A still from 'The House with a Clock in Its Walls'.
September 21, 2018
By Joshua Ray

If These Walls Could Tock

2018 / USA / 104 min. / Dir. by Eli Roth / Opens in wide release on Sept. 21, 2018

Eli Roth’s directing credit follows soon after Steven Spielberg's Amblin Studio logo, and it comes as the first surprise of the YA horror-novel adaptation The House with a Clock in Its Walls. The director’s debut feature, Cabin Fever (2002), is one of the goriest works of the new millennium, rendering leg-shaving a traumatic ordeal for viewers, much as Psycho (1960) did for shower-taking. He followed up his first film with the torture-porn “classics” Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2007) and hasn’t relented on the blood-letting since, including remaking the revenge saga Death Wish earlier this year. What horrors would Roth now present to House’s theoretical audience of children and families?

Always capable behind the camera, Roth makes films that are rarely dull but also rarely politically or thematically cogent. Cabin Fever hinted at a parable about the AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s. The filmmaker used one of that decade’s favorite horror tropes – sexually active young people meeting their ends deep in the woods – as a jumping-off point to explore mass hysteria and the increasing divide between the urban and rural United States. As with the Hostel films and the W. Bush-era American exceptionalism and jingoism that Roth attempted to satirize with those features, Cabin Fever ultimately falls short in producing any interesting ideas with respect to its real-world parallels.

Accordingly, in adapting John Bellairs’ book of the same name, one would be rightfully leery about what Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke might smuggle into this family frightfest. Whether inherent in its source or not, The House with a Clock in Its Walls has coherent and surprisingly heartfelt ideas about trauma, loss, and the ways that human communities process such experiences. It achieves this while also being a mostly delightful, minor-sized gothic mystery complete with seed-spewing possessed pumpkins, a topiary lion with a case of leaf-induced irritable bowel syndrome, and Cate Blanchett and Jack Black as an unlikely pair of platonic partners. 

As Lewis Barnavelt, young actor Owen Vaccaro gets an opportunity to be a film’s focal point and exhibit a wide range of emotions after playing one of the Daddy’s Home (2016) children opposite Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Lewis oscillates between grief and wonder as the newly orphaned nerd moves into the ornately spooky mansion his tightly wound uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), inherited from an old magic partner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). After noticing the stained-glass windows moving and his uncle ax-chopping at the walls (with a fun visual nod to The Shining [1980]) in search of some mysterious ticking, Lewis forces Jonathan and his stately yet somehow still-bumbling next-door neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) to come out as magic-makers

Under the tutelage of Florence and Jonathan, Lewis begins to cast his own spells with only minor misfires. The filmmakers mostly avoid the puberty allegory – a la Spider-man learning to shoot webs – instead using the magic as a way for the young warlock (“boy witch,” as Lewis keeps telling his uncle as if to puncture through fragile masculinity) to work through his grief and form a new family unit with the elder dark-arts-doers. Being the new kid in town, he has to contend with his share of bullying from schoolmates, but when he attempts to show off his nascent skills to a potential friend, Tarby (Sunny Suljic), he inadvertently awakens Izard, the recently deceased mechanic of the titular timepiece, causing pure hell to break loose. 

The post-World War II milieu of the fictional town of New Zebedee, Mich. enriches the film’s already-present ideas of trauma, collective and personal. Indeed, all the characters within this narrative are either sublimating their loss or displacing their shock. Izard created the clock after time spent in wartorn Germany. The mysterious ticking presence is actually a doomsday device, as it turns out, and obliterating the human race entirely is his personal reaction to the horrors witnessed in fighting the Nazis. After losing her family, Florence’s magical purpose is misplaced – often creating havoc for Lewis and Jonathan – but she self-actualizes as she finds new purpose in saving humanity. Jonathan is looking to reverse the wrong-doing his deceased cohort created after the two separated ways. Although he still has a proverbial hole in his heart from their personal and professional split, he gains confidence and rebuilds his spirit as he teaches Lewis. 

The heavy-handed material isn’t handled quite as deftly as the cultural critiques in the supreme Paddington films, but House is closer to the light-touch spirit of those film than such dramatic currents might suggest. Blanchett relishes the opportunity to elicit the laughs Ocean’s 8 (2018) didn’t allow. Her screwball abilities are showcased in her character’s magical misfires and in scenes of Jonathan and Florence bickering like a long-married couple who’ve spent way too much time together. Here, Black is more than serviceable, but elsewhere his hammy performance undermines the grandiosity that would credibly provoke the awe and wonder that Vaccaro displays. Black is often one-upped by his relatively inexperienced co-star in terms of comedic delivery.

Roth’s film is in tune with vintage Disney-produced dark fantasies like Watcher in the Woods (1980) and Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), and the director takes the opportunity to induce nightmares in his youngest viewers – just as those films did for their contemporary audiences. Kid-sized jump-scares like a springing cuckoo from a clock abound, and Roth even wrings some dread from set-pieces like a room full of re-animated evil dolls. Largely due to the overstuffed production design Roth is committed to showcasing, his direction overall lacks clock-like precision. To that end, the film’s final act is a mess of poor action directing – experience Roth admittedly lacks. It does, however, give viewers the opportunity to see Blanchett head-butt a pumpkin, and it’s moments like this that make The House with a Clock in Its Walls a worthy entry in the children’s chiller canon. 

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Lizzie'.
September 20, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Knick Knack Daddy Whack

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Craig William Macneill / Opened in select cities on Sept. 14, 2018; locally on Sept. 21, 2018

Director Craig William Macneill’s Gilded Age true-crime thriller Lizzie assumes the stance common to most mainstream historical accounts and dramatic depictions of Lizzie Borden. Namely, it takes as a given that Lizzie hacked to death with a hatchet both father Andrew Borden and stepmother Abby Borden (née Gray) at the family’s Fall River, Mass., home on the morning of Aug. 4, 1892. Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass don’t offer some convoluted alternative theory of the crime, at least with respect to the most fundamental questions of who, what, when, and where. In the filmmakers’ conception, Lizzie Borden was absolutely the whack-happy murderess that many biographies and a children’s folk rhyme have long insisted. (In contrast, author Frank Spiering proposed that Lizzie’s older sister, Emma, had a window of opportunity to commit the slayings, a theory that requires her to be dashing implausibly through the events of that late summer day, like Ferris Bueller scrambling to get back into bed before his parents return home.)

Having accepted the conventional historical wisdom vis-à-vis Lizzie’s guilt, Macneill’s film is primarily concerned with the why of the crime. On that score, the approach that Lizzie takes is a kitchen-sink one. The sensationalistic centerpiece of the film is a furtive lesbian tryst between Lizzie and the Bordens’ Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan – a baseless bit of speculation that appears to have originated with crime author Ed McBain’s 1984 novel Lizzie. However, the necessity of keeping this relationship secret is but one of the motives that drives this cinematic incarnation of Lizzie over a homicidal cliff. Macneill’s feature piles all the burdens, injustices, and humiliations of being a late-19th-century woman onto Lizzie’s shoulders, and then watches in glassy horror as she grows to regard the grisly murder of her own family as the most sensible egress from her intolerable situation.

Lizzie, then, is something of a revisionist feminist reimagining of the crime, one that regards its titular hatchet-wielder as a stand-in for all abused, marginalized, and de-humanized American women, past and present. This ambition unfortunately doesn’t quite match up with the film’s characterization of Lizzie, who, as portrayed by Chloë Sevigny, possesses a calculating inscrutability that clashes a bit with her ostensible ur-victimhood. Both approaches – the anti-heroic feminist fable and the ambiguous character study – are arguably meritorious, but they co-exist awkwardly when crammed into the same feature. This sort of unfocused storytelling is a recurring stumbling block for Lizzie. McNeill’s feature turns one of America’s many Crimes of the Century into a drab, ponderous melodrama-cum-legal thriller, circling back again and again to the same fateful August day to no discernible end, either dramatically or thematically.

Indeed, the film’s looping structure – while superficially the most novel aspect of Kass’ screenplay – turns out to be its most conspicuous weakness. The feature opens in the immediate aftermath of the murders, as a photographer captures the ghastly details of the crime scene and constables question a visibly dazed and detached Lizzie (Sevigny). As the story skips forward through the investigation and Lizzie’s ensuing arrest, trial, and acquittal, it also flashes back to some six months prior, and then repeatedly to the morning of the murders. Each time Lizzie revisits the events of Aug. 4, 1892, it reveals additional details about how the filmmakers imagine the crime might have been committed. The aim is obvious: In theory, this chopped-up structure allows them to conjure an aura of snaking mystery around a relatively well-known historical incident. In practice, it mostly just feels like a cheap and pointless way to squeeze some Rashomon-lite curlicues into an otherwise blunt tale of murder most foul.

A more straightforward chronological narrative – one that condensed the aftermath of the crime to a brief coda – might have been more successful, given that Lizzie is at its best in the long, doom-drenched flashback that leads up to the titular character’s bloody ax work. Here the film benefits from Macneill’s almost gothic approach to the material, which eschews more heavy-handed, allusive foreshadowing in favor of pure mood: a dire, suffocating atmosphere of entrapment that portends inevitable ruin. Unmarried adult sisters Lizzie and Emma (Kim Dickens) dwell with irritable, miserly father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and puckered stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) in a roomy but draughty New England house. A self-made capitalist with interests in textiles, furniture, and property development, Lizzie’s father has elbowed his way into the city’s new-money elite, but he still clings to his class resentments and a kind of performative frugality. (Refusing, for example, to upgrade the family home with electric or even gas lighting, insisting that candles be used.)

Andrew’s rancorous pride often clashes with Lizzie’s determination to do as she damn well pleases, but the antipathy between father and daughter runs deeper than a mere personality conflict. Everything about her father repulses Lizzie, from his callous business practices to his marriage – after the death of Lizzie’s own mother – to a woman whom she regards as a gold-digger. For his part, Andrew is plainly threatened by Lizzie’s intelligence and independence, and he leaps at every opportunity to belittle her and arbitrarily assert his dominance over her comings-and-goings.

In the months preceding the murders, the already-tense Borden household is sent into a slow tailspin by the arrival of the new live-in maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), a demure young Irish immigrant whom Mr. and Mrs. Borden condescendingly re-christen “Maggie.” Andrew immediately sets his lecherous eye on Bridget, and his nocturnal visits to her attic room are plainly heard (and studiously ignored) by the other members of the household. These sexual assaults only deepen Lizzie’s loathing of her father, but they also push her closer to Bridget, who responds to the other woman’s freely given courtesy, warmth, and frankness. It soon becomes apparent that there is an intense, ineffable erotic spark between the women, which in turn only amplifies Lizzie’s icy rage toward her father.

Her discontent reaches a breaking point when her stepmother’s oily brother, John Morse (Denis O’Hare), appears on the Bordens’ doorstep. Lizzie overhears her father’s intention to name John his primary heir, on the condition that he provide for his spinster step-nieces after Andrew and Anny pass on. To have no say in her rightful inheritance is galling to Lizzie, but to be under the thumb of “Uncle John” – a failed horse trader who, it is implied, molested her as a child – would be an outright horror show. And so, hemmed in on all sides by detestable family members and Gilded Age conventions, Lizzie begins to formulate a bloody plan of liberation, drawing Bridget into her scheme with a disquieting combination of romantic and classist cajoling.

There is, admittedly, plenty to admire in Lizzie, starting with Sevigny’s excellent performance, a marvelous mélange of boldness, wariness, vehemence, and droll contempt that hints at her character’s ahead-of-her-time personality. Kass’ dialogue isn’t especially accomplished, with the conspicuous exception of the low-key insults that Sevigny spits out like vinegar candy, as though her Lizzie were a Jane Austen heroine who had been drained of all sparkle and self-amusement. Underneath her “modern American lady” demeanor, however, is something strange and unfathomable, a murmur of psychopathic blankness. It reveals itself at the uncanny intersection between Lizzie’s calm disposal of blood-spattered evidence on one hand, and her frenzied hacking into the ruined pulp of her father and stepmother’s bodies on the other. It is glimpsed, memorably but briefly, when her uncle visits her jail cell during the trial: Dismissing John’s attempts to threaten her, Lizzie reminds him with a menacing twinkle that he is alone in a locked room with an accused hatchet-murderer.

Visually and aurally, Lizzie is most memorable when it leans into its horror inclinations, repurposing the elements of the gothic into a sort of gloomy, Puritan riff on Edith Wharton. In particular, the chilling sound design and the unnerving score by Jeff Russo (Fargo [2014-17]; The Night Of [2016]) establish a mood that can only be described as brittle; one senses the setting’s upper-crust New England formality veritably quivering with pent-up calamity and violence. At one point, the thunderous clamor of a black, horse-drawn carriage appearing out of the night gives Lizzie a jump-scare, in a moment that recalls turn-of-the-millennium gothics like Interview with the Vampire (1994), Mary Reilly (1996), and From Hell (2001). Elsewhere the film’s tone is more uncanny, adopting a flat surrealism that evokes horror-adjacent European directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos, Lars von Trier, and Michael Haneke. In a bracing sequence that brings to mind the latter filmmaker, Macneill slowly pans around Abby Borden’s sunlit bedroom to reveal Lizzie standing silently in the corner, completely nude and hatchet in hand.

Aside from these vivid stylistic components and Sevigny’s intricate lead performance, Lizzie doesn’t do much to distinguish itself, either as a morbid slice of feminist mythmaking or as a brooding work of psychological portraiture. The film is, ultimately, a substantial but somewhat flavorless serving of true-crime sordidness, served up with arthouse trimmings but not much inspiration or imagination. Neither Macneill nor Kass bother to develop the film’s themes except in the most literal-minded, clunky manner. For example, while a queer romantic infatuation drives the plot (in part), the film offers no insights or observations regarding what it means to be a lesbian in late-19th-century America. Lizzie and Bridget’s relationship is simply there, one of many cogs slowly moving Borden into position to fulfill her gruesome destiny. Other potentially intriguing aspects of the story, such as Lizzie’s epilepsy and panic attacks, are simply abandoned when it’s determined that they are not germane to the stale domestic, criminal, and courtroom drama. The film’s more evocative formal gestures and senseless structural trickery mainly serve to highlight the flat-footed ordinariness of Lizzie’s story, which – given the extraordinary historical facts and mysteries that undergird it – feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'White Boy Rick'.
September 14, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Crime Doesn't Pay

2018 / United States / 110 min. / Dir. by Yann Demange / Opens in wide release on Sept. 14, 2018

When Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) begins peddling dope on the streets of Detroit, Mich., he’s a mere 15 years old. He’s doing so at the behest of a pair of FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) and a local cop (Brian Tyree Henry), three officials who recognize the young man’s charisma and Zelig-like social adaptability. They utilize those natural charms as part of a grand scheme to crack down on a trail of corruption leading straight to the top of the local government. By the time he’s 18 years old, “White Boy Rick” – as he’s named by his drug-dealing cohorts – has survived a bullet to the gut, become one of the state’s biggest narcotics kingpins, and is about to begin a life sentence in a federal penitentiary, leaving behind his newborn baby.

Strictly speaking, these are not spoilers for White Boy Rick, as director Yann Demange’s new film is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr., a figure notable for having been slapped with the longest sentence ever handed down for a non-violent crime in his home state. Screenwriters Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller – the latter identical twin brothers – structure their dramatization around people who seek to manipulate and support Rick. Richard Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) is a charismatic but down-on-his-luck arms dealer, a man who haggles over the price of fake AK-47s at a gun show only to turn around and sell them with his custom silencers at a steep markup. Wershe Sr. professes to bootstrapping ideals about supporting his immediate family – his elderly father (Bruce Dern) and mother (Piper Laurie), as well as his drug-addicted daughter, Dawn (Bel Powley) – but, against his better fatherly judgment, he still involves his son in the day-to-day details of his criminal enterprise.

Although Rich’s father puts his foot down about his son getting involved with the government authorities, the wide-eyed youngster is attracted like a moth to the flame that is a luxurious life in the drug underground. He rather easily gets “in” with the local operation, run by the Curry family. The eldest brother and leader of the group, Johnny “Lil Man” (Jonathan Majors), bestows Rick with his titular nickname. The volatile and violent Johnny becomes Rick’s main adversary in the three-plus years that this film spans, covering Rick’s quick ascension into notoriety and wealth, donning furs and keeping rolls of cash under his twin-size bed at his father’s house. His descent is even quicker: Years after the FBI stopped working with Rick, they elect to double-cross him, ultimately landing the 17-year-old in prison. 

If these narrative plot points feel familiar, it’s less likely because of the newsworthiness of the tale and more likely due to the film’s reverence for its genre. The film is so indebted to the many “based on a true story” crime sagas that came before it – Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), Ted Demme’s Blow (2001), and even David O’Russell’s irreverent American Hustle (2013) – that its remix of borrowed ideas means it only trembles in its forebears’ shadows. 

Even attempting to skim the surface of issues within the genre and the societies such films typically depict doesn’t elevate the proceedings. Rick adopts African-American Vernacular English and black style in order to fit in, but the film is content to merely depict this act of cultural appropriation instead of mining it for thematic substance. Illustrating the government-sponsored introduction of crack into drug-embattled neighborhoods is about as far as the film is willing to delve into government corruption and the oppression of people of color. The celebration of excess and the inevitable downfall of those who participate in it aren't even that enticing here. 

What White Boy Rick lacks in brains and brawn, it makes up for in humanity via its performers. As the junior Wesche, Meritt is a minor revelation in his screen debut: charming when his roleplaying requires it and equal parts reserved and playful in his more natural persona. His final scene with his major sparring partner, McConaughey, is the finest for actors in this film – masculine posturing incited by unstoppable regret and disappointment. In the past few years, McConaughey has been upending his swaggering persona, eventually winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of a renegade AIDS-medication peddler in Dallas Buyers Club (2013). Here, the subversion is still present but in a lower register, making this performance less of a stunt and more a well-rounded screen character. 

Any film with Laurie and Dern as an aged married couple is virtually guaranteed to be elevated by their presence, and White Boy Rick doesn’t fail there. They, along with Henry, Powley, and Eddie Marsan, are able to deliver moments of levity that do more to move the film forward than does its rote, plodding story. Based on his direction of this superb cast of veteran character actors and fresh-faced newcomers, as well as the film’s infrequent formal flourishes, it’s probable that Demange, who made the notable ‘71 (2014), has more memorable work in his future. White Boy Rick, however, is purely forgettable.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'A Simple Favor'.
September 13, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Lady Vanishes

2018 / USA / 117 min. / Dir. by Paul Feig / Opens in wide release Sept. 14, 2018

A Simple Favor is a weird film, tonally speaking. It’s not the first foray into more bloody-minded fare for comedy-inclined director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids [2011]; Spy [2015]; Ghostbusters [2016]). Before breaking out as one of the 2010s’ few mainstream comedy filmmakers with name recognition, Feig was a television director for series ranging from his own creation Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) to the U.S. version of The Office (2005-13). Most salient to his newest film, however, are his stints helming the Showtime series Weeds (2005-12) and Nurse Jackie (2009-15), both of which could be described as character studies with dark-comedy flavoring, built on the framework of well-worn genres (the narco thriller and the hospital drama, respectively).

Feig’s latest feature isn’t exactly comparable to his work on those acclaimed shows. A Simple Favor is at its most successful when it’s foremost a rat-a-tat dark comedy and only secondarily a character piece or twisty noir. Still, the point stands that the director has a proven facility for maintaining a tricky, gestalt tone. On a more high-concept level, Feig has previously used varying tactics to blend comedy with flashier, bigger-budget stripes of entertainments. Spy approaches its cloak-and-dagger elements playfully but earnestly – it’s a solid 007-style actioner that just happens to also be a gut-busting satire – while Ghostbusters is essentially a big-hearted gal-pal comedy that takes place in a cartoonish sci-fi universe.

A Simple Favor represents yet another approach, one that is enticing in concept but decidedly strange in the execution. At the plot level, the film is a nasty, corkscrewing domestic noir, the sort replete with fakeouts, frame-ups, and double-crosses. Sketched out on paper in its entirety, the story looks an awful lot like one of Alfred Hitchcock’s seedier “criminal mischief” films (Shadow of a Doubt [1943]; Strangers on a Train [1951]; Dial M for Murder [1954]; Marnie [1964]). There’s also more than a dollop of trashy, early 1990s thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and Single White Female (1992).

What’s eccentric about A Simple Favor, however, is that this mystery plot takes place in the broad, R-rated reality that is now a mainstay of 21st-century multiplex comedies. Unlike Spy, Feig’s latest is emphatically not a satire, although it does have a touch of smug genre self-awareness. (“Are you Diabolique-ing me?” a character indignantly demands at one point.) The deceptions, betrayals, and murders that stud A Simple Favor are presented with mortal seriousness, but the characters’ reactions to the sordidness and violence around them are routinely sitcom-glib. It’s a novel approach, one adjacent to that of Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) and Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), but distinctly pricklier and frostier. Unfortunately, Feig doesn’t blend the wisecracking and the bloody betrayals together as seamlessly as the aforementioned filmmakers; A Simple Favor sometimes shudders as its gears audibly change.

Which isn’t to say that the film is a failure. Far from it: A Simple Favor is a semi-precious gem of a film, the sort of stylish, grownup mystery that’s somewhat out of fashion in Hollywood these days. It’s a feature that enthusiastically embraces the red-meat elements of the genre, from the suspicious life-insurance policy to the pearl-handled pistol secreted inside a purse. A Simple Favor is also very much a star vehicle, in the sense that one cannot envision the film being even remotely as enjoyable with different lead actors. Not to diminish Feig’s direction or screenwriter Jessica’s Sharzer’s razor-sharp dialogue, but the success of the film hinges on two flawless casting choices.

The first is Anna Kendrick in the role of heroine Stephanie Smothers, a widowed “mommy vlogger” who streams how-to videos on gluten-free brownies and friendship bracelets from her immaculate kitchen in suburban Connecticut. Enthusiastic and Instagram-perfect, Stephanie is the sort of chirpy, somewhat dorky Type A character at which Kendrick excels. A Simple Favor exploits this seeming typecasting to slowly reveal the darker smudges in Stephanie’s persona, allowing Kendrick to stretch in ways she hasn’t since her early turn as overachieving adolescent shark Ginny in Rocket Science (2007).

The film’s other casting masterstroke is Blake Lively as Stephanie’s new “mom friend” Emily Nelson, a deliriously chic, acid-tongued blond goddess who works in NYC as a publicist for a narcissistic perfume and fashion mogul (Rupert Friend). Lively has transmuted herself into one of Hollywood’s more intriguing under-40 actresses in recent years, repurposing her lithe physicality and numinous California Girl aura in an idiosyncratic string of films (Savages [2012]; The Age of Adaline [2015]; The Shallows [2016]) since her tenure on the CW’s Gossip Girl ended in 2012. A Simple Favor provides her with the opportunity to go full femme fatale, strutting about in a succession of jaw-dropping outfits while exuding a magnetic, sinister inscrutability.

Obliged to socialize when it’s discovered that Stephanie’s 5-year-old son Miles (Joshua Satin) is friends with Emily’s son Nicky (Ian Ho), the women quickly establish an unlikely bond over gin martinis and uncensored girl talk. Truth be told, Stephanie is more than a little envious of Emily’s lifestyle: her expensive modernist home, her impossibly fashionable wardrobe, her high-powered career in the city, and her hunky novelist-cum-professor husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding). Most of all, Stephanie envies Emily’s aggression, frankness, and refusal to apologize for anything. The women are similar in some respects – both are outgoing and self-assured in their way – but also high-contrast opposites, like living personifications of the dishonest Supermom vs. Career Bitch binary sold to many middle-class women.

One day Emily calls Stephanie to ask for a favor: Sean is in the U.K. visiting his bedridden mother, so could she please pick up Nicky after school and watch him for a while, just until Emily can put out some fires at work? Stephanie agrees, of course, but as the evening rolls on with nary a call or text from Emily, it’s apparent that something is amiss. Soon Sean is rushing back home to file a missing-person report with the police, whose initial suspicion is that Emily has fled into the arms of another man. Stephanie has her doubts about this, so she repurposes her vlog for a “Find Emily” campaign, using her subscribers to create a nationwide dragnet for tips on her friend’s whereabouts.

Privately, however, things start to get a little hinky, as Stephanie smoothly assumes the roles of surrogate mom to Nicky and consoling friend – perhaps more than a friend – to the distraught Sean. Soon enough she’s preparing picture-perfect meals for them in Emily’s stunning kitchen and giddily rifling through the countless outfits in Emily’s cavernous walk-in closet. Eventually, Sean receives the news that he was fearing: A car rented in Emily’s name has been found at the bottom of a lake, along with a fish-nibbled corpse. In the eyes of the genial, Columbo-esque police detective (Bashir Salahuddin) who keeps dropping by, Stephanie’s eager, perhaps unconscious colonization of Emily’s life now looks especially suspicious. However, what truly throws a monkey wrench into Stephanie’s nascent domestic bliss with Sean is Nicky’s bizarre claim that he recently spoke to his mom on the playground at his school. Is Emily truly gone? Given that Lively is only onscreen for about 30 minutes before vanishing from the film, despite receiving second billing, the answer seems obvious, although the film has far more twists up its sleeve than a mere character-death fakeout.

None of those twists are exactly original, however, and several of them are at once tediously predictable and downright soap-opera ludicrous. A Simple Favor is an archetypal example of a film with a trite, trashy thriller plot that still manages to be exceedingly enjoyable. It’s not so much a guilty pleasure as a “Why Not?” experiment, as though Feig melted down Laura (1944) and decanted it into the Bridesmaids mold just to see what would happen. With the exception of Lively’s lusciously vulpine performance, the film doesn’t have the cheek to unabashedly revel in its own trashiness, preferring to simply look on in amusement as Emily’s illicit past is unearthed and the betrayals start to pile up to a dizzying height. Still, it’s plain that Feig is having a lot of fun, even if his direction never exudes the same drunken delight as Jefferson Sage’s spot-on production design or Renne Ehrlich Kalfus’ absolutely stellar costumes.

For all its salacious skullduggery, A Simple Favor is more of a black comedy than a sensual psychological thriller. As the film’s alluring Woman in Trouble, Lively leaves a scorching erotic trail through the film, but she also holds her own in witty banter with her co-star, often deliberately stepping on Kendrick’s lines in a languorous and faintly menacing way. Kendrick, however, is the film’s MVP, delivering a marvelously exacting performance. As usual, she shines in the mode one might term “clumsy romcom heroine,” which obliges her to elicit schlimazel pathos without losing her sexy sparkle. Here, however, she punctuates Stephanie’s perky energy with self-effacing jokes and nervous demurrals to suggest murky depths. A less sophisticated performer might have implied simmering resentments, but Kendrick renders her character’s secret side as active rather than reactive — a cunning bird of prey, its eyes glittering with lust and avarice. As Emily’s guileless husband, Golding is his usual bland, dreamy self, which winds up being an asset in a film that is overwhelmingly focused on the personalities of its leads.

Apart from Kendrick and Lively, the film’s principal strength is Sharzer’s excellent adaptation of Darcey Bell’s original novel. A Paul Feig joint can very easily descend into a shaggy hangout film, but Sharzer’s screenplay constrains the director in the best possible way, keeping the proceedings crackling along in fine noir fashion. That this is a 2018 studio comedy at heart rather than a classical throwback is apparent in some distinctly Feig-ish characters, particularly Linda Cardellini’s whiskey-chugging punk-rock artist and a Greek chorus of neighborhood parents (Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla) who serve up deadpan snark at the lurid misfortune unfolding around them.

Like all of Feig’s recent features, A Simple Favor is centered on women’s experiences, and it smuggles in some trenchant critiques of society’s unreasonable, no-win expectations for mothers, as well as the submissive social tics that women routinely adopt to navigate the patriarchy. (Stephanie’s inability to stop apologizing for herself is a running gag that becomes more caustic than charming as the film rolls on.) As in Gone Girl (2014), the film’s feminist ethos is debatably undercut by its amoral, scheming female characters, but A Simple Favor is ultimately much more of a juicy showcase for its lead actors than a fist-pumping celebration of womanhood. And rightly so, since no one learns lessons in a properly trashy noir: They just get more cynical or very dead.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Support the Girls'.
September 10, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Let's Hear It For the Girls

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

Andrew Bujalski hides his cinematic modus operandi inside a joke during the first act of Support the Girls. Lisa (Regina Hall), the general manager of a Hooters-like “boobs, bros, and beers” bar, Double Whammies, is conspiring with her right-hand woman and server, Danyelle (Shayna McHayle). Lisa talks Danyelle into flirting with an employee at a neighboring home-audio store so that the restaurant staff can borrow equipment for an ad hoc charity car wash they’re holding to benefit one of their number. The two women ask their target, Jay (John Elvis), for a home-theater demonstration as Danyelle, already reluctant about the mission, is forced to rebuff his not-so-sly sexual and romantic advances. The scene takes purposeful pause to show the demonstration video: fingers tinkling along the keys of grand piano, birds chirping in the early morning, drone shots of a majestic waterfall. Lisa stares at it blankly, repressing her judgment of the display’s empty grandiosity as the video's narrator expounds on the virtues and limitless potential of these images. 

For Bujalski, the purpose of cinema could not be more opposite. He’s the forefather of the “mumblecore” movement — a current of early-to-mid-aughts indie films that are filled with low-key performances and concerned with low-key life. Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002), along with Joe Swanberg’s Greta Gerwig-launching Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and the Duplass Brothers’ The Puffy Chair (2004), ushered in this the mini-genre. While those filmmakers have largely continued working in the same hushed vein, Bujalski moved outward into more experimental territory, making 2012’s Computer Chess, an Altman-esque sprawl shot on low-grade consumer home video. That was a supreme step forward, but now, Support the Girls is his crowning achievement. On its gleeful surface, it retains the low-stakes sitcom setup of the movement Buljaski helped to create. Roiling below that, though, the film contains deep reserves of humanity: moments of spiritual grace under pressure, moral and ethical consideration, and the purest expressions of understanding and platonic love. 

“Let’s go straight to number two,” suggests Maci (the apparently chameleonic Haley Lu Richardson), the superstar server with a permanent smile and a shining personality to match, skipping past the first work rule of “No Drama!” By the time Lisa and Maci welcome a group interview of potential new hires to their Texas bar and grill, the former has had a complete emotional meltdown in her car before discovering that a burglar is currently stuck in the restaurant’s air vents. It’s a workday-from-hell premise that doubles as a series of biblical tests of faith. The day is complicated further by Lisa mounting the car wash for Shaina (Jana Kramer), who has just run over her violent boyfriend, saddling her with the potential for a costly court case. Set almost entirely during this single day — save for a gorgeously wrought coda — Support the Girls works on a small scale to present a snapshot of the lives of these women.

Men are also ever-present, either orbiting the women as satellites or exerting a gravitational pull themselves, perpetuating and supporting a system that prevents the women from flying as high as they could. Support the Girls doesn’t shy away from exploring gender and sexual politics in America, but it is never pedantic or polemical about these topics. “Do they grab you?” asks one of the potential new hires early in the film, and although Support the Girls doesn’t have an answer to the problem of imposed masculine power, it deftly explores the intricacies of that power. Lisa proposes that their restaurant is wholesome and “mainstream,” while later Maci explains how she always smiles with her teeth slightly separated because it generates better tips. The women of Double Whammies are wading through complex waters: subject to the leering eyes and groping hands of men, while working out how to use such invasions to their benefit. 

With this, it’s hard not to think about Support the Girls in the context of American politics and the culture that propelled Donald Trump into the White House. In fact, the film is an impressively concise portrait of the United States during these turbulent times, as well as a celebration of the empathy and decisiveness required to navigate such an era. Besides taking place in one of the reddest of red states, the film is slyly ripe with overtones about race and sexuality. Orange Is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria plays the restaurant’s most loyal customer, the masculine-presenting lesbian Bobo, who near the end of the films starts a physical altercation in defense of the off-the-rails servers. 

Lisa, Danyelle, and Nika (Nicole Onyeje) are the only people of color working the front of the house. Danyelle makes a point that Lisa isn’t allowed to schedule her and Nika during the same shifts because the white conservative owner, played with smarmy machismo by James LeGros, forbids it. Lisa is forced to fire white server Krista (AJ Michalka) after she gets a tattoo of black basketball star Steph Curry on her side — and has to explain exactly why that’s an issue. The kitchen, however, is largely staffed by people of color. When Lisa identifies the cousin of her fry cook, Arturo, as the vent-trapped burglar, she asks him to resign, but acknowledges the day-to-day strife they endure by refusing to get the police involved. “I do my best to be generous,” she says, to which he replies, “You’re always generous.” She still asks him to finish his shift, however, given that she’s short-handed.

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

The cast is roundly magical, with supporting work from the likes of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Dylan Gelula, who portrays one of the more enterprising potential new hires with deadpan self-seriousness. At the center of the film, however, are three spectacularly alive performances: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, and Shayna McHayle (also known by her rapper stage name Junglepussy). Richardson is effervescent, radiating an energy completely opposite to her tremendous, more downplayed turn at the heart of kogonada’s Columbus (2017). McHayle’s strutting, gives-no-fucks attitude — walked back when it becomes necessary to give at least some — lends the film some of its finest moments of feminine clapbacks. And as everyone’s mother, best friend, boss, and mentor, Hall bests her Girls Trip (2017) performance, showcasing the role’s heartbreak and humor while doubling down on Lisa’s optimism and resignation. Her turn is an easy contender for the most magnetic of the year, and just one of the myriad reasons Support the Girls is one of the year’s best films. 

Rating: A

[Now available to rent via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Nun'.
September 6, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

A Bad Habit

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Corin Hardy / Opens in wide release on Sept. 7, 2018

One of the unlikelier developments in horror cinema during the 2010s has been the expansion of director James Wan’s musty ghost story The Conjuring (2013) into a full-fledged cinematic universe, complete with sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. Although Wan’s original feature boasts a couple of genuinely eerie set pieces, its critical and box-office success remain perplexing: Beyond its clumsy screenplay and derivative funhouse tricks, the film just isn’t that scary. The feature’s distasteful apologism for real-life demonologists and pseudo-religious fraudsters Lorraine and Ed Warren is another concern, but The Conjuring’s worst sin is fumbling the genre fundamentals. Since 2013, however, the underwhelming first film has spawned a more frightening sequel (The Conjuring 2 [2016]), a wretched spinoff about a demonic doll (Annabelle [2014]), and an unexpectedly gratifying prequel to the spinoff (Annabelle: Creation [2017]).

The latest chapter in this dubious franchise, The Nun, concerns a demonic entity that has been lurking around the periphery of the series, infesting the psychic visions of paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). Taking the form of an inhuman religious sister in a severe black-and-white habit, the unholy being Valak (Bonnie Aarons) taunted Lorraine in The Conjuring 2 with premonitions of her husband’s grisly death. In that film, Valak left an intensely unsettling impression, looming out of the shadows only rarely to flash its powder-white countenance, monstrous yellow eyes, and gaping maw of needle-like fangs. With The Nun, director Corin Hardy – working from a screenplay by Gary Dauberman, who also has a story credit alongside Wan – places this parochial-school devil front-and-center, and in the process banishes much of its shivery mystique. If nothing else, the new film is an illustration that well-received ancillary characters are sometimes best left on the sidelines, where their enigmatic presence can serve as an enduring source of horror.

Set in 1952, The Nun is the first film in the Conjuring franchise, chronologically speaking, but it isn’t really an origin story in the usual sense. (Presumably, the ageless Valak is at least old as Lucifer’s rebellion.) Hardy’s feature is the tale of Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, younger sister to Vera), a wide-eyed novitiate improbably tapped by the Vatican to assist “miracle hunter” Father Burke (Demián Bichir) with an investigation at a remote Romanian convent. One of the sisters at this imposing Gothic structure – loosely based on the real-world Cârța Monastery, a former Cistercian structure established in the 13th century – has recently committed suicide by hanging herself from the upper floors. Ostensibly, Sister Irene has been sent along to smooth Father Burke’s access to the religious sisters at Cârța, as they never venture outside the convent walls and are generally prohibited from interacting with men. In truth, it is Irene’s childhood visions of the Virgin Mary that seem to have piqued the Holy See’s interest and prompted them to send her on this grim mission.

The priest and novitiate journey to Romania and rendezvous with Maurice, nicknamed "Frenchie" (Jonas Bloquet), a suave French-Canadian émigré who delivers a weekly shipment of food and other staples to the convent, per a centuries-old agreement with the nearby village. It was he who first found the crow-pecked corpse of the hanged nun. Against his better instincts, Frenchie agrees to escort the newcomers, guiding them along mist-shrouded forest roads and through copses of wooden crosses to the convent’s door – where the stone steps are somehow still sticky with the dead sister’s blood, weeks after the fact. The remaining nuns are a virtual phantom presence: silent, flitting figures glimpsed as they peek through arched windows and disappear down candlelit hallways. In a vaulted antechamber, a black-veiled abbess (Lynnette Gaza) greets the visitors curtly and ominously, wheezing that they should return the following day if they wish to speak to the nuns.

By this point in the story, The Nun’s modest strengths and substantial weaknesses as a standalone work of supernatural horror are clear. In the positive column, director Hardy and production designer Jennifer Spence exploit the film’s rustic Romanian setting to fine, gloomy effect. This is Vlad Tepes country, after all, and Spence uses the natural resonance of the locales as a handy excuse to crank up the heady gothic atmosphere. This isn’t the neo-Technicolor madness of Crimson Peak (2015) or the damp period verisimilitude of the recent The Little Stranger, but something closer to the slightly heightened cinematic reality of black-and-white chillers like Dracula (1931), The Wolfman (1941), and Black Sabbath (1960). Admittedly, Hardy and Spence fudge the historical and regional details, often blatantly: There is a conspicuous absence of spoken and written Romanian in the film, and no sense that the country has recently been reborn as a Communist vassal to the Soviet Union. (Most implausibly, Jo Stafford croons “You Belong to Me” on the radio, which would make sense in the U.S. or U.K., but seems a doubtful late-night selection for a backwater Romanian station in 1952.) Ultimately, this sort of carelessness isn’t really a nagging concern, however, given that The Nun doesn’t take place in the real world, but in Movie Transylvania, where the Dark Ages roll on and the peasants still spit on the ground to avert the evil eye.

Unfortunately, this moldering Old World atmosphere is about all The Nun has going for it. The film’s original sins are structural: By the time that Sister Irene and Father Burke decamp in frustration to an outlying residence on the convent grounds, the viewer is two or three steps ahead of the protagonists. It’s glaringly obvious that the Cârța Monastery houses a monstrous evil, and that the Vatican’s envoys are in grave danger every moment that they remain at the convent. The audience can plainly see as much, even if the pious, dunderheaded heroes don’t. Eventually, a Sister Oana (Ingrid Bisu) furtively confides in Irene, revealing that the sisters of Cârța are charged with keeping the demon prince of snakes, Valak, in check through a centuries-long prayer vigil. The specifics hardly matter, however. The experience of The Nun is drearily consistent: Sister Irene and Father Burke wander around the convent and are terrorized by Valak’s over-the-top, phantasmagorical head games, to no discernable purpose. Lather, rinse, repeat. The jump-scares are dispensed with a kind of clockwork disregard for the broader drama or stakes; like sugary morsels of adrenaline, they’re momentarily titillating but ultimately unsatisfying. When the film eventually lurches into its climactic confrontation, it seems to do so simply because Hardy has grown bored with the characters falling into Valak’s clutches by repeatedly chasing taunting phantoms down shadowy corridors.

The film’s confused world-building does nothing to diminish the dreariness of these hackneyed haunted-house antics. Apart from the crumbling gothic ambiance, The Nun’s most appealing aspect is the go-for-broke nightmarishness of Valak’s methods. In their best moments, the demon’s sadistic games echo Wes Craven’s work when he was at the top of his creepshow game (e.g., A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors [1987]; The Serpent and the Rainbow [1988]). Unfortunately, Hardy commits early to the notion that Valak can affect the actual physical world with his Satanic powers. This leads to all sorts of logical conundrums that might have otherwise been hand-waved away if the demon lord were simply bedeviling his victims with vivid hallucinations. Time and space evidently mean nothing to the nigh-omnipotent Valak, so why doesn’t he simply slay the meddling priest and novitiate with a gout of hellfire or an infernal serpent the size of a school bus? In a different, more elegant horror feature – or a more relentlessly bonkers one – these sort of bothersome questions wouldn’t have room to sprout, but The Nun is so dully familiar that the viewer is inclined to pick at the plot holes out of sheer boredom.

The film is largely devoid of originality, preferring to flaccidly crib from a few decades’ worth of supernatural-horror features, from Poltergeist (1982) to Evil Dead II (1987) to The Exorcist (1973) and all its markedly less-accomplished progeny. Isolated flashbacks hint at a reasonably rich yet unexplored occult backstory for The Nun, a pulpy saga of holy relics, vengeful crusaders, and Devil-worshipping Slavic nobles. Such dark medieval fantasy isn’t a perfect tonal fit with the Conjuring universe – it feels more like the stuff of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics or Andrezj Sapkowski’s Witcher novels – but it points to fare that is potentially more stimulating than the monotonous fight-or-flight shocks that now prevail in slack mainstream horror entries like The Nun.

Rating: C-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'What Keeps You Alive'.
September 5, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

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

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

Elizabeth Harvest 

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. By Sebastian Gutierrez / Premiered online on Aug. 10, 2018

Venezuelan writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez administers a bracing dose of razor-edged style with his latest feature, the sci-fi horror mind-bender Elizabeth Harvest. The impossibly statuesque Abby Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Neon Demon) portrays Elizabeth, freshly married to the much older Henry (Ciarán Hinds), a wealthy, Nobel-winning geneticist. Sequestered in her new husband’s high-tech mansion, Elizabeth is restless and uneasy, a state exacerbated by the awkward, suspicious behavior of housekeepers Claire (Carla Gugino) and Oliver (Matthew Beard). A glossy, chilly update to the Bluebeard legend by way of Frankenstein and Ex Machina, Guiterrez’s film bites off a bit more than it can chew. The director serves up plot swerves somewhat haphazardly, and he favors the story’s prosaic thriller components over moral and existential rumination. Still, it’s an undeniably eerie and gorgeous film, owing to Cale Finot’s marvelously garish cinematography and Matt Mayer’s oneiric editing. The feature’s limpid shocks and needless structural convolutions might be unmemorable, but the striking visuals and juxtapositions linger. Rating: B- [Now available to rent via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Summer of 84

2018 / Canada, USA / 105 min. / Dir. by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell / Premiered online on Aug. 10, 2018

The success of Netflix’s supernatural-horror series and 1980s nostalgia contraption Stranger Things virtually guaranteed the eventual arrival of imitators, but it’s sort of astonishing just how shameless Summer of 84 is about mimicking the show’s formula, at least superficially. Besides a quartet of geeky young teens on BMX bikes, the film boasts a synth-heavy score and plenty of period detail that clumsily calls attention to itself. Directing trio François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell exploited a similar retro vibe in the giddy, gonzo Turbo Kid (2015), but here it feels somewhat superfluous, tacked on to what is essentially a serial-killer-next-door thriller. Miming James Stewart in Rear Window, gawky Davey (Graham Berchere) begins to suspect that his policeman neighbor Mr. Mackey (Rich Sommer) is a child-murderer, largely based on circumstantial evidence. The filmmakers never manage to rise above the screenplay’s stale premise and clunky archetypes, but they do keep the viewer guessing throughout, and conclude the story on an unexpectedly bleak, ambiguous note. Rating: C [Now available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.]

Down a Dark Hall

2018 / Spain, USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Rodrigo Cortés / Premiered online on Aug. 17, 2018

Down a Dark Hall has a promising horror lineage, being adapted from the work of young-adult author Lois Duncan – who also penned the source novel for I Know What You Did Last Summer – and helmed by Rodrigo Cortés, director of the masterful man-in-a-box thriller Buried (2010). However, the filmmaker’s latest feature is dispiritingly bland gothic nonsense, more concerned with gloomy atmosphere and trite adolescent angst than with creating a compelling story. Following an arson charge, teenage delinquent Kit (AnnaSophia Robb) is packed off to the sinister Blackwood Boarding School by her defeated parents. There, she and four other outcast girls are subjected to the creepy attentions of the faculty, who are determined to unearth their hidden talents, albeit for questionable purposess. The performances range from dull to campy – Uma Thurman hamming it up as the French headmistress is a So Bad It’s Good highlight – but the plot is reliably schematic and uninvolving, blending haunted-house and wizarding-school tropes to underwhelming effect. Rating: C- [Now available to rent via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich

2018 / UK, USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund / Premiered online on Aug. 17, 2018

For all its over-the-top, Z-grade splatterfest shocks, the most gobsmacking thing about Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is that the screenplay is credited to S. Craig Zahler, normally a first-class purveyor of gore and desolation (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99). It’s challenging to square Zahler’s directorial output with the embarrassingly dreadful writing in this shoestring reboot of the Puppet Master franchise. Reframing a story of murderous dolls as some kind of Nazi-sploitation nightmare for our neo-fascist times, directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund manage a tastelessness twofer. On the one hand, they encourage the viewer to cackle with glee as the diminutive clockwork stormtroopers enact their own miniature Final Solution on a succession of racial, religious, and sexual minorities. On the other hand, they also dictate that the film's heroes affect a pulpy, Inglourious-style righteousness, a pose as ridiculous as it is condescending. The whole thing is moronic and unpleasant as hell, redeemed only marginally by the anything-goes transgressive hokeyness of the homicidal set-pieces. Rating: D- [Now available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.]

What Keeps You Alive

2018 / Canada / 98 min. / Dir. by Colin Minihan / Premiered online on Aug. 24, 2018

On the occasion of their one-year wedding anniversary, Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) decamp for a quiet weekend at the latter woman’s family lake house. However, the appearance of a neighbor (Martha MacIsaac) unearths some awkward secrets, setting up a shocking descent into blood-spattered terror. A nail-biting and often stylish entry in a narrow subgenre – the fraught relationship drama that erupts into survival horror – What Keeps You Alive is the least fantastical film to date from director Colin Minihan (It Stains the Sand Red, Extraterrestrial), and also his best. It goes too far to assert that the feature’s queerness is incidental, given that the story is, in part, a nightmare scenario built on the distinct anxieties and tribulations of lesbian romantic relationships. However, it’s refreshing to encounter a film where the characters’ sexuality is secondary to gritty thriller fundamentals. Although it indulges in too much wheel-spinning in its latter half, it’s still a dark, gut-wrenching pleasure, anchored by Anderson’s utterly chilling performance. Rating: B [Now available to rent via Google Play, PlayStation, and other platforms.]

Boarding School 

2018 / USA / 111 min. / Dir. by Boaz Yakin / Premiered online on Aug. 31, 2018

An improbable amalgamation of myriad subgenres – queer-flavored coming-of-age tale, Brothers Grimm nightmare, gruesome thriller, post-Holocaust ghost story – Boarding School is a frustratingly messy film, but that shagginess has an unexpectedly mesmerizing quality. Writer-director Boaz Yakin takes his time in establishing a mournful, faintly menacing mood, observing as troubled tween Jacob (Eighth Grade’s Luke Pael, appealingly inscrutable) grapples with bullying, nightmares, and transgender twinges linked to his late grandmother. Eventually, his parents ship Jacob off to a eccentric boarding school for misfit kids, overseen by the amiably sadistic, Bible-thumping Dr. Sherman (Will Patton). Enjoyably weird but ruinously unfocused, Boarding School is miles from Yakin’s usual feel-good fare (Remember the Titans, Max), and it often feels as if the filmmaker is trying to cram too many concepts into a narrative container that is too conventional and constrictive to accommodate them all. The film’s retrograde depictions of disability leave a noticeably bad taste, but overall Boarding School is more of an overly ambitious curiosity than an outright failure. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Papillon'.
August 23, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Back on the Chain Gang

2017 / Czech Republic, Spain, USA / 133 min. / Dir. by Michael Noer / Opens locally on Aug. 24, 2018

Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 film Papillon was mostly a vehicle for its star, the ever-cool Steve McQueen, as well as a cash-in adaptation of the popular memoir of the same name by Henri Charrière. It’s a shaggy hybrid of prison-escape drama and adventure movie that spans several years’ worth of breakout efforts. The film’s popularity grossly exceeded its artistic merit, so a case for a new adaptation could be made by updating the narrative with greater depth, a unique cinematic vision, and/or more propulsive action setpieces. Director Michael Noer’s new adaptation contains none of these, preferring to sand down the idiosyncrasies of the original film’s characters and transform them into superhero ciphers. This updated Papillon alternates between scenes of grandiose pretense and achingly dull macho posturing. 

Viewers wondering about the necessity of a new adaptation should be clued in by the based-on credit given to the original source novel and the 1973 film’s screenplay. It smacks of fandom gone wrong, an uninspired attempt to expand the “universe” of the story as a sop toward an increasingly obscure fanbase. It also teeters in the direction of awards baiting, polishing the pulpy source material to prop up its self-important “triumph of the human spirit” ambitions. Unfortunately, in attempting both approaches, the story and its characters are stretched so thin that they no longer resemble real human experience or flesh-and-blood humans. 

Although it includes new material from Charrière’s other biographical novel, Banco, to bookend the escape story with additional context, this adaptation is slavishly faithful to the beats of the original film. Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) is a safe-cracker in Paris in 1931. During a job for some gangster types, he pilfers a few diamonds for himself and his girlfriend (Eve Hewson), landing him in a frame for murder. The love interest invented for this version of the story is particularly underdeveloped, as though the titular character needed a motivation to escape prison beyond fear of enslavement or death.

These scenes are rushed, the filmmakers seemingly only interested in the red meat of the story: Papillon’s years-long attempt at escape. After his trial — which Noer’s film elides — the unlucky thief is sentenced to life at a penal labor colony in French Guiana. This hellish place is a repository for France’s most dangerous criminals and staffed by equally dangerous prison guards under the command of a control-hungry warden played by Yorick van Wageningen. Papillon clings to the wealthy, bookish Louis Dega (Rami Malek), convincing the sly white-collar criminal that, in return for financing their escape from the prison, he’ll provide the protection an easy target like Dega needs. For all of its artistic shortcomings, this Papillon is still watchable, mostly due to the solid narrative bones underlying any iteration of this familiar story. 

Papillon seems to gain superhuman skills throughout, easily fending off antagonists twice his size in a flurry of well-choreographed but hardly believable feats of strength. Papillon doesn’t shy away from brutal violence when depicting the lives of these hardened criminals, as announced by an early scene of disembowelment to extract some funds from the stomach of a wealthy but weak inmate. Pairing this gore with the carefully executed display of man-on-man action makes for particularly queasy thematization of the role of violence in this penal system. The film seemingly wants viewers to be repelled by it, and yet it also invites them to cheer when the hero triumphantly plows through five hulking heavies. No humanity for the Bad Guys here.

Speaking of man-on-man action, there is inevitably a streak of homoeroticism at the heart of this all-male prison story, as evidenced by the aforementioned scene, a nude brawl that takes place in the showers. It’s too bad that the filmmakers can’t commit to this subversiveness, pulling back from the sort of masculine eroticism on display in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (2000), with its all-male cast sweltering under the desert sun. Papillon has the opportunity to explore this tension, highlighting as it does the unending loyalty forged between Papillon and Dega over the course of three failed escape attempts — a bond just shy of romantic love. Meanwhile, the film depicts its single, brief glimpse of gay sex as repellent, framing it as a unpleasant compromise an inmate makes to escape. Still, Papillon and Louis retain a platonic yet passionate connection that is unbreakable through bouts of solitary confinement and eventual exile to Devil’s Island, a barren rock where the worst prisoners are dumped to fend for themselves. 

The performers can’t quite sell this passion, though. Hunnam is fresh off James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2017), a much more adventurous film about the stops and starts of an obsessive journey. His presence here begs the question as to whether his remarkable performance in Gray’s film was just a fluke after years of wooden delivery and an over-reliance on his placid charm. Here, he more closely resembles the gung-ho American Jaeger pilot he portrayed in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). For some reason, the English actor resurrects the same gravelly John Wayne impression-slash-American accent that he affected in that film. Malek is the more capable performer, but he, too, insists on an impression, mimicking the 1973 portrayal of Degas by Dustin Hoffman — who was already riffing on his own nasally Ratso voice from Midnight Cowboy (1969). If Hunnam and Malek are this generation’s McQueen and Hoffman, there is something to be said about the death of the Hollywood star.

Malek’s vocal performance choice is strikingly odd in a film full of odd choices — all seemingly borrowed from disparate places. Noer’s images are quite often Malickian in composition and movement, but they possess none of the spiritual or earthly depth that characterize the latter director’s works. Instead, they seem primly and self-consciously posed, as silly as Malek’s wig in the last section of the film. Papillon repurposes beats from other sources, but never coheres them into a unified artistic vision, and the film suffers for that dereliction. It plays like Grandpa’s Favorite Movie reheated to make it palatable for a new generation, rendering it all the more uninteresting in the process.

Rating: C-

 

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'McQueen'.
August 9, 2018
By Joshua Ray

McQueen, the King

2018 / UK / 111 min. / Dir. by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui / Opened in select cities July 20, 2018; locally on Aug. 10, 2018

For those already familiar with the well-publicized life and highly regarded work of Alexander McQueen, there’s nothing revelatory in Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s McQueen. The biographical documentary — that most popular of nonfiction subgenres — recounts the designer's meteoric rise from a young, ambitious, working-class tailor’s assistant to one of the most recognizable faces in high fashion. The film moves through the form’s familiar beats, illustrating how its subject achieved his dreams and then documenting the personal fallout that inevitably ensued when his cultural impact began to consume his identity. The way that the machinery of fame devours the most vibrant figures — the artists who struggle to resist celebrity’s pleasures and maintain their autonomy — is well-trodden territory in films of this ilk. While McQueen also investigates this system, the film’s chief value is in how it deftly sculpts a portrait of a now-deceased man and his passions, primarily through the lens of his work and those closest to him. 

Mostly eschewing hagiography for more complex readings of McQueen’s work, the film mines the cultural import of his art through its subjects’ relationships to it, while also incorporating the designer’s singular aesthetic. McQueen makes an auteurist argument as it explores its subject’s work, showing how the designer’s marrying of contrasting elements — the baroque macabre, the chilly industrial, and a playfulness with gender norms and silhouettes — was borne from his worldview and remained consistent through his unfortunately brief career. Structured around five parcels of home-video footage filmed concurrently with five of McQueen’s most renowned shows, the documentary showcases how his work grew into extravagant theatrical productions, which were as much performance art as they were showcases for fashion. 

The film posits that these shows and their individual designs emanated from the designer’s psyche, a place fraught with personal and political anxieties that eventually led McQueen to take his own life in 2010, on the eve of his mother’s funeral. As a celebration of that work, however, Bonhôte and Ettedgui’s film inspires awe not only by allowing the audacious work speak for itself, but also by integrating gothic, McQueen-inspired CGI to cohere the narrative around the artist’s personal expression. The documentary is scored by Michael Nyman (The Piano, Gattaca), a composer named-checked by McQueen in archival footage. All of these aesthetic qualities merge in one glorious wellspring of ecstasy that is the Summer 1999 show, with its legendary, show-stopping reveal of a belted tulle dress spray-painted by robotic arms. 

Largely resisting the urge to trot out cultural critics to extol the virtues of the artist’s work, McQueen leaves such matters to the designer’s cohorts in the eponymous fashion house that Lee — as his friends and family called him — founded. Former assistant designer Sebastian Pons and stylist Mira Chai Hyde recall the verve with which their founder created his trademark looks, working quickly and furiously with bursts of creative inspiration. These two, along with many others, also explore the emotional rollercoaster they experienced when Lee took on a role as executive creative director at Givenchy and later Gucci, all while maintaining his own line. The stress from being the busiest and most scrutinized man in fashion — and being diagnosed with HIV — meant that Lee distanced himself from the people to whom he was closest. Instead, he threw himself into a life fueled by drugs and fitness, changing his former pudgy self into an unrecognizable muscle-bound man. 

Although McQueen does not make its subject’s suicide clear from the outset, the interviewees’ reverence for the man and their regret-tinged tales imbue the film with a mournful quality. One of the more gut-wrenching interviews is with Detmar Blow, widower of Isabella Blow, the London fashionista who made McQueen a brand name and who would call him a soulmate. He recounts how the pair’s friendship quickly deteriorated when money — and lots of it — was introduced into the equation and the power differential ostracized Isabella from both the fashion community and Lee’s life. 

These sections, paired with those of McQueen’s sister, Janet — whose friendship and loyalty seemed to have kept Lee afloat throughout his professional rise and personal fall — form the documentary’s thesis. Namely, the story of a life is as much about the the people who orbit an individual as it is about the actual individual. These heavy-handed passages co-exist alongside those about love, work, health, and all the other highs and lows that characterize the human experience. As a portrait of a specific community galvanized around a revolutionary artist, the film makes for one of the more exhaustive and exhilarating biodocs of recent years. As such, it deserves to be widely acknowledged alongside the likes of this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RGB.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Night Eats the World'.
August 2, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

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

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

The Devil’s Doorway

2018 / United Kingdom / 76 min. / Dir. by Aislinn Clarke / Premiered online on July 13, 2018

In horror cinema, the found-footage conceit has been employed to conceal mediocrity so routinely that such uninspired application is now the norm. The Devil’s Doorway is a dispiritingly on-point example. Aislinn Clarke’s film dabbles in the tedious conventions of the demon-possession and haunted-house subgenres for its 1960s-set tale, and the feature’s faux-vintage formal affectations can’t compensate for a fatiguing sense of familiarity. As two Catholic priests (Lalor Roddy and Ciaran Flynn) investigate an alleged miracle at a Irish “Magdalene Laundry,” one could quickly fill in a bingo card of post-Exorcist tropes as Clarke’s feature goes through the fright-free motions of dribbling out allegedly sinister revelations. The Devil’s Doorway squanders the potential of its unique, politically charged setting, preferring the tiresome theatrics of levitation, door-slamming, and creepy ghost-child giggling. Clarke’s occasional bursts of inspired low-fi camerawork – such as some legitimately unnerving tricks with framing and shallow focus – don’t make up for the film’s overall monotony and mustiness. Rating: D+ (Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.)

The Night Eats the World

2018 / France / 93 min. / Dir. by Dominique Rocher / Premiered online on July 13, 2018

Like most of the better zombocalypse pictures in recent years, Domnique Rocher’s film injects some vitality into a stale subgenre not by discarding the form’s constraints but by making compelling structural and storytelling choices. When the brokenhearted, resentful Sam (Sanders Danielsen Lie, of Reprise and Oslo August 31) falls asleep at his ex’s Parisian flat during a party, he awakens to a world overrun with cannibalistic ghouls. For much of its running time, The Night Eats the World is a solo, mostly wordless endeavor. Taking a page from Castaway and I Am Legend, Rocher observes Sam over the ensuing months as he barricades the building, scavenges food and water, and develops a routine that allows him to both physically endure and stave off encroaching madness. Late in the film Sam encounters another living human (Golshifteh Farahani), but Night is foremost a measured, somber depiction of isolation, one less focused on procedural details than on challenging the distinctions between survival and living. Rating: B (Now available to rent or purchase Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.)

Ruin Me

2017 USA / 87 min. / Dir. by Preston DeFrancis / Premiered online on July 19, 2018

Preston DeFrancis’ self-aware slasher flick Ruin Me is deficient in all the usual ways that mark a low-budget indie horror feature: tin-eared dialog, tedious characters, cringe-inducing “humor,” and stilted performances. Yet, for all its flaws, the film still has one undeniably gratifying hook: It its devilishly difficult to discern exactly what kind of horror film one is watching. Thirtysomething heroine Alex (Marchienne Dwyer) and boyfriend Nathan (Matt Dellapina) are spending their weekend at a “Slasher Sleepaway” experience — part haunted house, part escape room, part live-action game – that starts to go seriously off the rails in aptly bloody fashion. As clumsy as the rest of the film is, DeFrancis and co-writer Trysta A. Bisset keep the viewer guessing to the end. Is it a meta-textual horror-fantasy (Final Girls)? A didactic death trap (Saw)? An immersive role-playing experience (The Game)? A therapy session gone wrong (Shudder Island)? A gigantic con (April Fool’s Day)? The conclusion is both far more banal and far more unsettling than one expects. Rating: C- (Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.)

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt