, and outright nightmare dissolve in a blur of psychosexual weirdness. The plot might be lethally obfuscated by the filmmaker’s approach, but there’s still something seductive about the film’s uniquely feminine vision of treehouse horror. Rating: B- [Now available to stream from Hoopla and to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]


2018 / USA / 81 min. / Dir. by Nicolas Pesce / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb. 1, 2019

Long before it begins quoting musically from Italian horror classics like The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) and Deep Red (1975), it’s apparent that the sophomore feature from writer-director Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother) is drunk on its own heightened, giallo-indebted style. There’s some Japanese DNA in Piercing as well, partly retained from the 2007 Ryū Murakami novel of the same name, partly discernible in the film’s allusions to In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Audition (1999). Seeking an outlet for his bloodthirsty compulsions, uptight family man Reed (Christopher Abbott) secures the services of an enigmatic prostitute, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska). She almost immediately derails his fussy homicidal preparations, however, drawing him into her own disturbed world over the course of a single phantasmagorical evening. Although undeniably striking from an aesthetic standpoint – the deliberately phony model skylines are a particularly memorable touch – Piercing is dragged down by the repetitive, ultimately vacuous cat-and-mouse games that preoccupy its supremely twisted couple. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Velvet Buzzsaw

2019 / USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Dan Gilroy / Premiered online on Feb 1, 2019

Writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) plainly had a lot of fun creating Velvet Buzzsaw, a self-consciously garish B-picture in which the ruthless, pretentious denizens of LA’s contemporary-art world – the gallery owners, agents, dealers, critics, and other hangers-on – are murdered by supernaturally cursed works of art. Unfortunately, Gilroy’s palpable glee over this karmic bloodletting doesn’t translate into any actual satire, even though he and his overstuffed cast treat the material completely straight, echoing Ruben Östlund’s superior (and much funnier) modern-art send-up, The Square (2017). What the viewer is left with, then, is a half-baked work of shambolic horror-kitsch, one that is barely functional as a story but still enjoyable for its moments of fleeting midnight-movie madness. (A platinum-wigged Toni Collette having her arm amputated by a malfunctioning “discovery sphere” installation is a highlight.) Watching the A-list cast – including a scene-stealing Jake Gyllenhaal as a narcissistic art critic – stumble through the Art Basel version of a Final Destination picture isn’t without its pleasures. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror

2019 / USA / 83 min. / Dir. by Xavier Burgin / Premiered online on Feb 7, 2019

The first original documentary produced by streaming service Shudder, Horror Noire is as aesthetically unremarkable as any given VH1 nostalgia-thon, consisting almost entirely of film clips and a cavalcade of talking heads. Fortunately, director Xavier Burgin doesn’t need to do anything flashy, given that his subject is intrinsically intriguing and his interview subjects – an authoritative array of actors, directors, writers, critics, and historians – are suitably insightful and enthusiastic. Adapted and condensed from Robin R. Means Coleman’s book of the same name, Horror Noire hustles through the history of African-American horror cinema from the medium’s beginnings through the present, highlighting the ways in which the genre has demonized, idealized, and dissected blackness and the black experience. Although it engages in its share of breezy box-checking, Burgin’s film is dense with both trenchant observations and revelatory “forgotten lore,” such that even horror obsessives will inevitably learn something new. Indeed, the primary takeaway is that the topic could benefit from a more sober, long-form docuseries. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

St. Agatha

2018 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Darren Lynn Bousman / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb. 8, 2019

Although it relies on a dank, spectral atmosphere and familiar religious-horror motifs, director Darren Lynn Bousman’s St. Agatha is more of a slow-boil Southern-gothic thriller than an outright nunsploitation scare-fest. In 1950s small-town Georgia, broke and pregnant con artist Mary (Sabrina Kern) turns to a religious order that provides room and board to “unfortunates.” The convent’s nuns demand rigid obedience in return for their charity, but Mary quickly discerns that the sisters are up to something more sinister than workaday Catholic zealotry. Bousman’s feature engages in the usual post-Conjuring creepshow theatrics, but these amount to a misdirection tactic. They conceal a ludicrous but unremarkable captivity thriller, one that pits Mary against the banal evil of the order’s sadistic Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy). Despite solid performances, the film is swallowed by endless, ambiguous scenes of haunted-house strangeness, punctuated with brutal passages of emotional and physical abuse. The result is suffocating and monotonous, and never adequately counterbalanced by the feature’s clunkily expressed theme of liberation. Rating: C- [Now available to rent on from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

The Changeover

2017 / New Zealand / 95 min. / Dir. by Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb 22, 2019

To better distinguish themselves in a saturated genre, adaptations of YA fantasy novels often overextend themselves with respect to idiosyncratic world-building. It’s refreshing, then, that the horror-tinged coming-of-age tale The Changeover takes such a restrained approach, limiting itself to a handful of characters in a relatively grounded suburban New Zealand setting. Adapting Margaret Mahy’s 1984 novel of the same name – and giving it a faintly post-apocalyptic spin by setting it in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake – the filmmakers rely on familiar fantasy components, such as curses, demons, witches, and ritual magic. However, the story of psychically sensitive teenager Laura Chant (Erana James) and her efforts to rescue her young brother from a parasitic entity has a persuasively edgy, forlorn tone that vibrates with the feminine energy of a PG-13 version of the 2018 Suspiria. It helps that the great Timothy Spall portrays the human-seeming monster, Mr. Braque, whom the actor imbues with a menace and ambiguity that was absent from his unctuous Harry Potter villain. Rating: B- [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, PlayStation, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'To Dust'.
February 25, 2019
By Cait Lore

Don't Fear the Reaper

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir by Shawn Snyder / Opened in select cities on Feb. 8, 2019; locally on Feb. 22, 2019

When his wife died, Shmuel (Géza Röhrig), a Hasidic jew, first sought comfort in his faith, dutifully committed to its mourning rituals. He tore into the fabric of his jacket, a practice known as keriah. Following the Taharah ritual, he had her remains washed and purified and dressed her in a tachrichim for her funeral. And then, when Shmuel and his sons (Leo Heller and Sammy Voit) laid her to rest, they buried her in a simple pinewood coffin, one with three small holes drilled into its base, so that her soul might find peace as it returns to the earth.

There is no peace for Shmuel, however. Nightmares of his wife’s decaying corpse bedevil him. “Last night it was her toe,” he confides in his rabbi (Bern Cohen). “The nail had browned and cracked, bent back like a leaf.” It has been 30 days, observes the rabbi. Shloshim has come to a close. Now is the time to mend the jacket, return to the children, and move on with one’s life. When Shmuel speaks to his mother, it’s more of the same. Their words don’t reach him. It’s as if they’re speaking through water. 

Consumed by grief, Shmuel begins to pull away from his family and his religion, receding further into his tormented mind. Has his wife’s body begun to decompose? Has her soul met the earth yet? Has it found peace? His thoughts are clouded by questions. Questions that, he believes, demand answers. Shmuel’s young boys would like some certainty as well. Their father, a cantor, no longer fills the house with song. They know of his nightmares, of course, and they whisper to each other at night, about how their father spends his afternoons poring over his wife’s belongings. The boys are merely children and aren’t sure how to make sense of their father’s grieving process. They believe the other children who claim that their father is possessed by a dybbuk — a spirit of the dead, likely their mother.

Choosing to venture outside his community, Shmuel knowingly commits a grave sin. He wanders into the everyday world, even choosing a funeral parlor of all places, to ask perfect strangers if his wife’s neshamah — her soul — feels pain. No one knows what to say, of course, and when he asks if she is “dismantling the earth,” their reactions are much the same. The absurdity of the situation hangs over every scene, giving way to To Dust’s rather bewildering ambitions of being a fish-out-of-water comedy. From here on out, Shmuel is more Homer Simpson than the Rev. Toller.

Soon enough, a bumbling Shmuel finds his way into a classroom, standing in front of Albert (Matthew Broderick), a science professor at the local community college. It’s Shmuel’s instinct to pummel the sad-sack professor with his usual questions, and it’s Albert’s inclination to edge toward the door. In spite of how weirded-out he is, however, Albert can’t seem to turn his back on Shmuel. It seems that Albert, a man who cares for nothing, is drawn to something in Shmuel; it’s something that the former man either never had or has long forgotten. Whatever it is, audiences will find themselves doing the heavy lifting for To Dust’s patchy script.

With precious little to bind them but a film that must go on, Shmuel and Albert (who calls his newfound companion “Shmell” and thinks he’s a rabbi) conduct a series of “wacky” science experiments, some of which involve labored slapstick. When Smuel brings a live pig into Albert’s home — wait, doesn’t Homer Simpson do this too? — audiences will question just how stupid To Dust wants them to think its main character is.

Despite the spectacularly unfunny script, Röhrig and Broderick are an absolute delight. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Election (1999) serve as clear reference points for Broderick’s casting, and it works well. For a character with seemingly no personal life or interests, Albert is immediately familiar. Brockerick plays his character like a tired, worse-for-wear Jim McAllister; re-meeting Broderick in this way helps define a character whose motivations are ambiguous at best.

Yet it’s Röhrig’s performance that not only carries the film forward but also shines a spotlight on To Dust’s most appealing attributes. Managing the film’s bizarre shifts in tone is a responsibility that falls squarely on Röhrig’s shoulders. The humor is broad, maybe even problematic. (One can’t help but wonder how a Hasidic Jew would feel about this representation.) When To Dust strains for comedy, however, Röhrig bends with it. Although he can’t save the jokes from falling flat, his multifaceted performance never lets go of a very real ache that runs through the heart of the film.

Despite its many shortcomings, To Dust brings a pure-hearted approach to its unconventional narrative techniques. In an early scene, Albert takes Shmuel to the campus library. They read from a book about forensic taphonomy. Albert opens to a chapter on pigs — a human’s closest biological relative — detailing the act of decay, the ways in which maggots might take up residence, and a grisly phenomenon known as “skin slippage.” It’s ghoulish stuff, sure, but To Dust isn’t going for shock; its line of inquiry is sincere. For Shmuel, breaking from a standardized grieving process and confronting the earthly realities of death brings a strange comfort, allows the fullness of life to return to him. And for Albert, witnessing Shmuel’s journey is a transformative experience.

These are precious insights coming from a film that’s likely to be one of the more audacious pieces of work this year. As hard as it might try, To Dust fails to score big laughs. It may, however, mend a heart.

Grade: C+

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'The Favourite'.
February 22, 2019
By Joshua Ray

This Year's Oscar Contenders, from Worst to Best

Best Popular Film. No Best Popular Film. No host. Kevin Hart. No host, again. Gaga and Kendrick only. All song nominees, but just a little bit of them. Cut the boring awards no one cares about. Oh, wait, everyone cares about them. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for all it’s worth, sure knows how to give a good pre-show, whiplash notwithstanding. This has been a seriously contentious award season unlike any in recent memory. The Oscars have been making headlines beyond the awards gossip sites, even more than 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite and the great Envelope-gate that was the bungled 2017 ceremony.

Beyond the sturm und drang of ABC’s poorly handled attempts to make Oscar relevant again, the Academy Award nominees across all categories are a wildly diverse set of films, ranging from populist favorites to critical darlings to, well, Vice. Although the seemingly daily tragicomical dithering about ceremony logistics has dominated the news, it’s the nominees themselves that have elicited contention and hand-wringing among serious awards-watchers.

Since the Best Picture field was widened from a possible five nominees to up to 10 nominees after The Dark Knight was snubbed in 2009, the reconfiguration has mostly seemed to have benefited on-the-cusp indies. Features such as  2017’s Lion and 2018’s Call Me by Your Name can score a spot on the shortlist for cinema’s biggest prize without ever having a realistic chance of winning. This expansion of the nominee pool notwithstanding, the Best Picture races in subsequent years have still featured either clear front-runners or neck-and-neck rivals.

This year, however, the case for the win could be made for any of the eight nominees. Roma is the critical favorite and the most nominated foreign-language film ever with 10 nods. It’s tied for the most nominations of 2019 with a film actually named The Favourite. A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody are unqualified box-office hits, the former headlined by a high-profile pop star and the latter about a deceased one. Black Panther is even more of a money-maker, being one of the highest-grossing Best Picture nominees ever. Green Book and BlacKkKlansman are hits on their own scales, and both check the “period piece” box Oscar voters seem to favor, although they’re catering to very different sectors within the Academy. Then there’s Vice, a film that didn’t find an audience or critical favor, but feels engineered to win over Oscar voters. So far, it’s worked, pulling in copious “pre-Oscar” awards nominations, as well as wins for star Christian Bale at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards.

After the ceremony airs this Sunday and the awards-season hangover clears, the 2019 Best Picture hopefuls will be the group of nominees most worth dissecting, in terms of reflecting contemporary politics and culture -- much like the 1968 lineup Mark Harris used as a jumping-off point for his seminal book on New Hollywood, Pictures at a Revolution. The comparison between 2019 and 1968 even goes beyond zeitgeist-tapping and into the divergent quality of the films selected for Best Picture for both years, with the 1968 group also featuring future classics (In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate), misguided Important Pictures (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), pop trailblazers (Bonnie and Clyde), and one of the worst-ever films to be slotted for the big prize (Doctor Dolittle). The parallels to 2019 can be found below in ascending order of quality, from (spoiler alert) a bad Queen biopic to a bad-queen “biopic.”

8. Bohemian Rhapsody

What’s the most offensive thing about this castrated biopic of everyone’s favorite anthemic pop-rock band, Queen, and its frontman, Freddie Mercury? Is it the hackneyed scripting? The piecemeal editing (see: now viral establishing shots of chairs), likely attributable to the film’s troubled production? Is it the flashy yet empty direction that attempts to seduce the viewer into believing they’re watching a film and not an overlong Behind the Music installment? Is it the most praised aspect of the film, Rami Malek’s lead performance, which looks and sounds like an audition for a Batman villain Bane prequel, complete with inane vocal tics, facial obstruction (those exaggerated teeth!), and dead-behind-the-eyes blankness? Or is it the fact that the film’s persona non grata director sublimates his own disgusting worldview by equating Mercury’s queer identity with his ultimate downfall? For all of these reasons and more, Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the most deplorable Hollywood products in recent memory.

7. Green Book

Director Peter Farrelly attempts to “heal the wounds” of a divided America, but instead tips his hand at his own white-liberal ignorance. Green Book is not only an old-fashioned, treacly, and moldy vision of the past, but it’s also capably made and performed, which makes its existence all the more insidious. This wolf in sheep’s clothing chooses to tell the story of black classical pianist Don Shirley Jr.’s (Mahershala Ali) trip across the Jim Crow South through the eyes of his racist (and racially stereotyped) white driver, Tony (Viggo Mortensen as a Mario Brother). The perspective is certainly a problem, but the logical dissonance in endearing the two to each other without truly addressing the black experience, the queer experience, or the black queer experience is simply appalling.

6. Vice

Of the three bad Drunk History episodes featured on this list, Vice is the least offensive, but its existence is the most baffling. This overblown and undercooked screed against former VP Dick Cheney and the heedless quest for power in the American political system fails to be particularly funny or thought-provoking, especially when director and screenwriter Adam McKay haphazardly employs the same distancing didacticism he used in his somewhat better The Big Short (2015). His purpose may be to illuminate the present by exploring the horrors of a not-so-distant past, but the real show is witnessing the steady parade of SNL-level impersonations by Hollywood stars, ranking from a pound-packed Christian Bale doing his best talking-from-the-side-of-his-mouth mimicry to an embarrassing Tyler Perry as Colin Powell.

5. A Star Is Born

What’s most disappointing about actor Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is that it eventually falls so deep into the, ahem, shallow that it thuddingly grounds what soared in its first act. Of course, Ally’s (Lady Gaga) rise to fame with the help of her rock-star lover, Jackson (Cooper), was bound to be more intoxicating than the inevitable downfall, but who knew the new director was capable of making his audience so drunk in love during the film’s first half? Later rote mechanics and questionable gender politics aside, A Star Is Born is nevertheless fueled by Gaga and Cooper’s palpable chemistry, with the latter giving his best performance yet. (Read the Lens review here.)

4. Roma

A silver-screen experience unlike any other from 2018, the virtues of Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white panorama Roma have already been litigated at length here at the Lens. This 1970s Mexico City memory palace is intricately devised, but the purpose of its cinematic brawn and the rift between its stoic perspective and heartstring-tugging turns remain curious. Alternatively transportative – its beach-scene climax is truly stunning and possibly the key to unlocking its mysteries – and dull – the camera moves left, the camera moves right, continue – Roma is respectable film-school fodder for the ages. (Read the Lens review here.)

3. BlacKkKlansman

As brash as its maker, Spike Lee’s exhilarating BlacKkKlansman finds the provocateur back in popcorn mode after more than a decade in the indie wilderness. His last foray into blockbuster territory, bank heist-cum-American capitalism missive Inside Man (2006), was far more subtle and subversive in exploring societal imbalances in the United States, while this tale of a black cop (John David Washington) who infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan during the 1970s foregrounds polemics over Hollywood product. Lee does get bogged down in his own confused politics, with some hotly contested choices working (the Charleston coda) and other oddball moves (Alec Baldwin prologue) reeking of nose-thumbing condescension. What’s in between, however, nearly approaches the best filmmaking of Lee’s career.

2. Black Panther

Black Panther is, in fact, as revolutionary as its rabid fandom would have it. Not only does the Marvel film finally give black filmmakers an opportunity to fully realize a black superhero on the same scale white superheros have been afforded, but the very conditions that prevented its far-too-delayed realization are also built into the film’s narrative. To that end, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) fight not only a physical war but also an ideological one that challenges each to reckon with their black identities and the sovereignty of Wakanda. This shimmery lightning bolt is a righteous revisionist superhero film unfortunately too tied to its MCU roots. Marvel’s peculiar house style of waxy over-digitization and pre-visualization prevents director Ryan Coogler from transcending the genre, but hopefully its success means that the future Coogler-helmed sequel will be an even bigger game-changer than this one. Wakanda forever, indeed. (Read the Lens review here.)

1. The Favourite

If Vice is a complete miscalculation regarding the dangers of power, then Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite thankfully gets the formula right. Luring the viewer into its wicked pomp and circumstance with gloriously ostentatious execution, Lanthimos points his jaundiced vision to the erratic and gouty Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her entitled right hand Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), scheming social climber Abigail (Emma Stone), and their constantly-in-flux carousel of sex and power. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is also bitingly funny and particularly succinct in realizing what drives the human psyche: “I like when she puts her tongue in me.” The film’s ribald and rollicking unfurling – perfectly encapsulated by its top IMDb plot keywords, including “throwing blood oranges at someone,” “dragged by a horse,” “hand job,” “female nudity,” and “wig” – are reasons The Favourite will remain meme-able and quotable after the 2019 awards-season dust settles. However, its deserved crowning as an instant classic is shored up in its unabashed queerness and in the negotiations its women characters make to balance love, trust, and pain.

The 2019 Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. CST on ABC.

Tags: Ranked Joshua Ray