A still from 'The Parting Glass'.
September 20, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Good Night and Joy Be With You All

2018 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Stephen Moyer / Premiered online on Sept. 10, 2019

Long into The Parting Glass, the directorial debut from actor Stephen Moyer of True Blood (2008-14) fame, a new character is introduced seemingly without rhyme or reason. By the time this surprise brother appears, complex relationships have already been detailed between his other siblings Dan (Denis O’Hare); Mare (Cynthia Nixon); Al (Melissa Leo); and patriarch Tommy (Ed Asner). That group has reunited in Columbia, Mo. to set out on a road trip with an initially ambiguous destination. It’s eventually revealed they’ve gathered to settle the death of youngest sister Colleen (Anna Paquin), who only days ago committed suicide. Along with Colleen’s husband, Karl (Rhys Ifans), the group attempts to piece together exactly how and why she took her life.

It may seem petty to nitpick on Sean’s curious inclusion – the character is, after all, never mentioned until he appears, in a film that is largely made of conversations about the past – but it’s just one nagging symptom of the specific conditions that make this small passion project largely a mixed bag. It’s the first produced film script written by its star, O’Hare, the veteran theater actor known to most from his own television work on American Horror Story (2011- ) and True Blood. O’Hare based the story on the fallout surrounding his own sister’s suicide, and the actor’s theatrical background and his quest to work through his grief means that he’s slavishly dedicated to recreating his memories. Unfortunately, the result feels like a playwright’s first draft.

The Parting Glass isn’t stagey in the way that often leads critics label a film “un-cinematic” – typically a condescension from film writers who ignore the relationship between theater and cinema that’s existed since the latter’s creation. Indeed, Moyer produces nice visual flourishes and editing patterns to demonstrate familial relationships and grief. Rather, it’s O’Hare’s dialogue and scene mechanics that create an unsettled mix of the two mediums, making it feel like a dress rehearsal rather than a fully realized film project. Genuinely moving scenes of revelations and shifting dynamics exist alongside awkward approximations of human behavior, undermining what was previously credible. This comes to the fore in the numerous interactions structured according to a predictable pattern: casual reminiscing leading to less-than-gentle ribbing, followed by explosions of long-held resentments and quick, half-hearted resolutions. Forced laughter by the performers punctuates these moments and serves as a reminder that the characters’ shared history is dictated by page and performance.

This well-laureled cast – there are multiple Oscar and Emmy awards between them – isn’t necessarily the issue, although they do have varying degrees of success with the underbaked material. In a keen casting move, each of them seem to bring a bit of their actorly personas along with them, which helps develop character here. As the eldest sibling, Leo is hard but with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, carrying the burden of being the sole sibling who stayed behind in their suburb near Kansas City, Mo. Nixon is superb with her trademark caring sophisticate — her Mare carries herself as if she’s above their small town upbringing but never betrays it to her family members. As Broadway actor Dan, O’Hare does the opposite, repeatedly casually condescending to the local lifestyle – a request for a cup of hot tea creates a detour when he refuses Lipton as an acceptable choice. The flashbacks to the groups’ memories of Colleen have Paquin as the “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” whose emotional instability dangerously combines with drug abuse. However, it’s Asner who towers above all of them, playing Tommy as a grump who’s nevertheless hyper-sensitive to his children's feelings and needs. It’s his iconic Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) or his great vocal performance from Pixar’s Up (2009) without any respective genre constraints.

The least successful is Ifans, whose typical shaggy hangdog persona should be a perfect fit for Karl, but it becomes obvious the Welsh actor is working overtime to deliver an American accent, shading his complex character into an unfortunate conversative country bumpkin stereotype. Karl, it turns out, was completely unaware of his wife’s intention to leave him, even after she took a traveling nurse job to distance herself from him. His incredible grief at losing Colleen, coupled with his oft-mentioned outsider status within the clan, gives the actor his best scene wherein he finally erupts with anguish and anger.

Gratefully, the tension between the religious, right-wing Karl and the other members of the traveling party, particularly the queer and liberal Dan, is backgrounded, avoiding any great political grandstanding. Stuck alone in his brother-in-law in a beat-up minivan, Dan asks if they can turn off the talk radio program protesting “ungodliness” in today’s liberal corners. No provocation from either men ensues, but the moment colors a subsequent diner stop when a young male server flirts with Dan just before he announces that he and his husband intend on adopting a child. Moyer smartly cuts to Karl often, who seems to stew on his foundational objections but refuses comment. Later, Karl joyously celebrates the potential new family member as the group drinks in a hotel room. The turn may seem like fantasy, but here it demonstrates how some people detrimentally compartmentalize their politics and their supposed love for their family.

In some details of human behavior and interaction, the film presents mixed results, but its depiction of grief entangled with the bureaucratic processes of burying a loved one fares better. O’Hare structures his narrative around finding Colleen’s remains, evaluating autopsy reports, settling her debts, and cleaning the apartment in which she took her life. The business of dying is especially brutal here, creating questions impossible for anyone to answer. The Parting Glass takes its title from a traditional Scottish folk song often sung at the end of gatherings: “That I should rise and you should not / I'll gently rise and I'll softly call / Good night and joy be with you all.” Ultimately, the film ends on a note of comfort in remembrance, suggesting that in loss, the only solace lies in the memories of those passed.

Rating: C+

The Parting Glass is now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms.

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Hustlers'.
September 19, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

The Wolves of Wall Street

2019 / USA / 110 min. / Dir. by Lorene Scafaria / Opened in wide release on Sept. 13, 2019

Hustlers isn’t Casino (1995). Hustlers isn’t Widows (2018). It’s neither Goodfellas (1990) nor Showgirls (1995). It’s not a Rat Pack Ocean’s movie, a Soderbergh Ocean’s movie, or an all-female Ocean’s movie — Hustlers is wholly, thoroughly its own entity. As the third directorial effort from longtime actress and screenwriter Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers is the work of a moderately successful filmmaker willing to take a risk on an audacious true story. The casting of Jennifer Lopez as a key player helps to elevate an already sturdy script, while Constance Wu — who, despite starring in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), may still be a fresh face to some — holds the expositional framing device on her shoulders with relative ease. Scafaria’s script might have been durable on arrival, but she couldn’t have found a more compatible pair of leading women. Don’t call it Martin Scorsese-esque — this movie stands alone, credibly solidifying Scafaria’s future as a potent writer-director.

Destiny (Wu) is the new girl at Moves, a strip club in a non-specific area of Manhattan. No matter how hard she tries, the customers — largely Wall Street executives at the top of their game — just aren’t buying what she has to offer. It’s 2007, and nobody foresees the financial crisis on the horizon. For now, everything’s cheeky — particularly for Ramona (Lopez), Moves’s cardinal dancer. Both Destiny and the patrons are equally transfixed by her, but for different reasons. The men want her, but Destiny wants to be her. Cash rains down whenever Ramona hits the stage, while Destiny is left with chump change after management and her elderly grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) get their cuts. Through a bit of clunky expository dialogue, the club’s fur-clad alpha she-wolf agrees to help the cub. It’s the first of many deals the two will make over the next seven years.

Part of Destiny’s training requires Ramona to explain to her the process of caring for high-profile clients — specifically, the CEOs, COOs, and presidents of Wall Street’s wealthiest firms. They come in through the back, ride up the private elevator, and enter the only room without cameras for a night full of debauchery and dollar bills — thousands of them, typically. Destiny catches on quickly and the pair eventually settle into a lucrative routine. The men are horrible, but the pay is exceptional. The women are willing to be treated disrespectfully if it means they can continue to live the luxurious lives they’ve always dreamed of. Then the nightmare sets in. 2008 sees the largest stock market crash in decades, driving most of Moves’ clients away and the majority of dancers back into minimum wage jobs. After a few years, when the true impact of the Wall Street disaster can truly be felt, Destiny and Ramona decide to reteam: They’re going to hustle the men who hustled America.

Based on a New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers refreshingly avoids falling into conventional based-on-a-true story traps for much of its first half-hour — until it’s revealed that the film is being framed by an interview between Destiny and a reporter (Julia Stiles) in present-day 2015. The film chugs along at an impressive pace up until this point, managing to (mostly) avoid exposition dumps and awkward dialogue to establish its characters and story. Once this trite framing device is revealed, the film loses a bit of its momentum. Every time the film is interrupted by another needless interview segment that foreshadows the inevitable downfall to come, Hustlers is drained of a little bit more of its electricity. Thankfully, these segments are few and far between for the first two acts; although it doesn’t make them any less disruptive.

These stumbles aside, Hustlers is successful in practically every other respect. Instead of trying to piggyback on the recent trend of gender-swapped heist-flick remakes or ham-fisted female empowerment narratives, Scafaria shows that a film starring, produced, written, and directed by women doesn’t have to be clumsy about it. Bankrolling a project because it checks trendy boxes is no way for production companies to try and enact change in a male-dominated industry, especially when it comes off as a pandering pose. Not so here. Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu are the luminaries, but supporting players like Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Trace Lysette, and Devin Ratray are just as integral to the film’s radiant energy. Even cameos from artists like Cardi B, Lizzo, and Usher work perfectly and never feel like an effort to get fans in seats — Scafaria makes it work, and it works well.

What’s more, the film’s soundtrack is as devoted to the story as the actors themselves — period-appropriate pop hits and classical symphonic tunes take turns scoring scenes, each needle drop bringing back memories of the bizarre and surreal time that was the late-aughts and early-tens. Like the delicate tightrope walk between pop and classical, this strip club saga disguised as a revenge fantasy juggles comedy and drama (and the occasional thrill) without breaking a sweat. Laughing in the face of economic injustice is the only way to approach a story like this; at this point, it does seem darkly funny just how poorly the financial catastrophes of 2008 were handled. Scafaria wants the audience to know that everyone’s hustling someone else in one way or another, but the ones at the top have been allowed to get away with it.

Hustlers is so much more than an indictment on the one percent, however. The plot may find itself focusing on these gentlemen for a decent chunk of time in the back half, but the overarching themes are the alternative mothering provided by older mentors and the unconventional families comprised solely of close-knit friends rather than blood relatives. There have always been hustlers, and there always will be hustlers — not to mention swindlers, crooks, henchmen, and Bad Guys in general. The flip side is that there will also always be solace for the screwed, home for the hoodwinked, and refuge from the ruthless. There might not ever be solutions or retributions for those who have had their livelihoods destroyed for the sake of profit, and nothing can ever make up for that. What Hustlers suggests is that real family (blood or otherwise) understands this, and that’s why they’ll always have your back — even when you’re wrong.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from "Ad Astra'.
September 19, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Dry Your Eyes, For You Are Life

2019 / USA / 122 min. / Dir. by James Gray / Opens in wide release on Sept. 20, 2019

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is tired of Earth. Specifically, he’s tired of the human beings who swarm over its surface – and who have just begun to colonize other worlds in the near-future setting of writer-director James Gray’s exquisitely forlorn space epic Ad Astra. Roy is the sort of person who seems to have been born for the grueling isolation of space travel, and not simply because his father, Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones), was himself an astronaut renowned for his interplanetary trailblazing. Outwardly evincing a preternatural, Armstrong-like composure – his heart rate has famously never cracked 90 bpm – Roy conceals a relentless itch to remove himself from the chattering, devouring mass of humanity. Like Sol Nazerman in The Pawnbroker (1964), he has escaped his emotions and longs to be safe within himself. One can also discern in Roy an exhausted, more melancholic form of the misanthropy expressed by Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007): “I hate most people … I look at most people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone.”

For Roy, the means to such self-exile is not wealth, but the United States space program. The ostensible thrill of going higher, further, and faster into the unforgiving void is almost incidental to him; the serene freedom of being a man alone is what truly compels him to slip the surly bonds of Earth. This is perhaps why Roy accepts any off-world mission offered to him, even a gig as unglamorous as performing repairs on the low-orbit International Space Antennae. (Bear in mind, humankind has reached the outer edges of the solar system in the not-too-distant future of the film; among the one-percent, lunar tourism has already lost the sparkle of the new.) It’s during this routine maintenance mission that Earth is bathed in a burst of cosmic radiation that fries all unshielded electrical equipment, including the space antennae itself. The resulting cascade of catastrophic system failures culminates in a series of explosions, sending Roy hurtling earthward in what amounts to the mother of all HALO jumps.

Roy narrowly survives, and after recovering he is summoned to a top secret meeting at U.S. Space Command, the apparent fictional successor to NASA. There he learns that the still-ongoing cosmic ray bursts are originating from Neptune’s orbit, where the presumed-lost Lima Project was once engaged in the search for intelligent life beyond the solar system. Said project was helmed by Cliff McBride, as it happens, and Roy’s superiors believe that his father may not only be alive, but also responsible for the escalating, potentially civilization-obliterating pulses of radiation. Recruited as much for his familial connection as for his cool professionalism, Roy is ordered to journey from Earth to the moon, and then from the moon to Mars, where he will send a message to his father via a secure communications laser on the far side of the Red Planet. The revelation that his father might still be alive some 16 years after the man’s final transmission seems to discombobulate Roy more than the prospect of a looming apocalypse. He grew up longing to emulate his dad’s pioneering achievements in space exploration, even as he simultaneously sympathized with and resented the man’s complete disinterest in an earthbound existence. (One wonders why Cliff bothered to start a family at all; Roy, for his part, has one failed marriage and no children to his name.)

Gray has long been a director fascinated with the convoluted internal logic that motivates (and rationalizes) human behavior, but it’s only recently – with Lost City of Z (2016), his masterful, still-underrated treatise on success, failure, and obsession – that the filmmaker has examined it on a more epic scale. In earlier works such as We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008), and The Immigrant (2013), the director exhibited an affinity for a burnished, sharp-eyed, and yet oddly reserved stripe of cinematic storytelling, wherein well-worn dramatic scenarios are gussied up with handsome visuals and muscular performances. Prior to Lost City of Z, Gray’s features suggested an auteur who was playing it relatively safe, fashioning solemn, relatively small-scale entries across multiple genres, films that never quite managed to coalesce into anything revelatory. With two bona fide adventure epics now under his belt, it’s clear that Gray has found his virtuosic groove: Big Films about Big Ideas, judiciously circumscribed by the filmmaker’s resolve to prioritize human ambitions, desires, and frailties over mere spectacle for spectacle’s sake.

This isn’t to say that Ad Astra is short on spectacle. Consistent with the past decade’s run of high-profile space thrillers – including Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015), and First Man (2018) – as well as the influential “NASA procedurals” Countdown (1967) and Marooned (1969), Gray’s film is absorbed with the process by which humans are hurled across thousands, millions, or billions of miles of airless nothingness. The leapfrogging way that Roy travels through a succession of lunar and Martian weigh stations – and then eventually rockets on to Neptune for a rendezvous with Project Lima – allows for a succession of stunning set pieces that emphasize varying aspects of the film’s neo-colonial sci-fi setting. In a handful of scenes, the screenplay by Gray and Ethan Gross veers into the kind of expositional sci-fi gibberish one expects of a loud, dumb action film. (Much is vaguely made of a malfunctioning antimatter contraption aboard the Project Lima research station.) On the whole, however, Ad Astra respects the audience’s intelligence by showing rather than telling. The film’s hazards – a potentially lethal, spin-induced blackout; an onrushing storm of rock and ice fragments; a landing rocket tilting perilously as it descends through fire – are typically stark and terrifying.

Meanwhile, the creeping banality of space travel is established with wry details such as the $125 upcharge for a blanket on Virgin Atlantic’s earth-to-moon shuttle, or the Subway and Applebee’s franchises that have sprung up in the U.S.’s primary lunar base. (As in Blade Runner [1982] and Total Recall [1990] such product placements rather cunningly work double-duty as tart satire.) This sort of vulgar commercial encroachment into the celestial spheres is one side of the human ugliness that Roy would just as soon leave behind. The other is the resource-hungry squabbling of the planet’s nation-states, whose conflicts have likewise migrated beyond Earth’s atmosphere. These struggles are embodied in an early, rattling scene in which pirates on lunar rovers ambush Roy and his military escort on their way to a launch platform on the moon’s dark side. Captured primarily from Roy’s limited sensory perspective – the sounds of the attack are muted save for the vibrations of colliding rock and metal – this sequence further underlines how little changes, even as technology steamrolls forward. Cheeseburgers and violence: We always seem to do those well.

This might make Ad Astra sound like a slicker, more acerbic film that it proves to be: The film’s methods and mood are much closer to Tarkovsky than Verhoeven. Truthfully, Gray’s feature rather terrifically splits the difference between the high-momentum survival thrills of Gravity and Interstellar and artier, more ruminative sci-fi touchstones: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1972) The Fountain (2006), Melancholia (2011), Arrival (2016), and Claire Denis’ recent, slippery contribution to that sub-genre, High Life. (There’s also a jarring sequence that dips into the B-movie sci-fi horror of Link [1986], Sunshine [2007], and Life [2017]; the scene’s sheer left-field strangeness helps to dampen its midnight-movie cheese.)

As in Lost City of Z, the director employs striking colors and textures, a relentless soundscape, and occasional forays into a more hallucinatory sensibility to invigorate familiar genre situations and locales. Inscrutable surrealism isn’t a part of Gray’s repertoire, but much like Denis Villeneuve, he has an aptitude for using the latent uncanniness of his sci-fi setting to evoke an atmosphere that is both intoxicating and densely layered. With its nuclear-orange lighting and mod furnishings, a pivotal scene between Pitt’s astronaut and a shrewd Mars administrator (an underused Ruth Negga) feels like a direct visual quote of Solaris. However, the grimy production design glimpsed elsewhere in that same Martian station – which resembles a half-deserted, mothballed Soviet factory, complete with stray dogs – adds further intricacy to the film’s setting and subtext.

The Villeneuve comparison is also suggested by Roy’s automated psychological evaluations, in which the astronaut attests to his mental fitness for space travel. Through repetition, Roy’s flatly-delivered declarations eventually begin to recall K’s eerie “baseline tests” in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), with their ominous, numbing poetry. (“A system of cells interlinked within cells interlinked within cells.”)  Like K, Roy wants to establish his usefulness to the authorities that control him, but gradually both his certainty in his normally rock-steady abilities and in the U.S. Space Command’s intentions begin to crumble. Much as his father seems to exist in a state of quantum uncertainty – dead and alive, beckoning and spurning, noble scientist and delusional monster – Roy is vexingly uncertain of his own feelings. His consuming desire to see his father again wrestles with his fear of what he might find at the edge of the solar system – a corpse, a madman, or a mirror that reveals his own fundamental unsuitability for human society.

As he has settled comfortably into scruffy-hunky middle age, it’s become increasingly apparent that Pitt’s best performances have often been as a supporting character actor rather a leading man. His laconic, winning turn as faded stuntman Cliff Booth in this summer’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood exemplifies this formula, but Ad Astra illustrates that mature-period Pitt can still deliver fantastically when at the center of the right film. Indeed, Ad Astra is nearly a one-man show. Through most of the film, Jones remains a distant, Ahab-like specter, giving wild-eyed speeches in snowy footage that Roy watches disconsolately on phones and tablets. Poor Liv Tyler, as Roy’s ex-wife Eve, is likewise an ephemeral presence, confined to fragmented memories and pleading video messages. (This, despite Tyler receiving second billing!)  Other characters, like Negga’s loungewear-clad official or Donald Sutherland’s veteran astronaut, seem to exit the film as quickly as they enter it.

The overall narrative of Ad Astra and Roy’s character arc are one and the same, and Pitt is accordingly front and center in every scene. He brings a smooth yet remotely troubled self-possession to the role – which has more than a passing resemblance to Ryan Gosling’s resolutely walled-off Neil Armstrong in the aforementioned First Man. Roy is less of impenetrable enigma than the real-world Apollo 11 commander, but his pathos is also more complex and conflicted. While he can be inhumanly unruffled and quick-witted during an emergency, when it comes to his father and Project Lima, he seems utterly uncertain as to what he’s going to do or say. Despite his cynicism, Roy longs for a connection, and that urge is echoed in the Hail-Mary hopefulness of Lima’s SETI-like ambitions.

Notwithstanding the simmering presence of this subplot, Ad Astra never makes the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence the main attraction; meaning there’s no risk of the inevitable dramatic letdown or glib science-vs-faith didacticism that characterizes, say, Contact (1997). Instead, Gray urgently yet gracefully emphasizes the more abstracted longing for escape that undergirds all tales that lead off the edge of the map. More than Lost City of Z’s consumed explorer Percy Fawcett, Roy recalls the quixotic blend of frustration and idealism exhibited by French sailor Bernard Moitessier.  In 1968, while in the lead during the final leg of a solo round-the-world yacht race, Moitessier stunned the globe by abruptly leaving the competition and continuing on for another full hemisphere, eventually making landfill in Tahiti. By way of explaining himself, the Frenchman sent a message to a passing ship via slingshot: I am continuing nonstop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice'.
September 13, 2019
By Joshua Ray

When Will I Be Loved?

2019 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman / Opened in select cities on Sept. 6, 2019; locally on Sept. 13, 2019

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s biodoc Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is essentially audiovisual liner notes to a hypothetical greatest-hits package of one of the forgotten pop-rock idols – at least as this documentary supposes – of the 20th century. Ronstadt, the diminutive powder keg whose blues-rooted ballads and bangers became radio staples during her imperial phase of the mid- to late ’70s, hasn’t remained in the cultural consciousness the way that contemporaries as disparate as Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, or Dolly Parton have. However, her genre-melding brand of soft rock, spawning hits such as torch song “Blue Bayou” and country-infused “When Will I Be Loved,” laid the groundwork for modern crossover chanteuses like Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey, not to mention the multitude of popular female vocalists working in similar veins since Ronstadt’s last major chart impact in the late ’80s, right up to the present moment.

At least in the completely watchable yet immediately forgettable finished product of The Sound of My Voice, there’s lack of drama and conflict in Ronstadt’s career and personal life which makes her a curious subject for veteran documentarians Epstein and Friedman, who between them are responsible for two queer-doc canon entries, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and The Celluloid Closet (1995). Blame the omnipresent wave of nostalgia for baby-boomer-era music (and seemingly everything else) for this Wikipedia article writ large on the big screen: The past 12 months have seen the repugnant Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and the Elton John musical Rocketman, as well as docs like Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool and Laurel Canyon rumination Echo in the Canyon.

Milking that generation (and everyone else with their respective former cultural flames, to be fair) for every last possible nostalgia cash-in aside, there are plenty of reasons to prop Ronstadt and her music up as a documentary subject. She’s had a mini-resurgence in some music-critic corners – not to mention the one-off article from Stereogum exploring her chart-topper “You’re No Good” and Pitchfork’s recent revisit of that single’s album, Heart Like a Wheel, which contain much more historical and critical analysis of Ronstadt and her ethos than this feature-length film. Epstein and Friedman have instead stitched together a passionless tapestry of archival performances and contemporary talking-head interviews that simply navigates from one life event to another sans any truly interesting context or thesis.

What is mostly on display is a lot of ego, for better and worse, with Ronstadt – who is present in sparse narration and in the film’s manipulative prologue and epilogue – possibly controlling the narrative or the various other participants’ hyperbolic and empty musings about the subject or their generation’s greatness. Friedman and Epstein round up the usual ’70s rock suspects: Jackson Browne, Cameron Crowe, David Geffen, and Bonnie Raitt are present and their subsequent victory-lapping becomes a part of the text. On one hand, the humility of someone like Emmylou Harris provides one of the most genuine displays of affection for her friend and colleague here. On the other, there’s Don Henley, who awkwardly appears digitally de-aged like a dry run for this year’s forthcoming The Irishman or Gemini Man and only seems present here to recount Ronstadt’s uniting him with Glenn Frey before the two men formed the Eagles.

This sort of digging to find any substantive material isn’t wholly necessary; it’s just that the cultural and personal analysis that is present exists only in the margins, largely passed over for behind-the-scenes outlining of the past. Ronstadt’s status as a major female star among a sea of male rock-and-rollers nearly always lies just on the surface, but how her gender intersected with (or even dictated) her gung-ho work ethic is left on the table. An opportunity even presents itself to possibly elucidate some of these connections or deep character sketching when Ronstadt recounts how she immediately ditched the Stone Poneys, the band she and her brothers started in the mid-’60s, after her cavernous vocals helped shoot their single “Different Drum” to the top of the charts. That potentially uneasy dynamic is unexplored, and the incident becomes just another dot on the timeline of her career. Much later, a television interview goes awry when Ronstadt first states that she is apolitical, only to go on a liberal diatribe against United States policy after she’s questioned about performing in apartheid-era South Africa. It’s one of the film’s sole glimpses of Ronstadt the person negotiating with Ronstadt the public figure.

The Sound of My Voice is framed by present-day footage of the septuagenarian Ronstadt struggling with Parkinson’s disease, an affliction that inches her toward being unable to perform daily tasks, let alone sing with the verve she once had. Not turning their feature into a portraiture of a bodily vessel disallowing one to fulfill their passions is understandable – that’s an entirely different work than the celebratory hagiography here – but by centering the film’s epilogue around that as Ronstadt struggles to perform a Mexican traditional in her living room with family feels manipulative rather than exploratory. With The Sound of My Voice, Epstein and Freidman have at the very least succeeded in compiling a surface-level Linda Ronstadt playlist, but it’s one missing some necessary deep cuts.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Strange But True'.
September 12, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

What to Expect When You're Inexplicably Expecting

2019 / Canada / 96 min. / Dir. by Rowan Athale / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Sept. 6, 2019

It’s rarely a good sign when a film sits unreleased for nearly two years, only to be unceremoniously dumped in a handful of theaters and on video-on-demand platforms. Such is the case with Strange But True, Rowan Athale’s preposterous noir thriller adapted from John Searles’ 2004 novel of the same name. The mystery of the film’s failure is more perplexing than the yarn it attempts to tell: The supporting cast is stacked, composed of familiar faces like Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Blythe Danner, and Brian Cox. Add to this the fact that the two leads, Nick Robinson and Margaret Qualley, have garnered enough exposure with contemporary audiences, and the movie should have significant draw. The production values are flavorlessly digital. All these factors should have made Strange But True ripe for a streaming service like Netflix to snap up and rebrand as an exclusive — it has the makings of a moderate success story, but that’s not going to be the case here. Something about it just feels peculiar, and not in the way the filmmaker intended, either.

After opening with a superfluous flash-forward to the third act’s climax, Strange But True goes back two days prior to try and contextualize this introductory scene. Philip (Robinson) lays on the couch with a broken leg, while his mom Charlene (Ryan) brings him some soup. He’s quick to point out that the soup is his brother Ronnie’s (Connor Jessup) favorite, not his — right off the bat, this dialogue feels unconvincing. As if on cue, his brother’s former girlfriend Melissa (Qualley) shows up at the front door. She has some shocking news that she delivers via cassette tape: She’s pregnant with Ronnie’s baby, even though he’s been dead for five years. This outrageous (and mystifying) revelation sends both Charlene and Philip into separate investigative spirals. She seems convinced that Melissa did something to her son’s body postmortem, while he believes it’s more than likely someone else is the father. Neither plotline is all that  engrossing, but don’t worry — they change directions soon enough.

Unlike Philip and Charlene, Melissa isn’t all that concerned with the specifics of the conception — a psychic told her the baby is Ronnie’s, so she accepts it as truth. Instead of trying to work out the details, Melissa instead chooses to spend her days preparing for the baby and helping out at a local hardware store under the supervision of an older couple named Bill and Gail (Cox and Danner). It’s a jarring contrast: Charlene becoming consumed with paranoia, Melissa calmly painting a nursery. Ronnie snoops into Melissa’s personal life around town, while the mom-to-be dutifully keeps an eye on Bill’s store. (Surely these threads are a lot more interesting on the page, seeing as the novel was quite well received, but it’s awfully tedious onscreen.) As with any B-movie mystery, though, all this second-act investigation eventually starts gaining some traction and the story escalates to outlandish new heights in a flash, once again taking the story in yet another direction.

Both Robinson and Qualley have proven their worth as actors over the past year or two — Robinson’s performance in Love, Simon (2018) was praised for paving new ground for LGBTQ+ representation in studio rom-coms, and Qualley’s work in this year’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood helped earn Quentin Tarantino some of the best box-office numbers of his career. The two will undoubtedly continue to score big roles with high-profile directors, just as they’ve done for the past couple of years. However, Strange But True was filmed before its stars’ breakout success — completed back in 2017, the film sat unreleased until CBS Films finally figured out what to do with it this summer. As a result, Robinson and Qualley feel especially weak as the film’s co-leads. The pair have matured and developed as actors, and this blast from the past makes their missteps seem more surprising than it would have been back in 2017. The entire film rides on their awkward delivery of its harebrained dialogue, resulting in a work that feels more like a movie-within-a-movie than a legitimate feature in its own right.

Even if one disregards the shoddy acting from the film’s leads, Strange But True is not quite the neo-noir that it presents itself to be. A properly bleak, pulpy noir has a stoic lead with integrity, a murderous and sinister villain, and a femme fatale. Its style is stark with mise-en-scène that leaves a lasting impression, and its dialogue is sharp and witty with no room for nonsense. None of this is present in Strange But True. Comparing Robinson and Qualley to the great actors and actresses of film noir is pointless purely because of their inexperience as performers — it goes without saying that this duo does not evoke Bogie and Bacall. There’s nothing difficult or desolate about the plot, either. Screenwriter Eric Garcia walks the viewer through each twist and turn without the slightest hint of nuance or respect for filmgoers’ intelligence. As for style? There is none. The digital cinematography feels more bland than bold. It hardly matters, though: With a half-hour left, the film all but ditches any remnant of ambition for clichéd thriller elements. It seems even Garcia knew that his feature wasn’t working as a more stylish genre piece.

Strange But True’s biggest mystery is this: What went wrong here? Plot holes, shaky performances, and inexplicable twists abound, but it somehow remains hazy where exactly Athale’s sophomore feature goes off the rails. Once the previously teased climax comes back into play, the only sense of satisfaction comes from the realization that the feature must be nearing its end. Even so, the film drags on for another 10 or 15 minutes, now in full-on thriller mode. As a final insult, characters that once seemed amiable and level-headed have been completely transformed into their opposites with slim to little rationale. Perhaps these plot turns worked when Strange But True was a novel, but there seems to be too much that’s been lost in translation from page to screen for the whole thing to function properly. Ultimately, Athale’s film is indeed strange but also tiresome.

Rating: C-

Strange But True is now available to rent from major online platforms.

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'It Chapter Two'.
September 12, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Making His Entrance Again with His Usual Flair

2019 / USA, Canada / 169 min. / Dir. by Andy Muschietti / Opened in wide release on Sept. 6, 2019

It would be folly to assert that Stephen King’s colossal 1986 horror novel It is effectively unfilmable, given that such absolutist declarations rarely endure. Director Michael Winterbottom, after all, found a way to translate the 18th-century satirical novel Tristram Shandy – a work that is almost puckishly hostile to adaptation – into cinematic form in 2006, which would seem to be the definitive demonstration that the “unfilmable” label is always provisional. Still, by the time the credits rolled on the first chapter of director Andy Muschietti’s two-feature It adaptation in 2017, it was evident that the filmmaker’s approach was so dramatically dissimilar from King’s novel that it might as well have been a different species of monster altogether.

This isn’t to say that Muschietti’s first It feature – retroactively titled It Chapter One – is a failure. The film winningly blends a tender coming-of-age tale to the nervous funhouse-horror energy of early Tim Burton and Sam Raimi. This is thanks in large part to a uniformly charming young cast, skin-crawling cinematography from Chung Chung-hoon, and an impish-yet-inhuman turn from Bill Skarsgård as the eldritch shapeshifter Pennywise the Dancing Clown. (If there was a singular surprise when It premiered in 2017, it was Skarsgård’s instantly indelible incarnation of Pennywise, which managed to be quite distinct from Tim Curry’s much-beloved performance as the grease-painted fiend in Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 ABC mini-series.)

However, for every endearing character beat, grotesquely bonkers scare, and neo-Rockwellian flourish (wholesome or perverse), It Chapter One failed to convey the psychological and historical depth of King’s book, as well as its galvanic mingling of warmth, melancholy, and elemental terror. It remains the author’s most monumental work, the closest King has ever come to successfully synthesizing American gothic-horror traditions, his flair for pop-lit showmanship, and the striking ambition and intricacy of a Great American Novel. The book’s enduring power stems chiefly from its slippery structure, the way that past and present mingle to enfold the seven adults from Derry, Maine, who once banded together as kids to confront Pennywise – and are obliged to return 27 years later to finish him off.

Much like Wallace’s mini-series, Muschietti’s theatrical features bifurcate the story into a “childhood half” and an “adult half,” a choice that is at once entirely reasonable and woefully misguided. Dividing up the plot in this way has the effect of undermining one of the novel’s crucial themes – the way that unresolved trauma can obliterate time and devolve even the strongest individuals into mere cowering children. The most immediately appealing aspect of It Chapter Two, then, is that the film at least has the good sense to sprinkle numerous flashbacks into its otherwise indefensible three-hour running time. This allows the viewer to spend more time with the delightful preteen iteration of the self-proclaimed “Loser’s Club”: “Stuttering” Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and Eddie Kasprak (Jack Dylan Grazer). These flashback sequences flesh out the events of summer 1989 that were breezed over in the first film – especially the late-summer weeks between the fight that briefly fractured and scattered the Losers and the group's eventual subterranean showdown with Pennywise.

The conventional wisdom about It – regardless of medium – is that the Losers are much less interesting as adults than they are as children. This claim is somewhat misleading when it comes to King’s original novel, in which the middle-aged Losers’ stunted emotional development and self-pitying haplessness is sort of the whole point. (The book is, among many things, a fittingly self-absorbed indictment of Boomers’ unwillingness to confront the rotten American evils they thought their generation had blithely overcome.) Muschietti’s new film, however, doesn’t do much to counteract the perception that the Losers are more engaging as middle-schoolers, despite generally spot-on casting when it comes to the adult actors – a couple of whom deliver ridiculously entertaining performances.

Former homeschooled farm boy Mike (Isiah Mustafa) is the only Loser who has remained in Derry, settling into the role of the eccentric librarian who keeps a weather eye on the local headlines (and an ear on the police scanner) for any sign of Pennywise’s resurgence. When the details of an apparent homophobic murder arouse Mike’s suspicions, he makes the phone calls that he had hoped would never be necessary, summoning the remaining Losers back to Derry: Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Bill (James McAvoy), Richie (Bill Hader), Ben (Jay Ryan), Eddie (James Ransone), and Stanley (Andy Bean). The six prodigals have all built superficially successful lives for themselves, but they’ve also blocked out their childhood memories of Derry – and of Pennywise.

Both the Losers’ easy, foul-mouthed camaraderie and their recollections of the town’s bogeyman begin to resurface when the group assembles for a reunion dinner at a strip-mall Chinese restaurant. However, the returning members are confounded by Mike’s urgent, fearful insistence that they must once again confront Pennywise – particularly when he starts ranting about a Native American ritual that can (maybe) vanquish the entity. No one really doubts the truth of Mike’s words, at least not after the fortune cookies on their table start vomiting forth shrieking vermin and boiling ooze. However, the notion of splitting up the group to wander the town, coax forth additional memories, and uncover personalized artifacts for the ritual – as Mike suggests they do – seems like an extraordinarily Bad Idea. Yet split up they must, thanks to some vague plot bootstrapping involving Beverley’s prophetic dreams, which have predicted the Losers’ deaths prior to Pennywise’s next cicada-like resurgence. There’s also the matter of the other Derry children threatened by the clown’s current killing spree, but no one other than the guilt-wracked Bill – who still blames himself for little brother Georgie’s gruesome death at Pennywise’s hands – seems all that concerned about them.

If nothing else, Muschietti achieves a baseline consistency between the two It features when it comes to the story’s overall tone and the arsenal of kitschy shocks he employs. It Chapter Two hews to a similar formula as Chapter One, striking the same zany Halloween-store vibe that is reliant on jump-scares, gross-out gags, and over-the-top, cartoonish violence. Except that Chapter Two serves up its childhood nightmares over 34 extra minutes of much lumpier, more herky-jerky storytelling. It doesn’t help that the “enchanted summer” sparkle that made its predecessor such a sunny, heady pleasure has been replaced by the prickly disillusionment of early middle age. That shift has always been baked into the story of It, of course, but the somewhat unexpected comedy-horror vibe that Muschietti brought to Chapter One feels like a bit of an awkward fit now that the Losers are dealing with spouses, careers, and the specter of mortality.

It’s not a coincidence that Chapter Two’s standout performances – other than Skarsgård, who continues his strangely upsetting “Lovecraftian abomination meets Little Lord Fauntleroy” take on Pennywise – are from Hader and Ransome. Reproducing the affectionately cantankerous bond between Wolfhard’s Richie and Grazer’s Eddie with uncanny precision, the adult actors marvelously portray how easily old friends slip into comfortably familiar patterns, even after decades of separation. Hader and returning screenwriter Gary Dauberman – the latter taking solo duties this outing – add a surprisingly effective, non-canonical dose of pathos to Richie’s arc by not-so-subtly implying his closeted gay identity and latent romantic love for Eddie. However, Hader and Ransome make a strong impression primarily because they seem to be on Muschietti’s wavelength, responding to every ludicrous haunted-carnival scare with deadpan wisecracks and anxious irritation, respectively. In comparison, normally reliable dramatic stalwarts like McAvoy and Chastain seem to have wandered in from a completely different film, so earnest are their attempts to slather the proceedings with affecting angst and deadly serious dread. (McAvoy’s dodgy New England accent doesn’t help in this respect.)

Even if all the members of the main cast had been on the same page, however, it’s hard to imagine a film as narratively messy as It Chapter Two being a total success. For better or worse, the film often resembles a succession of freaky haunted-house encounters where the Losers run headlong into their still-lingering childhood terrors (including a few that the audience is just now learning about). There are a few detours that unfold entirely outside the viewpoint of the Losers, such as an admittedly horrifying run-in between a little girl and Pennywise beneath the high-school football bleachers. Dauberman at least had the good sense to ruthlessly pare down the footprint of the novel’s secondary characters such as Bill’s actress wife and Beverly’s abusive husband. However, that still leaves seven Losers to juggle, plus their returning childhood bully, Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), who has recently stabbed and slashed his way out of a mental hospital with a helping hand from Pennywise.

In truth, Henry doesn’t end up being much of a long-term threat, so enamored is Muschietti with the mythical resonance of the film’s very episodic plot. Each of the Losers gets their own little set piece when they split up to retrieve their totems, and then again when they are shunted into private ordeals during their final, hellish confrontation with Pennywise. There’s a sense of rushed, dutiful, and often uninspired box-checking that saps these purportedly phantasmagorical sequences of their potency. While It Chapter Two can be frustratingly lumbering and long-winded, it also paradoxically feels like the sort of project that might have benefitted from a more lavish, complex, and contemplative treatment. (One can envision a much more successful adaptation as an 8- to 10-part mini-series, perhaps helmed by renowned King aficionado Mike Flanagan.)

These flaws aside, there are still plenty of elemental horror-movie pleasures to be found in Chapter Two, even with cinematography duties now falling to Checco Varese, who doesn’t have Chung’s flair for grime and gloom. Nothing in the new film quite matches the demonic Grimm Brothers majesty of Pennywise’s lair in Chapter One, with its floating child corpses and looming tower of lost toys. However, Chapter Two does have its share of raw nightmare fuel, including a howling she-demon, a malevolent Paul Bunyan statue (yes, really), and a couple of truly appalling, no-holds-barred child murders. There’s also some undeniably striking imagery late in the film that ranges from the poetic dream logic of a shared hallucination to the extravagant grotesquery of Pennywise’s final, inhuman form. Ultimately, viewers who are simply looking to soak up the same ghastly scream-park shocks that made Chapter One the highest-grossing horror film of all time will probably find It Chapter Two largely satisfying, if needlessly rambling. (Not to mention short on the original’s bittersweet Bildungsroman ache.) For stalwart fans of King’s novel, the definitive film adaptation of the Loser’s Club saga remains (for now) an elusive thing, perhaps never to be liberated from the printed page.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Honeyland'.
September 5, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Fight of the Honeybees

2019 / Republic of Macedonia / 90 min. / Dir. by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov / Opened in select cities on July 26, 2019; locally on Aug. 30, 2019

The reach of the American Dream extends far beyond the boundaries of these 50 states. With the rise of e-commerce and a growing desire for ethically sourced global goods, America’s economic potential can affect even the planet’s smallest, most remote communities. As a result, the financial strategies used by American business owners find their way into such areas. Hatidze Muratova, the subject of Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s debut documentary, Honeyland, might not be selling her honey directly to U.S. consumers, but as the last female beehunter in Europe, it’s more than likely that her carefully cultivated supply makes its way into homes hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away from the single-room residence she shares with her elderly mother. She might not ever see the U.S., but the cutthroat nature of capitalism infiltrates her tiny village as if it were situated in the Rockies rather than the Šar Mountains of Macedonia.

Isolated from the outside world — or so it would initially appear — Hatidze’s daily routine is timeless. She walks up through the mountains to her secluded beehive, then checks in other hives located throughout her evidently abandoned settlement. It’s a graceful and harmonious system: Hatidze moving with precision and skill and the bees allowing her to work within their hives — she doesn’t hurt them, and they don’t hurt her. When the day’s work is done, she returns to care for her ill mother, who is bed-ridden and 85. Humorously, this mother-daughter relationship is more capricious than the one between Hatidze and her bees. It’s a life without modern technology, except for a glitchy radio with an antenna that picks up more static than airwaves and the occasional train ride she takes into town to sell jars of honey. However, it’s an existence with which Hatidze is perfectly comfortable — especially considering she has no real competition. Then the new neighbors arrive.

One fateful morning, a family with an indeterminate number of children arrives in a ramshackle pickup truck with a gutted RV in tow. The young ones run rampant while the mother and father do their best to turn their new house into a home. Through the single window above her mother’s bed, Hatidze watches with uncertainty. It’s a merited response. By day, the family herds cattle and goats; by night, their infant cries until dawn breaks. They have a routine, but it’s one that seems unlikely to coexist in harmony with hers. The neighbors are friendly together, swimming in the river and playing outside in the summer sun, but the tension that lies underneath these everyday distractions is escalating slowly but surely. It all boils over when Hussein, the patriarch, sees how much money Hatidze makes from her jars of honey and decides that he’d also like to take up beekeeping. All Hatidze can do is impart some of her wisdom and hope that he heeds her advice to keep their bees separate to avoid attacks and to make sure to leave half the honey in the hive to avoid colony collapse.

Honeyland’s greatest strength is the amount of time and attention it devotes to its main subject. Witnessing the expertise with which Hatidze cares for her bees is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s apparent that what’s transpiring onscreen is a sort of lost art form. In an era where everything is industrialized, streamlined, and digitized for maximum output and efficiency, it’s hard not to appreciate the personalized craft she puts into what she does (even if it takes up most of her waking hours). Everything is done by hand or on foot, and the well-being of the bees is always her top priority. That’s what’s so frustrating to her about Hussein and his family (and, as a result, frustrating to the viewer). His main concern — while noble in its own right— is his household, which means that the needs of the livestock and bees come second to a livable salary. He’s fine with cutting corners if it means a bigger payday for him and his kin. With only two people to care for, Hatidze is perfectly fine wearing the same clothes and eating very small meals if it means that her income can go right back into beekeeping. For Hussein, that money needs to be spent on feeding his children and paying for new clothes and supplies for school — it’s just not practical for him to save money (or put in the work) the way Hatidze does.

Learning that Kotevska and Stefanov spent upward of three years with their subjects makes the mind reel. The film is edited in such a way that the story seems to unfold over the course of a single bee season, starting when the weather is mild and ending during the dead of winter. It’s understandable why the filmmakers might have done this, even if it may or may not be manipulative — it establishes another potent analogy, this time for Hatidze specifically. Although the arrival of Hussein and his family unquestionably has an impact on her life, some other life-altering event would have occurred regardless of whether or not a rival beekeeper appeared next door. There’s a reason the notion of life moving through phases much like seasons has persisted in the arts for so long. Hatidze enjoyed good times and bad times before the events of Honeyland, and she surely will continue to experience both the positive and the negative going forward.

Kotevska and Stefanov’s documentary never resorts to talking heads or intertitles to help contextualize what’s going on — the camera is a fly (or bee) on the wall, allowing the interactions between the two beekeepers to speak for themselves. By taking this naturalistic approach, the co-directors craft a pithy analogy for the 21st century’s global economy. Hussein is McDonald’s, while Hatidze is a mom-and-pop diner. There’s a fundamental difference in the way the two operate, and the drama that transpires from this variance is the driving force of the piece. As a result, it’s hard not to get caught up in the tragedy of it all. (It’s absolutely a tragedy, by the way — suffering, distress, and destruction invade the lives of these two families with such force that it almost seems unreal.) Honeyland deserves praise for capturing something so bitter transpiring over something so sweet.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'Tone-Deaf'.
September 3, 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.

Jacob’s Ladder

2019 / USA / 89 min. / Dir. by David M. Rosenthal / Premiered online on Aug. 23, 2019

There is no film so sacrosanct that the very notion of remaking it is somehow inherently blasphemous, but it’s hard to envision a Jacob’s Ladder “re-imagining” as anything less than extremely ill advised. Adrian Lyne’s 1990 masterwork has three things going for it – a mind-screwy twist ending, ground-breaking visuals, and a distinctive Boomer paranoia – that can’t be replicated in 2019. Still, it feels like director David M. Rosenthal and a trio of screenwriters barely even tried to turn the story of haunted veteran Jacob Singer (a woefully underserved Michael Ealy) into something fresh, incisive, or even nominally interesting. Replacing the original film’s intimate, nightmarish psychological horror with limp, insincere moralizing about veterans’ services and mental illness, the remake resembles the blandest of Lifetime Originals dressed up with cut-rate J-horror flourishes. There’s nothing overtly bungling about the film – Rosenthal’s direction is drab but competent – but the copious visual references to Lyne’s original only serve to remind the viewer of the immeasurably superior film they could be watching. Rating: D+ [Now available to rent or purchase from numerous online platforms.]

Tone-Deaf

2019 / USA / 87 min. / Dir. by Richard Bates Jr. / Premiered online on Aug. 23, 2019

While writer-director Richard Bates Jr.’s Tone-Deaf doesn’t ever rise to the level of “good,” it at least manages to be gruesomely diverting and agreeably bizarre in shorts bursts. Some of this is due to Bates’ loopier choices, such as the surreal, music-video nightmares that plague Harvey (Robert Partrick), a widowed innkeeper whose lifetime of get-off-my-lawn resentment is about to erupt into a homicidal rage. Some of it is also attributable to how gamely Patrick and his co-star Amanda Crew – here portraying visiting LA hipster Olive, who is recently single, unemployed, and eager to get away from the city – bounce off each other in a series of awkward, testy exchanges. Tone-Deaf is ultimately undone, however, by its determination to use Harvey and Olive as proxies in a facile, idiotic Boomer-vs.-Millennial culture clash, a conceit that smacks of trollish disingenuousness. By the third time Patrick directly addresses the camera to rant about these entitled Kids Today and their avocado toast, the shtick has gone from trite to insulting. Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase from numerous online platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice'.
August 29, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Revisiting the Cinematic Landmarks of 1969

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

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice will screen at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 1 at the St. Louis Public Library's Central Library auditorium. Joshua Ray, film critic for the Lens, will introduce the film and moderate a post-film Q&A.

'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice': What the World Needs Now

By Joshua Ray

1969 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Paul Mazursky / Premiered Sept. 18, 1969 in Los Angeles, Calif.

Just how did Paul Mazursky’s sexually liberated comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice – which Pauline Kael curiously praised as “a slick, whorey movie” after its premiere at the 1969 New York Film Festival – find itself as the sixth-highest-grossing film of that year, positioned between two harbingers of the death of the Hollywood studio system, the wildly expensive and woefully traditional musicals Hello, Dolly! And Paint Your Wagon? The omnipresent marketing image of the two titular married couples (played by Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon), nestled together in bed with only sheets separating potential viewers from their naked bodies, certainly helped. “Consider the possibilities,” the tagline proposed, suggesting the great wife-swap orgy of the century. However, that winking notion preceded what is largely a bait-and-switch proposition. With nudity and, if not prurient sexual explicitness, at least sexually frank conversations on display, Mazursky’s directorial debut isn’t exactly a tease, but who would have expected an acutely observed and socially aware satire of manners as forgiving and loving to its subjects as it is critical of their lives of privilege?

The previous year, Mazursky and his writing and producing partner, Larry Tucker, had a similar stab at dissecting the confluence of the white bourgeoisie and the counterculture with I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! The longtime writing partners’ first film script initially began as Mazursky’s directorial debut, but lead Peter Sellers and Columbia Studios were reticent about handing over an ostensible star vehicle to a newbie filmmaker, so veteran television director Hy Averback took the helm. Sellers is a proto-Ted here, a nebbishy lawyer who tunes in and drops out in what quickly descends into a surface-level survey of SoCal hippie antics – the broadest of era-specific comedies that bears little fruit for a viewer of today.

Mazursky wasn’t necessarily displeased with the result and subsequently stated that it simply wasn’t the vision he would have mounted, explaining, “They just weren’t real hippies.” The incredibly more nuanced Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, with its comedy springing from detailed human behavior within the hip new scene, feels like a corrective to his previous satire. The former actor, comedian, and general showbiz Renaissance man – see his 1976 semi-autobiographical feature, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, for an excellent approximation of his formative years in the business – was in his late 30s and married with children as the counterculture began to take prominence in the mainstream American consciousness. Born squarely between the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation, however, meant that Mazursky could be a distanced participant in the breakdown between the two that helped spur the Sexual Revolution; the short-term fall in cultural conservatism; and the rise in self-awareness, self-care, and women’s liberation. This perfect storm resulted in the birth of the Swinging ’60s and Mazursky and Tucker’s creation of the poster children for it.

At least these are the poster children of a certain kind of 1969 person – not dissimilar to Mazursky himself – white and affluent folks in their late 20s to mid-30s who maybe saw The Graduate two years before and thought Ben Braddock a brat only to turn around and have their own existential, cultural, and political crises. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is utterly representative of this era, especially when it comes to Mazrusky’s sendups of the signposts of the time: the palatial Beverly Hills home of Bob and Carol is complete with a white-shag-carpeted sunken living room stuffed with gaudily excessive fixtures; the Whisky a Go Go-like underground club for LA’s elite features a flower-power fashion rave-up; and the foursome’s own duds are appropriately immodest in their overtly trendy design.

The two couples’ sexual awakenings may also be tied exclusively to the culture of 1969, stemming from Bob and Carol’s weekend trip to a new-age wellness retreat – called “The Institute” here but inspired by Mazursky’s trip to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif. – where they participate in a new Gestalt-practice group-therapy session. However, the negotiations they make to seek honest human connections beyond the high status they maintain within their social stratification are timeless. It’s ground Mazursky returned to with two other zeitgeist-tappers that helped define their decades: 1979’s second-wave feminist manifesto An Unmarried Woman, and 1986’s Reagan-era capitalist screwball farce Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

For better or worse, the milieu Mazursky works in is seriously white and, with the loose trilogy of his greatest hits of Bob and the two previously mentioned films, seriously white nouveau riche. No one is asking for the Jewish, Brooklyn-born LA transplant to tell people of color’s stories – his venture into that territory within his next film, Alex in Wonderland (1970), is one of its major flaws – but that the sole speaking role for such a character is given to Bob and Carol’s Latinx servant is alarming. That exact stratification and segregation of lower-class people who don’t resemble the leading quartet could be read as entirely the point, because what’s so striking about this silky souffle is its chef’s recipe mixing the sweet with the salty.

The first 20 minutes make for an excellent example of this careful balance. Set to Quincy Jones’ jazzy update of Handel’s “Messiah,” the opening titles are laid over a montage of the retreat dwellers sunbathing nude and practicing Tai Chi, with one particularly odd duck reading the business section in a hot tub. A tableau of a trio of bare-chested women immediately suggests something far more ribald than what follows, as Bob and Carol are immediately plunked down into a day-and-night session of Gestalt therapy with a large group of strangers – anything but the softcore fun that preceded it. As a documentarian attending for the purpose of observation, Bob is initially resistant to the emotionally open vibes. He even chuckles at a female participant’s admission that her purpose there is to figure out how to have an orgasm. Carol, however, becomes eager to explore quickly, eventually taking the opportunity to confront Bob about their lack of communication and roiling resentments. Their session ends in the film’s first (non-)orgy, except here it’s one of teary embraces.

Laughing at the plight of these privileged few and their ability to take part in such an activity, let alone pay for it, is welcomed by Mazursky, but he’s consistently keen to marry genuine tenderness with his acidity. It’s the crux of the bulk of modern comedy: Should I be laughing, cringing, crying, or all of the above? Credit for the humane farce should likely be paid to his experience in Lee Strasberg’s Method acting classes and other schools of performance and his unfulfilled career as a stand-up, plumbing the depths of his own experience to fully realize dramatic storytelling. Take, for instance, the protracted exchange between Ted and Alice after they’re made aware of their best friends’ extramarital dalliances – Bob’s “purely physical” encounter with a stranger and Carol’s whole-hearted acceptance of it into an open marriage. Twelve full minutes of runtime show a pre-sleep bedroom quarrel between the twitchy husband who can’t decide if he needs sex or a late-night jog and the frustrated woman who, while fighting off her own husband’s sexual coercion, is spiraling out because of her married friends’ newfound sexual openness. If it weren’t for the copious amount of the shots fixated on the female body, clothed and otherwise, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice might join An Unmarried Woman in the small pantheon of acceptable feminist work made by a male cishet director, since the women here are truly the complex beating hearts of this affair. Rohmerian (or at the very least Bergmanesque, since Rohmer was not yet a valued American import until My Night at Maud’s U.S. release in the following year) at its core, this discursively funny second-act cringefest is trademark Mazursky: wittily executed, contradictory to an unsuspecting filmgoer’s expectations, and sharply observed to the point of nauseating recognition.

And so the answer to the question of how Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice became a phenomenon and shorthand for smashing traditional monogamous boundaries is multifold but, in essence, always comes back to its compassion for the human experience. Mazursky freed both Culp, who just finished his run staring on television’s I Spy (1965-68), and Wood, the Hollywood child actor who continued to rise in rank beyond pubescence only to hit a rut shortly before this, from performative constrictions dictated by their studio-influenced backgrounds. Mazursky empowered the new kids on the block, Broadway performers Gould and Cannon, to synthesize their own naiveté with what he and Tucker had written on the page – largely found through their own improvisation. (These four, along with veteran cinematography Charles Lang, would receive Oscar nominations for their respective work here.)

In 1969, the masses began to ask their mainstream art to better reflect their increasingly turbulent existence, and the confluence of the failing Hollywood system and the rise in international film’s influence on makers and viewers allowed for that. Mazursky clearly belongs within this second group, “ripping off” Fellini’s (1963) in Alex in Wonderland (which also features an extended cameo by the Italian master) and with the carnivalesque ending here set to Jackie DeShannon’s version of “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Further evidence is Mazursky’s future direct remakes of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) with Willie and Phil (1980) and Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) with Down and Out. Even after blue-balling his audience with its infamous anti-climax, Paul Mazursky’s Euro-inflected debut was exactly the filmmaking American audiences were salivating after – the kind woefully missing from today’s popular cinematic landscape. What the world needs now is a new Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Consider the possibilities.

Tags: Golden Anniversaries Joshua Ray

A still from 'Jawline'.
August 29, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

To Live and Die in L.A.

2019 / USA / 99 min. / Dir. by Liza Mandelup / Premiered online on Aug. 23, 2019

Austyn Tester radiates positivity. The 16-year-old’s earnest optimism and unwavering confidence helped him secure more than 20,000 followers on the popular live-streaming website YouNow. Jawline, director Liza Mandelup’s first documentary feature, pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth about Tester’s life (and the lives of other social-media influencers just like him): It’s an incredibly bleak way to try and make a living. Behind Tester’s smiling face, hidden underneath his messages of self-love and motivation, there’s a cataclysmic amount of sadness. His plethora of online fans — the majority of whom are tween girls — would be devastated if they knew just how unsure and inadequate he feels offline. Tester aspires to be as successful as those in the upper echelons of the digital world. Little does he know, the young men he idolizes are managed by someone who is just as lonely as he is.

Jawline opens with Austyn standing against a brick wall in Kingsport, Tenn. A friend snaps pictures of him as he poses for the camera. None of the photos fit his high standards, so the two walk on to the next location. While others are out competing in sports, doing homework, or playing video games, Austyn is trying to build a brand. After school lets out, any free time he has is dedicated entirely to boosting numbers, getting likes, and earning clicks. Once the webcam starts rolling, Tester waxes poetic at a desk in a corner of the shabby home that he shares with his mom and brother, spending hours live-streaming while they work to stay afloat. He clearly takes it seriously — there’s an entire room devoted to making these videos, the walls lined with pictures and posters sent by fans from around the country. Still, it’s hard for him to carry on with this day-to-day when the fruits of his labor are trickling in much slower than those of his heroes, a group of similarly aged influencers dubbed 99GoonSquad.

Based in Los Angeles, these teenage boys live under the supervision of their manager — a man not much older than them named Michael Weist. Austyn idolizes the lifestyle portrayed in their videos and often lifts their generic positive sentiments directly for his own personal streams —  pouting off lines like “You all look so beautiful today, don’t let anybody tell you different” and “Never give up on your dreams, no matter what happens in life” — in hopes of being just like them someday. Mandelup cuts back and forth between Tester’s struggles to climb the ladder of success and Weist’s overzealous leadership style to great effect. The latter’s madhouse of rowdy young “stars” is the ultimate goal for the former, so he leaps at the very first contract that comes his way. Watching Tester attempt to parse through the legal jargon of a contract while expressing reservations about getting bamboozled is gutting — the simple fact that he’s not a household name suggests exactly what his fate will be in the end.

Mandelup refuses to judge her subjects. Her film is purely observational, the camera existing as nothing more than a fly on the wall — there’s no need for commentary or condemnation when the actions of Austyn and Michael speak for themselves. Tester’s story is what the American Dream has evolved into for Generation Z. With YouTube taking precedence over television and film (especially for those born after 2000), becoming Internet Famous is everything. Forget movie stars, forget boy bands, forget reality TV — the most beloved figures to a majority of the nation’s youth are vloggers and live-streamers. The sheer amount of access that Mandelup was given by both of her main subjects is revelatory. By filming Austyn and Michael at their most vulnerable, their most insecure, and their most uncertain, she has uncovered what is ironically the digital age’s most sought-after route to success. Fandom and followers go hand-in-hand with soul-crushing solitude and desperation, with Tester and Weist serving as bookends on either end of a very narrow career spectrum. Viral fame is 2019’s teenage dream, and it’s never been grasped quite like this before.

At a certain point, Jawline becomes so bizarre that it’s almost alienating — it’s sometimes hard to grasp the sheer absurdity of what’s transpiring onscreen, especially if one is unfamiliar with the social-media realm. With both Austyn and Michael’s futures looking vague, Mandelup resorts to some questionable flourishes to fill the time between their respective storylines. It’s easy to discern what she’s going for with these fictionalized elements, but they’re ultimately a distraction from the far more fascinating footage she’s gathered. If Mandelup needed filler to pad her documentary, perhaps it would have been worthwhile to spend some time including some more context for those who might be unfamiliar with Musical.ly (now known as TikTok), YouNow, PomsCon, DigiTour, and VidCon — all of which are integral to the pair’s narratives.

For what it’s worth, Austyn comes across as much more genuine in comparison to Michael and his gaggle of teen tastemakers. While Tester and his friends swim in a river, Weist and his clientele drop thousands of dollars shopping on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. Austyn holds a meet-and-greet in the food court of a dying mall for a handful of girls, while the 99GoonSquad sells out convention centers filled with thousands of sobbing pre-teens having full-on panic attacks at the sight of them. This lifestyle is considered the preeminent achievement for a small-town boy with West Coast dreams, but it’s nothing more than a cash cow for talent managers like Michael. He compares his job to the California gold rush of the 1800s, showing no regard for the well-being of his human commodities once they’re no longer “hot.” Tester wants to leave home more than anything else, but Jawline proves that the surreality of being a Z-list Internet celebrity is in no way superior to humble life in the real world (no matter how mundane one’s day-to-day is). One is real and permanent. The other isn’t — it’s always fleeting, always changing, always searching for your replacement.

Rating: B-

Jawline is now available to stream from Hulu.

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch