January 25, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Run to the Hills

2017 / USA / 134 min. / Directed. by Scott Cooper / Opened in select cities on Dec. 22, 2017; opens locally on Jan. 26, 2018

Like all the director’s features, Scott Cooper’s bleak, slow-burn Western Hostiles manages to eke out rough success, despite the familiarity of its story components. Cooper’s works are consistently constructed according to durable, masculine formulae: the artist-cum-addict character study of Crazy Heart (2009); the small-town revenge tale of Out of the Furnace (2013); and the G-men-and-gangsters crime drama of Black Mass (2015). Hostiles is the director’s take on the hard-bitten Western, complete with an arduous cross-territory odyssey and plenty of late-19th-century rumination on the End of the Frontier. Based on an unproduced manuscript from the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart (Missing; The Hunt for Red October), Cooper’s film positions itself as a corrective to the genre’s historical demonization of Native Americans and its glorification of the U.S. Cavalry. In this, Hostiles is hampered by both the neglect it exhibits towards its Native characters and by a moral arc for its white protagonist that feels distractingly implausible. On balance, however, the film is still a solid work of revisionist mythmaking, as somber in its overall tone as it is brutal in its depiction of frontier violence.

The film’s opening depicts a scene of white terror that echoes The Searchers (1956), although Cooper renders with ghastly explicitness the bloodshed that John Ford kept discreetly offscreen. In 1892, a rampaging band of Comanches descend on the remote New Mexico homestead of the Quaid family, ostensibly to steal horses, although the raiders proceed to pitilessly slaughter everyone in sight. Only Mrs. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike, superb as usual) manages to evade the attackers by hiding in the scrubby forest, where she maniacally clutches her limp infant child — dead from a rifle shot to the head. It’s a grim, shocking prelude, to be sure, one that is pointedly consistent with the white settler's perception of Native Americans as murderous, marauding devils.

The whooping, war-paint-smeared Comanche raiders are so blatantly designed to play on hoary Western stereotypes that the opening almost feels like a provocation aimed at contemporary, liberal-minded viewers. However, Cooper quickly disrupts the disconcerting racial overtones by flipping the equation in the following scene. In this sequence, sadistic U.S. Cavalry Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) and his men run down a fleeing Apache family, children included, as though the Natives were nothing more than rabid animals. Blocker believes himself to be a warden of American civilization — he pointedly reads Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul (in Latin!) — but his motivations are plainly racist and personal. The men under his command who perished during the various Indian Wars weigh heavily on him, as do the gruesome Native-perpetrated atrocities he allegedly witnessed. This contrasts with the deaths of the Native Americans themselves, whom Blocker and fellow soldiers such as Master Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Corp. Woodson (Jonathan Majors) admit to shooting, gutting, and scalping with enthusiasm. Woodson, incidentally, is a Buffalo Soldier — an enlisted black cavalryman — and the intense, brotherly affection that he and Blocker share is but one example of Hostiles’ sensitivity to the complex, personal idiosyncrasies of racism.

Shortly after Blocker returns to his post at a lonesome New Mexico fort, his commanding officer, Col. Biggs (Stephen Lang), fills the captain in on his latest assignment. The captive Cheyenne chieftain Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is dying of cancer, and President Benjamin Harrison has decreed that, as a somewhat dubious gesture of goodwill, the chief should be allowed to pass away on his tribe’s sacred lands in Montana. Blocker has been selected to lead this 1,000-mile public-relations expedition, much to the captain’s palpable fury and disgust, and to the prim amusement of a progressive journalist (Bill Camp) who seems to have had a hand in the arrangement. Blocker indignantly threatens to resign his commission, but he ultimately assents to Biggs’ orders for fear of losing his Army pension — the only comfort, the colonel reminds him, that an old soldier can truly count on.

Blocker assembles an ad hoc unit for this humiliating mission, calling on Metz, Woodson, and a few greenhorns like newly minted West Point graduate Lt. Kidder (Jesse Plemons). Also along for the journey are the chief’s family members, who have been similarly languishing in an Army prison: daughter Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty), son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), daughter-in-law Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), and grandson Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief). Blocker and Yellow Hawk have a history on the battlefield, and the cavalry captain makes it abundantly clear that he intends to make the journey as onerous on the chief as possible, purely out of spite. The ailing Cheyenne warrior is initially posed on horseback for a publicity photo, but once the party has traveled a few miles down the trail, Blocker forces the chained Yellow Hawk to keep pace on foot. The captain also announces that he won’t hesitate to shoot his Native prisoners if they prove troublesome, presidential orders be damned.

Not long after setting out, the band’s path crosses that of Rosalie Quaid, still hiding in the wilds after her ordeal and still half mad with gore-spattered fear. (The mere sight of Yellow Chief and his family sends the woman into a fit of hysterical screaming.) Blocker exhibits an uncharacteristic gentleness in dealing with Rosalie — she is a pretty white woman in distress, after all — and his respectful deference to her grief provides her with the space she needs to finally bury her child’s remains. Unfortunately, the Apaches who murdered Rosalie’s family are still lurking among the cottonwoods, and there is an anxious awareness that they will have no compunction about slaying everyone in Blocker’s party, whether white, black, or Cheyenne. Yellow Hawk contemptuously calls these bandits “rattlesnake people” and requests that he and his family be unshackled so that they can assist in the defense of the caravan. Naturally, Blocker isn’t having any of this, although later events do prompt him to reconsider whether chaining up half the party’s able-bodied warriors is such a wise idea.

Director Cooper foregrounds the way that the story’s unforgiving wilderness setting — splendidly captured in all its raw, lustrous glory by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi — blurs the borders that divide political, cultural, and moral factions. The film’s title and tagline underline the primacy of point-of-view in such definitions: Namely, whether whites or Natives are the “real” hostiles depends on who one asks. More broadly, the film establishes that such reductive labels are perpetually shifting and conditional. The harshness of life on the trail re-configures a taxonomy that, at least for Blocker, was recently composed of bright-line, racialized rules about Good Guys and Bad Guys. Formerly reviled Native Americans are abruptly re-classified as situational allies against other, antagonistic tribes — not to mention against conniving convicts, outlaw trappers, and hotheaded ranchers, all of whom plague the party’s journey at various points (and all of whom are white).

Cooper’s film asserts that white supremacy as a personal creed is not merely morally vile but also woefully fragile, crumbling with telltale ease in situations where sheer survival depends on trusting and cooperating with non-whites. (White supremacy as an American political institution is a touch more durable, but Hostiles is less concerned with systems than with the individual.) In Blocker’s case, his acceptance of his Cheyenne captives’ essential humanity proceeds slowly at first, only to accelerate rather unbelievably in the film’s final stretch. By Hostiles’ conclusion, the Army captain has evolved from a spittle-flecked racist who relishes murdering Native Americans to a sensitive egalitarian who deeply regrets his role in the U.S. Cavalry’s massacres. To his credit, Bale’s quietly ferocious and anguished performance is unfailingly credible in the moment, but Cooper’s screenplay never provides a sufficiently durable justification for this enlightened about-face.

Although the film doesn’t adequately sell Blocker’s character arc, it does frankly and aggressively tackle the way that racism — and racially motivated violence in particular — inevitably becomes a gangrene that eats away at the soul. Cochrane’s haunted, weary Indian Wars veteran and Plemons’ untested but morally centered officer provide resonant, contrasting examples in this respect. Master Sgt. Metz confesses how thoroughly and irreparably he has been undone by a lifetime of hideous violence perpetrated against Native Americans, while Lt. Kidder expresses his earnest resolve to never become accustomed to murder, even when it is carried out under the aegis of military service. Although the film’s characters don’t have the modern psychological vocabulary to put a label on posttraumatic stress disorder, they do exhibit a keen sense for the mental and spiritual price that is paid for racist violence.

Of course, there’s an undeniably self-involved quality to such moral preoccupations, in that the film’s primary interest lies in white racism’s effects on whites themselves. In contrast, the film feels frustratingly undernourished where its Native characters are concerned. Studi is characteristically excellent in the role of Yellow Hawk, relying on his unnervingly steady gaze and relatively minute changes in his countenance to achieve striking depth. The understated quality to the actor’s portrayal, however, is arguably forced on him by a script that gives neither Yellow Hawk nor his family much in the way of dialogue-based character development. A comparison to Dances with Wolves (1990), another white-centered revisionist Western about Native Americans, is apt in this matter. Kevin Costner’s film offered an unabashedly romanticized vision of Native life on the post-Civil War frontier, but its Lakota characters were generally striking, richly realized personalities. Hostiles, in comparison, is ruthlessly clear-eyed about the historical ugliness of its setting, but its Cheyenne characters are largely ciphers.

Like their white fellows, the Cheyenne men are permitted to ride to the aid of the womenfolk on a couple of occasions, offering a multiracial (yet still gendered) spin on the genre’s standard-issue abduction, captivity, and rescue myths. However, the viewer ultimately learns little about Yellow Hawk’s clan, beyond what can be gleaned from the Native characters’ sporadic, bone-dry observations on the events unfolding around them — dialogue delivered in authentic Cheyenne, to the film’s credit. The Native women are especially neglected, narratively speaking, serving primarily as vessels into which Rosalie can pour her forgiveness and magnanimity. This inattention is especially irksome in the case of Kilcher, who portrayed Pocahontas with such ethereal grace and sorrowful nuance in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). Her talents deserve a role that is much more substantial than what Cooper’s film offers her.

Hostiles is an unapologetically slow and sobering feature, befitting a story about a journey that is, for all intents and purposes, a funeral march. Although returning Yellow Hawk to his tribe’s Powder River lands before he expires is allegedly the whole point of the expedition, Cooper doesn’t much stress the urgency of this goal. The 1,000-mile trek to Cheyenne country is essentially a pretext for the film to dwell at length on how damnably ugly and cruel life can be, particularly when it is lived close to the bone, as it is by both the surviving Native Americans and the frontier’s white settlers. This is a dire and not particularly nuanced theme — existence is full of pointless suffering — but Cooper’s screenplay discerns how racism both exacerbates that suffering and call attention to its mad absurdity.

During a stopover in a dying stagecoach town, Blocker accepts a secondary mission to convey a condemned murderer named Wills (Ben Foster) to a hanging judge. This initially feels like a narrative digression, but is revealed as a crucial means for the film to elaborate on its ideas. Ironically, it is Foster’s racist good ol’ boy — who purportedly knows Blocker from way back when — who points out that the U.S. Army’s white-supremacist policies are just a flimsy cover for ordinary criminal violence. “We both know it could just as easily be you sitting here in these chains,” Wills smirks at Blocker. The prisoner further wheedles the captain in ways that highlight the dehumanizing effect of oppression on the oppressor. “Seeing all the things you seen, doing all the things you done,” Wills drawls reflectively, “it make you feel … inhuman.”

With a running time just shy of 135 minutes, Hostiles is the sort of Western that takes its sweet time, reveling in earnest, pause-laden exchanges about morality. Scenes unfold languidly as characters mull over their past and future, often while gazing out at the savage loveliness of the surrounding deserts, forests, and mountains. The film does feature some spectacularly vicious action set pieces, including a whirlwind horseback shootout, a muddy brawl in the pounding rain, and a nocturnal sortie that ends in a mass throat-slitting. Cooper composes these grisly, often chilling sequences quite marvelously, using the wilderness landscape and naturalistic lighting to fantastic effect. However, such eruptions of brimstone and bloodshed primarily serve to throw the rest of the film’s solemnity into even sharper relief.

Ultimately, Cooper’s feature derives most of its dramatic heft not from violence but from the emotional and spiritual aftershocks of that violence. These are revealed in the quiet moments when characters speak poetically of their fears, shames, and cast-iron certainties. While Hostiles never approaches the aching cowboy lyricism of, say, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), it is far less concerned with six-gun thrills or historical verisimilitude than with fuzzier matters of theme and mood. Said mood is overwhelmingly bitter, despairing, and exhausted, reflecting the characters’ preoccupation with the world’s capricious cruelty and their own incalculable contributions to it. “Sometimes I envy the finality of death,” Rosalie admits, “the certainty.” Whether the viewer finds this sort of existential gloom invigorating or wearisome may be a matter of personal taste. However, whatever its missteps, Cooper’s film is still an ambitious, gorgeous, and often moving realization of the grim, philosophically minded Western.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Final Year'.
January 18, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Exit, Stage Left

2017 / USA / 89 min. / Directed by Greg Baker / Opens in select cities on Jan. 19, 2018

In a time of marked polarization and hostility in American politics, the most obvious dilemma that faces Greg Barker’s new documentary feature, The Final Year, is the kneejerk partisan response of the viewer. The film provides a behind-the-scenes, generally chronological depiction of Barack Obama’s foreign policy team over the course of 2016, as the administration’s priorities began to shift towards its long-term legacy. In its outlook, the feature is unabashedly progressive and internationalist, taking it as a given that the viewer broadly concurs with Obama's policy aims. Liberal filmgoers—especially those with a wonky interest in global affairs—are accordingly primed to regard the film in a positive, if sorrowful, light. Conservatives, on the other hand, are likely to spend the film’s duration either stewing over Barker’s lionization of the Obama era, or gleefully smirking at the administration’s fumbles, failures, and post-November despair.

Director Greg Barker is a seasoned, if undistinguished, documentary veteran, with a filmography that focuses predominantly on splashy topics related to politics, terrorism, and the military. (His director and co-director credits include half a dozen episodes of PBS’s esteemed public affairs program Frontline.) The overall “Yes We Can, But…” tone that he privileges in The Final Year certainly suggests that the filmmaker is counting on former Obama voters to turn out in the name of ideological nostalgia, making up for the presumed absence of conservative ticket-holders. Paradoxically, however, the most compelling aspects of The Final Year are those that are largely incidental to party and ideology. 

Unquestionably, The Final Year is not formally stimulating enough to qualify as “good cinema” in the usual sense, nor is it a galvanic political document in the league of Robert Drew’s Kennedy films (1960-64) or The War Room (1993). Barker plainly relishes the access that he and his crew have been afforded, and the film is careful not to tread too roughly any center-left toes. Hysterical right-wing media gasbags will doubtlessly label it revisionist propaganda, but the film is undeniably friendly to the former President and his agenda. There's virtually no discussion of policies that earned the President a measure of animus from the left, such as drone warfare and targeted killings. Obama himself makes a few appearances in the film, usually popping in to deliver a stirring quote to the camera, but he is more of a removed presence than a character, befitting a documentary focused on his presidential achievements (and disappointments) rather than the man himself.

The film’s real subject is Obama’s foreign policy first-stringers: Secretary of State John Kerry; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power; and Deputy National Security Advisor and foreign policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes. (A few interview snippets also feature National Security Advisor Susan Rice, although she is a peripheral figure.) In the abstract, Kerry is the most intriguing of these characters—at 72 years of age, the former senator’s knowledge, doggedness, and 16-hour work days awe and intimidate younger members of the diplomatic corps—but The Final Year is not really concerned with individual political portraiture.

The primary narrative that Baker establishes is that of the unending quest for the President’s ear, and the tension between Power’s idealism and Rhodes’ pragmatism. This is, naturally, a simplification of the pair's complex and slippery political philosophies, as well as an exaggeration of relatively minute policy differences between internationalist liberals. Still, Barker is fairly canny in selecting his two principals, as they make for a tidy contrast. Power spends her time shuttling back and forth between Washington and U.N. headquarters in New York, while also putting her feet on the ground at human rights flashpoints around the globe. Rhodes, meanwhile, has the strategic advantage of near-constant physical proximity to the President, both at the White House and during the Commander-in-Chief's international visits. 

These differences in terms of access, priorities, and vantage point generate some mild intra-administration melodrama. Rhodes speaks of vigorous arguments behind closed doors, although on camera everyone is amicable enough. However, the most substantial advantage to loosely framing the film around Power and Rhodes is that such an approach provides an agreeable rhythm to what otherwise might have been a shapeless, this-then-that record of events. By repeatedly switching the film’s viewpoint from the State Deparment to the White House to far-flung corners of the globe, Barker keeps the film humming along through 89 minutes of policy esoterica, diplomatic schmoozing, and crisis management—a running time that feels just about right for the subject matter.

Hovering over this day-to-day Executive Branch drama is the larger question of what issues to tackle in the administration’s limited remaining time, and how Obama’s liberal legacy can best be preserved. It’s in that respect that The Final Year is most fascinating, for reasons that have less to do with the the particulars of this White House than with the structure of the American political system. The film represents a rare peek at a sitting executive’s advisors as they prepare for the bloodless coup that ensues every four or eight years in American life. Hardcore political junkies are the only ones likely to find it outright enthralling, and Barker does nothing to make the fly-on-the-wall raw material particularly invigorating. However, there’s an undeniable novelty in being able to witness this peculiar winter period in the lifespan of a presidential administration. Obama’s foreign policy gurus are obliged to keep up with all the unceasing demands of their daily jobs, while simultaneously seeking ways to lock down the President’s accomplishments so that a future, hostile administration cannot unravel them.

With the hindsight afforded by a January 2018 release, the elephant in the room is, of course, Donald Trump. To state the obvious, Barker did not know how the November 2016 presidential election would turn out when he first began documenting the Obama administration’s final twelve months. However, the apprehensive yet guardedly optimistic tone that dominates conversation throughout most of the film suggests an administration that expected to pass the baton to its own party. After the election, a shell-shocked, despairing mood prevails, to be replaced in the final days by exhausted resignation and frantic, last-minute efforts at productive diplomacy.

For liberal viewers, there’s likely to be an element of post-traumatic agony in witnessing the Obama era end in such a colossally sour manner all over again. This is at its most acute during Power’s election night party, where luminaries such as Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem wait expectantly for the ultimate glass ceiling to be shattered, only to see their hopes crumble. This doesn’t stop the film’s subjects or Barker from concluding The Final Year on a generally positive tone that conveniently fits Obama’s “Know Hope” political slogan and brand. However, in the Age of Trump, credibly peddling this sanguine perspective entails looking years into the future and even beyond American borders. Barker’s film ultimately positions politically engaged, college-age admirers of Obama from Washington to Cameroon to Laos as the future champions of a democratic, cooperative global community. Cold comfort, perhaps, to progressive American filmgoers, but it’s all The Final Year has to offer in the way of reassurance for the next three years.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A scene from 'Phantom Thread'.
January 12, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Warp and Weft of Love

2017 / USA / 130 min. / Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson / Opened in select cities on Dec. 25, 2017; opens locally on Jan. 12, 2018

The opening lines in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new feature Phantom Thread are spoken by Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young British woman with an indefinite Continental slant in her accent. In hushed, carefully-chosen words, she tries to articulate—to an initially unseen listener—the peculiar topography of her relationship with Reynolds Woodcock, an eminent fashion designer in 1950s London. This fireside chat serves as a framing device, with Alma’s flannel-soft voice occasionally drifting in and out of the flashbacks that comprise the bulk of the film. She speaks of Reynolds in the present tense, but her worlds are wistful and reflective. She is attempting to make sense of her years as a muse, lover, and eventually wife to a dreadful, difficult man. As she tells it, Reynolds is a handsome and debonair romantic, and an undeniable master of haute couture—but also an insufferable, supercilious prick with some serious Mommy Issues.

At times, it’s devilishly easy to lose sight of Alma’s centrality in this story, if only because Reynolds Woodcock is played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The actor’s formidable shadow veritably looms over the past three decades of English-language narrative cinema, with his singularly esteemed reputation attributable in part to his demonic performance in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007). Everything about Day-Lewis seems designed to draw the eye: His impossibly regal, Roman profile; his seething, squinting facial expressions; his coiled, ever-present whiff of volatility; his facility for grandiose yet mesmerizing monologues. The marvelous conceptual canniness of Phantom Thread lies in how Anderson—one of the great living American filmmakers, and certainly the most consistent in his greatness—turns Day-Lewis’ overpowering presence into a feature, not a bug. Indeed, it’s challenging to imagine another actor in the role, not because Reynolds Woodcock is such an instantly iconic character, but because the irresistible, elemental force of Daniel Day-Lewis is so crucial to the film’s resonance.

Reynolds, like Day-Lewis himself, is a creative luminary who approaches his work with a zeal that is daunting to the mere mortals that surround him. Obsessive, narcissistic, and astonishingly cold-hearted, the designer is intolerably certain of his genius and the deference he is accordingly owed. The flock of women who attend him—seamstresses, servants, models, lovers—are obliged to creep and grovel, lest they disturb his Great Work with unintentional sins. (Scraping a butter knife across toast too noisily, for example.) The only person his wrath never seems to touch is his prim older sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), whom he affectionately calls his “old so-and-so”. Humorless and effortlessly domineering, Cyril is at once the chamberlain, marshal, and sharp-eyed vizier of the House of Woodcock. When Reynolds tires of one of his muses but cannot be bothered to formally end the affair, it is Cyril who pitilessly sends the heartbroken woman packing.

However, while Reynolds might be the center of attention, Phantom Thread is Alma’s story. It relates how she fell under the Woodcock spell, and how she—like the muses before her—eventually became fed up with the man’s aloofness, abusiveness, and petty, unreasonable demands. In a sense, then, Anderson’s film is a tale as old as time: A woman falls head-over-heels for an admittedly dazzling man, only to belatedly discover that he is an unmitigated bastard who makes her utterly miserable. Alma’s ascension into Reynolds’ dizzying, fashionable life is sudden, steep, and intoxicating; she is a shy waitress at a country inn when the designer first meets her. Her disillusioning descent is equally sharp when she is forced to confront the grotesque day-to-day reality of life with a shameless egomaniac.

Unlike the women who preceded her, however, Alma has no intention of allowing herself to be put out by the curb like yesterday’s rubbish. Accordingly, what begins as a straightforward (if sumptuous) tale of May-December heartbreak resolves into something much more twisted. Phantom Thread never discards its aura of sinuous, swooning luxury, but a sinister miasma drifts into the film’s latter half. The story becomes a dark dance of deception, control, and emotional perversity, recalling the works of English writer Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, “Don’t Look Now”) and bits of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). There are shades of fairy tale menace, as well: The plot evokes “Bluebeard” and “Beauty and Beast”, but Anderson unravels the traditional dynamic of such folk stories—an innocent maiden in the power of a monstrous brute—into complex, Freudian knots. Phantom Thread remains a grounded yet exultant romance to its end, but it is a romance that snakes off in some disquieting and utterly unexpected directions.

Such marvelous unpredictability with respect to story is one of the distinguishing features of Anderson’s past four films, all of them masterpieces after a fashion: There Will Be Blood, The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), and now Phantom Thread. Nonetheless, the director’s newest film is also his most accessible and stately work to date, at least on its creamy satin surface. The film has the cursory attributes one expects of middlebrow awards-season dramas, such as lavishly realized period production design and a towering central performance by an A-list star. However, there’s no sense of crass calculation discernable in Phantom Thread, even when it luxuriates indulgently in the sheer loveliness of Reynolds’ rarefied world. Anderson embraces the allure of his setting honestly, plainly reveling in the splendor of extravagant, hand-made dresses, but also in the timeless beauty of 19th- and early 20th-century furnishings, or in a pocket square nestled just so in a houndstooth jacket. Phantom Thread is, in other words, an achingly pretty film that adores pretty things, even when the plot turns strangely unruly and treacherous.

Much like There Will Be Blood and The Master, Anderson’s latest work exhibits a dreamy, liquid quality in its editing, here handled brilliantly by Dylan Tichenor. The director’s films don’t have scenes and acts so much as symphony-like movements, and it’s in Phantom Thread that this approach finds its most comfortable fit, befitting a romance told mostly in flashback. Swatches of remembrances are laid alongside one another, creating an almost expressive whirl of sensations and moods. This approach is pinned down with a handful of more galvanic, actorly passages—the events that Alma would naturally recollect in crisp detail, such as her first starry-eyed evening with Reynolds or a vicious, pivotal quarrel between the lovers. Crucial to the film’s fluid rhythms is the score from perennial Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood. Here the composer delivers his most traditional and unabashedly lovely work for the director to date, replete with lush, yearning strings and besotted, meandering strolls along the piano.

Anderson’s nimble talent with cinema’s formal aspects and his ability to elicit career-best work from cast and crew alike were already evident in Hard Eight (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997). However, over the course of the past decade or so, the director has evolved into one of America’s most inimitable and slippery auteurs. His films do not exhibit a signature style that is easily mimicked or parodied, and they defy reductive description and categorization. What unifies them is Anderson’s unfailingly heady cinematic storytelling, as well as a fearless compulsion to burrow deep into strange, unexplored corners of the human experience—whether psychological, sociological, or historical. The director’s characters are often eccentric and deeply troubled creatures, resistant to crude cultural boxes and simplistic, multiplex psychoanalysis.

Both Krieps and the screenplay tend to portray Alma as this sort of enigmatic and contradictory soul, echoing the way that the actress’ cherubic, girl-next-door beauty clashes with her small, dark, inscrutable eyes. Alma’s suffering and the reasons for it are as obvious as the fire that at times flashes in those eyes, but—notwithstanding her narration—the viewer is not always privy to the intricacies of her thoughts, motivations, and desires. If there’s one factor that disrupts Phantom Thread’s plain ambitions to be a slyly feminist work, it’s the film’s intermittently frustrating tendency to treat its heroine as a cipher who is compelling primarily due to her relationship with a powerful and deeply flawed man.

Reynolds, in contrast, is an open book. He’s an inveterate romantic, generous with his adoration (at least initially), unashamed of his humble origins, and refreshingly cavalier when it comes to the suffocating niceties of the British class system. (For all his vanity, he refers to his unfathomably expensive, made-to-order designs, which are worn by countesses and princesses, as a “trade”, not an art.) For Reynolds, the clothes are everything. In one of the film’s more amusing and crowd-pleasing sequences, he storms a drunken dowager’s honeymoon suite to demand that she return her wedding dress, claiming that she has besmirched such a fine garment with her boorish behavior. However, this late-night mission of reclamation—which he shares with an equally riled Alma, sealing her status as a romantic partner who “gets” him—also points to Reynolds’ faults. He’s a preening control freak and finicky man-child whose brokenhearted adoration for his deceased mother shapes all his relationships. Physically tender but emotionally sadistic, he jabs explosively at Alma for the slightest reason (or no reason at all), lobbing the most malicious verbal insults imaginable with almost offhand irritation.

It’s apparent why Alma both adores and despises this man, but it’s not until the film’s second hour that she herself puzzles out why she remains with him and what exactly she wants from such a supremely dysfunctional relationship. Devising a perilous means to shift the dynamic of their union—to clandestinely transform herself from the possessed to the possessor—Alma simultaneously turns Phantom Thread into something thornier and more stimulating than a “mere” romantic melodrama. It remains a romance, but an enormously warped one, wherein the leads circle one another like predatory animals during a rancorous mating season, their longings hopelessly muddled with fears, fury, and territoriality. After a certain point, Alma and Reynolds are not entirely certain what kind of bizarre game they are playing, but they are aware that they are playing one. This mostly wordless chess match concludes with a heart-stopping sequence of feints and gambits involving, of all things, the cooking and consumption of a mushroom omelet. Phantom Thread is, in its way, a perfect date film, but it is emphatically not a first date film. It's for lovers who have been together for years, tamed each other, learned each others' tricks, and somehow negotiated a symbiosis that would no doubt baffle an outside observer.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Desolation'
January 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 have a ‘same-day’ limited theatrical opening and video-on-demand (VOD) launch. 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 like St. Louis, online streaming is an 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.

Beyond Skyline

2017 / USA / 106 min. / Directed by Liam O’Donnell / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Dec. 15, 2017

Beyond Skyline—a spinoff/sequel to the dismally crappy, instantly-forgotten Skyline (2010)—is unequivocally a Bad Movie, and not in the winking, kitschy manner of a Syfy original. It essentially depicts the same alien invasion from the first film, but from the perspective of different characters, chiefly a widowed, alcoholic LAPD detective (Frank Grillo). It’s not a complete train wreck as action-sci-fi-horror mashups go. The film boasts some decent creature design, solid martial arts from veterans of the Raid films, and a certain go-for-broke, juvenile nuttiness to its plot swerves. (In one scene, Grillo delivers an alien-human hybrid infant on a spaceship—and that’s just at the film's halfway point.) However, it’s also stupid, tedious, illogical, and a tonal mess. In other words, it’s an intermittently amusing Bad Movie for the viewer who’s only halfway paying attention. It barely squeaks into the “Hell, Why Not?” pile due to the brain-ripping gusto it displays in earning its R rating. Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.] 

Desolation

2017 / USA / 78 min. / Directed by Sam Patton / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Dec. 15, 2017

It’s clear that Desolation is predicated on a noble, if humble, ambition: distilling wilderness survival and serial killer tropes into a single, lean, character-centered work. The result has a whiff of low-budget chintziness, but slim resources aren’t a failing, and Sam Patton’s film has other problems anyway. For a good 40 minutes, it’s a solid and often unnerving exercise in escalating tension. While backpacking in the wooded Adirondacks, a widow, her best friend, and her adolescent son gradually realize they are being stalked by a mysterious, silent hiker. (Despite looking like Rob Zombie in a windbreaker, this figure conveys a predatory menace solely through his preternatural stillness and inscrutability.) Once the bloodletting begins, however, Desolation seriously starts to sputter. Not only does the villain devolve into just another violent brute, but it becomes apparent that the filmmakers are unable to either satisfyingly resolve the characters’ physical ordeal or justify first act’s thematic preoccupation with the grieving process. Rating: C- [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Andrew Wyatt

Silence
January 4, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Call it the La La Land hangover. In the wake of the overwhelming popularity and wide-ranging critical acclaim heaped on Damien Chazelle’s bittersweet musical fantasy in 2016, it was hard not to notice the extent to which 2017’s best feature films largely rejected the buoyancy, romanticism, and Broadway razzamatazz of the prior year’s box office smash. There were some ostensible exceptions, of course: Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is essentially La La Land meets The Italian Job; Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is as starry-eyed as any animated Disney tale; and Benny and Josh Safdie’s Good Time practically overdoses on streaks and splotches of fluorescent color. Scratch the surface, however, and one finds knottier realities beneath the giddy infectiousness, storybook familiarity, and ecstatic sensory overload (respectively) of these films. Baby Driver simultaneous revels in and causally topples crime drama clichés. The Shape of Water’s girl-on-piscine love affair is as taboo-busting as they come. And Good Time’s neon hues vibrate anxiously alongside a jarringly bleak story.

In short, it was a year of unexpected complexity, contradiction, and impertinence. With the benefit of ten months of hindsight, one is tempted to read a deeper meaning to the bungled Best Picture reveal at last February’s Oscars ceremony. A throwback song and dance crowd-pleaser about gorgeous white people in love was initially declared the winner, to absolutely no one’s surprise. Then — whoops! — the honor actually went to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight: an intimate and emphatically queer romantic drama about a black boy/teen/man in inner-city Miami. Also: A Muslim won Best Supporting Actor.

Perhaps it was coincidence, or just Hollywood thumbing its nose at a resurgent and emboldened bloc of right-wing authoritarianism in American politics. However, it also seemed to presage a year in which the best cinema was that which questioned, critiqued, and upended the conventional wisdom with respect to both art and politics—without necessarily eliciting easy answers. Genre was sliced, diced, and remixed in 2017, and discomfiting truths about race, class, age, disability, and sexuality were unpacked with surprising boldness, suggesting that the year’s standout filmmakers felt they had nothing to lose.

This best cinema of 2017 also reflected the creepy elephant in the room: the flood of scandals revealing that the entertainment industry might have a wee problem with misogyny and sexual misconduct. Fittingly, the reaction from many women was not that of a jaded Captain Renault in Casablanca (“I am shocked. Shocked.”) but a paraphrase of H.G. Wells’ bitter suggestion for his epitaph: “We told you so. You damned fools.” On the screen, feminism didn’t wring its hands mournfully or enthuse about how far society has come: It was frank, astute, and often mad as hell. In 2017, cinema interrogated male ego and weakness (Graduation; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; The Salesman), and used genre to convey truths about women’s experiences (Colossal; Raw). It vividly illustrated how women can be both the oppressed and the oppressor (Lady Macbeth), took its revenge on an effigy of every male deceiever (The Beguiled), and occasionally screamed itself hoarse in righteous rage (mother!). And, admittedly, it also allowed itself a blockbuster victory lap where a certain Amazon warrior-princess is concerned.

Not all of 2017’s best works were so sharply political, however, and the most unexpected achievements were often those films that eroded genre conventions and pushed against formal boundaries. Hokey, well-worn premises were rendered freshly invigorating, studio sequels elected for ambition over the safe and cozy, and between Split, Get Out, and It, horror somehow turned into the year’s smash genre. (Jordan Peele’s film, in fact, pulled off a hat trick: absurdly profitable, culturally impactful, and sharply political.) The increasingly codified and artistically conservative superhero picture was clobbered in wildly divergent ways (see: Captain Underpants and Logan). Olivier Assayas' slippery Personal Shopper reconcieved what a "ghost story" looks and feels like. (As did, for that matter, A Ghost Story.) A pair of quixotic filmmakers somehow turned 65,000 oil paintings into an animated murder mystery about the impenetrability of truth. Christopher Nolan made a WWII feature for the ages — and there are hardly any Nazis in it. Oh, and Martin Scorsese delivered a masterpiece about Jesuit missionaries being tortured in feudal Japan. All in all, 2017 proved to be a heartening surfeit of cinematic riches, one that rewarded filmmakers and viewers alike who were willing to venture outside their comfort zones.

A film qualifies for this list if it could be viewed theatrically for the first time by the ticketed public in the greater St. Louis area between January 1 and December 31, 2017.

20. Baby Driver

2017 / UK, USA / 112 min. / Directed by Edgar Wright / Opened in wide release on Jun. 28, 2017

A delirious combination of jukebox musical and high-octane heist picture for everyone who’s ever had to cue up just the right song before pulling out of their driveway.

19. Your Name. [Kimi no na wa.]

2016 / Japan / 106 min. / Directed by Makoto Shinkai / Opened in select U.S. cities on Dec. 2, 2016; opened locally on Apr. 7, 2017

An indescribably ravishing work of animation, and a brilliant reclamation of the body-swapping trope. A poignant sci-fi dramedy about cultural, economic, and gender divisions (and commonalities).

18. A Ghost Story

2017 / USA / 92 min. / Directed by David Lowery / Opened in select cities on Jul.7, 2017; opened locally on Jul. 28, 2017

Formally audacious and astonishingly affecting. A lo-fi meditation on grief and memory, with a humbling truth underneath its startling narrative swerves: Time is a flat circle.

17. Logan

2017 / Canada, Australia, USA / 137 min. / Directed by James Mangold / Opened in wide release on Mar. 3, 2017

A weary, anguished, fittingly ultra-violent farewell for Hugh Jackman’s mutant; a resonant rumination on aging and mortality; and a jarring but necessary gutting of superhero flick formulae.

16. Paterson

2016 / USA, France, Germany / 118 min. / Directed by Jim Jarmusch / Opened in select cities on Dec. 28, 2016; opened locally on Jan. 13, 2017

A sublime statement of humane values for a callous age, presented (warts and all) with such scruffy lyricism and bone-dry wit that a platitude becomes warm wisdom: Live simply.

15. The Salesman [Foroushandeh]

2016 / Iran, France / 124 min. / Directed by Asghar Farhadi / Opened in select U.S. cities on Jan. 27, 2017; opened locally on Feb. 10, 2017

Death Wish, as only Asghar Farhadi could envision it: gnawing, unsatisfying, unpredictable, and quietly, remorselessly critical of everything from sexual shaming to the very notion of revenge.

14. The Florida Project

2017 / USA / 111 min. / Directed by Sean Baker / Opened in select cities on Oct. 6, 2017; opened locally on Oct. 27, 2017

Italian neorealism meets Carl Hiaasen in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, where a child is queen of all she surveys. Somehow grubby, jubilant, bleak, and touching all at once.

13. Lady Macbeth

2016 / UK / 89 min. / Directed by William Oldroyd / Opened in select U.S. cities on Jul. 14, 2017; opened locally on Jul. 28, 2017

A seductive and utterly ruthless portrait of both miserable victimhood and blackest villainy — in the form of one unforgettable woman. An exquisitely nasty briar patch of race, class, and gender.

12. Raw [Grave]

2016 / France, Belgium, Italy / 99 min. / Directed by Julia Ducournau / Opened in select U.S. cities on Mar. 10, 2017; opened locally on Mar. 31, 2017

Cannibalistic hunger as a vivid metaphor for a girl’s sexual awakening. Equal parts grisly and haunting. An incisive depiction of how women’s erotic appetites are policed, indulged, and repressed.

11. The Lost City of Z

2016 / USA / 142 min. / Directed by James Gray / Opened in wide release on Apr. 21, 2017

James Gray’s best work to date. Shrewdly observed, splendidly structured, and visually enthralling. An endlessly layered rumination on a bounty of ideas: exploration, failure, legacy, vanity, history, and personal evolution.

10. Graduation [Bacalaureat]

2016 / Romania, France, Belgium / 128 min. / Directed by Cristian Mungiu / Opened in select U.S. cities on Apr. 7, 2017; opened locally on Apr. 28, 2017

A 21st-century tragedy with teeth. Straps down the most essential parental ambition — to secure a better future for one’s child — and vivisects it, revealing all the vainglorious ugliness pulsing within.

9. Good Time

2017 / USA / 101 min. / Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie / Opened in select cities on Aug. 11, 2017; opened locally on Aug. 25, 2017

The Safdies channel Lumet, Scorsese, Mann, and the Dardennes for one frenzied night in neon-slicked New York City. The result, like Robert’s Pattison performance, is gritty, relentless, and unambiguously electric.

8. Personal Shopper

2016 / France, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium / 105 min. / Directed by Olivier Assayas / Opened in select U.S. cities on Mar. 10, 2017; opened locally on Mar. 24, 2017

Kristin Stewart delivers a magnetic and wonderfully nuanced turn in a marvelous Continental puzzle box that resists all attempts to curtail and subdivide its mysteries. That final shot: Whew.

7. The Shape of Water

2017 / USA, Canada / 123 min. / Directed by Guillermo del Toro / Opened in select cities on Dec. 8, 2017; opened locally on Dec. 15, 2017

Only Guillermo del Toro would think to play matchmaker to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and only he could pull it off with such lavishness, humanity, and heartfelt magic.

6. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

2017 / UK, Ireland, USA / 121 min. / Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos / Opened in select cities on Oct. 20, 2017; opened locally on Dec. 1, 2017

Arresting, chilly, and terrifying. An unforgiving depiction of a man’s inability to accept that doom is slouching towards his family, or that it’s all his fault.

5. Columbus

2017 / USA / 100 min. / Directed by Kogonada / Opened in select cities on Aug. 4, 2017; opened locally on Sep. 22, 2017

A gorgeous not-quite-love story, hypnotically enamored with art, design, and history. Most of all, with people: their longings, loyalties, and resentments. 

4. Dunkirk

2017 / UK, Netherlands, France, Germany / 106 min. / Directed by Christopher Nolan / Opened in wide release on Jul. 21, 2017

Sand. Sea. Air. Steel. Oil. Flame. Tick. Tick. Tick. The WWII picture distilled down to a frantic scramble for survival — that also emerges as a fascinating historiographical statement about narrative.

3. The Beguiled

2017 / USA / 93 min. / Directed by Sofia Coppola / Opened in select cities on Jun. 23, 2017; opened locally on Jun. 30, 2017

A visually stunning and morally blistering fable about the lies that men tell and the willpower of righteously wrathful women. Sofia Coppola’s finest work to date.

2. Blade Runner 2049

2017 / USA, UK, Hungary, Canada / 164 min. / Directed by Denis Villeneuve / Opened in wide release on Oct. 6, 2017

Against all odds, they got it right. Everything that blockbuster science fiction should be: dazzling, contemplative, wondrous, cerebral, humane, enigmatic, sexy, and sorrowful. Studio sequel perfection.

1. Silence

2016 / Mexico, Taiwan, USA / 161 min. / Directed by Martin Scorsese / Opened in select cities on Dec. 23, 2016; opened locally on Jan. 13, 2017

Theology, ethics, and philosophy given thrilling cinematic form. A harrowing feast for the senses and the mind. A poetic and fiercely complex rumination on freedom of conscience, the pitfalls of language, and the limits of authoritarian power. A lamentation for the eternal solitude of the human condition. Profuse with handholds for believers, heathens, and atheists alike. An instant masterpiece.

Honorable Mentions: 20th Century Women; Call Me by Your NameCaptain Underpants: The First Epic Movie; City of GhostsColossal; A Cure for Wellness; Get Out; Human FlowI Am Not Your Negro; I Called Him Morgan; JaneJohn Wick: Chapter 2JulietaKedi; Last Men in Aleppo; Logan Lucky; LovesongLoving Vincent; mother!My Life as a Zucchini; Neruda; Obit; The Red Turtle; ResetRestless Creature: Wendy Whelan; Song to SongThe Square; War for the Planet of the Apes;The Wedding Plan; Wind River

Overrated, Slightly or Highly: Battle of the Sexes; The Big Sick; Brad's Status; California Typewriter; DetroitLetters from Baghdad; Menashe; Norman; Risk; Their Finest; Tickling Giants; The Women's Balcony; Wonderstruck

Underrated: Dark NightHappy Death DayPast LifeValerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Best Overlooked Performance: Anya Taylor-Joy, Split

Considered Last Year: After the Storm; The Fencer; Germans & Jews; A Quiet Passion; Toni Erdmann; Tower

Notable Films I Missed: Birdboy: The Forgotten Children; Faces Places; Film Stars Don't Die in LiverpoolGook; My Entire High School Sinking Into the SeaOnly the Brave; Pop Aye; The Woman Who LeftA Woman's Life; The Wound

Films We're Still Waiting for in St. Louis: BPM (Beats Per Minute); Dawson City: Frozen Time; EX LIBRIS: The New York Public Library; Hostiles; In the Fade; Molly's Game; NocturamaPhantom Thread; The Post; The Work

Tags: Best Of Andrew Wyatt

January 2, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Video-on-demand (VOD) is increasingly becoming a vital way for horror enthusiasts to access the genre's best contemporary features, particularly in secondary and tertiary markets such as St. Louis. In some ways, 2017 was a watershed year, in which the horror landscape shifted decisively towards a multi-platform paradigm. Same-day theatrical and VOD premieres were a common release strategy this year for smaller horror films, and a key means for such films to find an audience in Flyover Country. The library of new original content at streaming giants like Netflix exploded, burrowing down into increasingly specialized niches. The streaming horror platform Shudder finally seemed to find its footing, releasing a bounty of exclusive new features that had unjustly languished in post-festival limbo without distribution.

Streaming content is no longer a minor supplementary source of cinematic chills, but a crucial means by which devoted horror fans can explore the world of today's independent and international features, which are giving lazy American multiplex fare a run for its money. In that spirit, the list that follows presents the best feature-length horror films to be released via VOD this year. A film qualifies for this list if it premiered on a streaming platform between January 1 and December 31, 2017, whether 1) exclusively on that platform; 2) on the same day as a limited U.S. theatrical release; or 3) less than 30 days after a limited U.S. theatrical release.

10. A Dark Song

2016 / Ireland, UK / 100 min. / Directed by Liam Gavin / Opened in select U.S. cities and premiered online Apr. 28, 2017

Liam Gavin’s desolate and spine-tingling occult chamber piece is the definition of “slow burn”. A grieving mother and an abrasive demonologist-for-hire seal themselves in a remote Irish estate to conduct a grueling, months-long ritual to communicate with the woman’s deceased child. For a long, long time virtually nothing happens; and then all hell breaks loose. While A Dark Song’s climactic scares are standard stuff for 21st century horror, what’s deeply impressive about the film is the seriousness with which it approaches its occult trappings. It might be the most earnest and un-sensational film ever made about black magic. Yet Gavin hews to a commendably impressionistic approach, plying the viewer with mysterious, fascinating glimpses of maigc circles and ritual bloodletting rather than agonizing over the procedural minutiae. [Now available to stream via Netflix, and to rent via Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and other platforms.]

9. Hounds of Love

2016 / Australia / 108 min. / Directed by Ben Young / Opened in select U.S. cities and premiered online May 12, 2017

It was something of a banner year for Australian abduction and survival horror pictures, and Ben Young’s Hounds of Love is one of the standouts in this mini-wave. At first glance, there’s nothing particularly inventive about this black tale of a Bonnie-and-Clyde serial killer couple preying on adolescents in the suburbs of Perth. There’s no grand guignol hook: Just a terrified girl chained to a bed, at the mercy of a pair of human fiends. However, Young’s film boasts stellar compositions, enthralling performances, and a dense, perversely sun-kissed atmosphere of evil. Moreover, Hounds of Love burrows deep into the twisted psychology of its monstrous power couple, closely observing how the film's teenage heroine schemes to pit her captors against each other — before they grow bored with her. [Now available to stream via Hulu, and to rent via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

8. Super Dark Times

2017 / USA / 100 min. / Directed by Kevin Phillips / Opened in select cities on Sep. 29, 2017; premiered online on Oct. 3, 2017

Kevin Phillips’ forbidding tale of male adolescent implosion in 1990s suburbia borrows from influences as diverse as Gus Van Sant, Sam Raimi, and Stephen King, but Super Dark Times also contains echoes of film noir at its most nihilistic. In grey, wintery upstate New York, a freak accident obliges a group of teenaged boys to keep a terrible secret, but it also drives a wedge between two best friends, slowly putrefying every aspect of their lives. Phillips’ film summons an evocative, gloomy atmosphere, and he expertly pinpoints the faintly surreal, detached behavior of idle high school boys. Underneath the film’s potent, moody authenticity, however, pulses a timeless tragedy about the gangrene of guilt, as well as a timely indictment of masculine aggression and entitlement. [Now available to rent via Google Play, Vudu, and other platforms.]

7. Killing Ground

2016 / Australia / 88 min. / Directed by Damien Power / Opened in select U.S. cities and premiered online on Jul. 21, 2017

Damien Power’s punishing survival thriller is another high-water mark in this year’s Australian horror offerings. When a couple arrive at a remote camping spot in the forests of New South Wales, they discover disquieting signs of other visitors, who have seemingly abandoned their SUV, tent, and possessions. Killing Ground uses well-worn dual timeline trickery to play with viewers’ perceptions and squeeze agonizing tension from its slow-burn scenario. However, this sort of structural sleight-of-hand, while engaging, is less vital than the film’s utter cold-bloodedness. From a seemingly stock scenario about backwoods killers and suburbanites in peril, Powers crafts a shocking portrayal of indifferent cruelty, as well as a captivating late-game shift into a scathing critique of male cowardice. [Now available to stream via Netflix and to rent via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

6. The Girl with All the Gifts

2016 / UK, USA / 111 min. / Directed by Colm McCarthy / Opened in select U.S. cities on Feb. 24, 2017; premiered online on Jan. 26, 2017

Every other year or so, the moldering zombocalypse subgenre is given a vitalizing shot in the arm. In 2017, that infusion of verve arrived in the form of Colm McCarthy’s bracingly bleak The Girl with All the Gifts. From familiar raw materials — a cannibalism-inducing virus, a besieged military installation, a ragged band of survivors—the film crafts a novel, compelling vision of the end times. McCarthy’s feature follows an unlikely young girl who has succumbed to the zombie plague but has retained her human mind, and it’s through her eyes that the viewer watches as civilization's vestiges crumble. At the center of the film’s astute world-building and unexpected poignancy is a pitch-black pessimism that is disturbing in large part because McCarthy makes annihilation seem so damn comforting. [Now available to stream via Amazon Prime and to rent via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

5. Gerald’s Game

2017 / USA / 103 min. / Directed by Mike Flanagan / Premiered online on Sep. 29, 2017

With Gerald’s Game, Mike Flanagan exhibits his characteristic facility for uncovering the potential of an elevator-pitch premise and transmuting it into smart, vivid horror cinema. Adapting Stephen King’s decidedly un-cinematic novel about a coerced BDSM session gone horribly wrong, Flanagan opens up what is essentially a one-woman chamber piece with deft camera work, droll hallucinations, and hyper-real, nightmarish flashbacks. The result is a brutal, remorseless, and remarkably stirring tale of self-preservation and self-actualization. Although it retains King’s clunky twist ending, Gerald’s Game leaves a devastating impression thanks to superb performances from Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood — not to mention one of the most stomach-churning, jaw-dropping gore effects of the decade. [Now available to stream via Netflix.]

4. Most Beautiful Island

2017 / USA / 80 min. / Directed by Ana Asensio / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 3, 2017

Ana Asensio’s marvelously self-assured debut feature begins, oddly enough, as a realist portrait of single immigrant women in New York City. Asensio stars as a Spanish transplant struggling to pay her rent, when a questionable opportunity lands in her lap: a few thousand dollars to stand around at an underground party for the well-to-do. It’s at this soiree that Most Beautiful Island suddenly lurches into skin-crawling psychological horror. Both the shrewd thematic mutualism of the film’s halves and Asensio’s elegant handling of the tonal swerve are striking. Cynical, hardheaded, and yet subtly subversive, the film presents a ghastly depiction of the One Percent at their most decadent and depraved, but never indicts the rabble for making Devil’s deals in order to survive. [Now available to rent via Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

3. 1922

2017 / USA / 102 min. / Directed by Zak Hilditch / Premiered online on Oct. 13, 2017

It’s been a (mostly) exceptional year for Stephen King adaptations, but Zak Hilditch’s unforgiving, dread-choked cornhusker noir just might be the best of the bunch. Based on one of King’s lesser-known novellas, 1922 depicts one calamitous year in the life of a prideful Nebraska farmer, whose liberated and wasp-tongued wife is about to divorce him, liquidate their land, and decamp to Omaha with their son. The husband devises a murderous solution to this dilemma — ruthlessly manipulating his son to assist with the bloody deed — but this horrific crime sends ripples of chaos through their lives that can never be undone. Hilditch’s enthralling direction and Thomas Jane’s revelatory performance give this sordid, Poe-indebted tale of male resentment and remorse an distinct Old Testament heft. [Now available to stream via Netflix.]

2. Prevenge

2016 / UK / 88 min. / Directed by Alice Lowe / Opened in select U.S. cities and premiered online on Mar. 24, 2017

Pregnancy is an evergreen subject in the body horror subgenre, but Alice Lowe — who writes, directs, and stars in this marvelous, blackly comical slasher — is arguably the first filmmaker to discern the perverse potential of pregnancy’s uncanny psychological symptoms. Lowe’s glum Welsh widow has a decidedly bloodthirsty bun in the oven: Her squeaky-voiced fetus telepathically bullies and cajoles her to cut a bloody swath through a list of (allegedly) deserving victims. Besides being absurdly funny, utterly vicious, and unexpectedly sorrowful, Prevenge is sharply attuned to the surreal emotional tribulations of expectant mothers. Lowe cannily depicts all the unwelcome mental poking and prodding that a pregnant woman endures from doctors, politicians, strangers, and the alien parasite growing inside her. [Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile. Now available to stream via Shudder and to rent via iTunes.]

1. The Blackcoat’s Daughter

2015 / Canada, USA / 93 min. / Directed by Oz Perkins / Opened in select U.S. cities on Mar. 31, 2017; premiered online on Feb. 16, 2017

Oz Perkins’ magnificent, disturbing, and erotically prickly sophomore film is a twisted tale in both the moral and structural sense. The Blackcoat’s Daughter weaves together two parallel stories. One is centered on a pair of adolescent girls, stranded over February break at an austere Catholic boarding school in upstate New York. The other concerns a fraught young woman who has recently fled a psychiatric hospital and is slowly making her way towards that same school. These storylines eventually converge, of course, but what’s truly memorable about Perkins’ film isn’t its structural hocus pocus but its unhurried minimalism, its mesmerizing visuals and soundscape, and its severe, menacing atmosphere, which is so thick it’s practically suffocating. For a story about bloody murder and Devil worship, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is an almost audaciously deliberate film, where forward momentum is gladly sacrificed to the desolation of Hudson Valley cabin fever and peculiar, portentous occurrences. However, this chilly restraint amplifies the gouts of demonic madness when they do occur, permitting Perkins’ film to deliver not only some of the year’s most searing horror images, but also a quietly devastating conclusion. [Now available to stream via Amazon Prime and to rent via Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Tags:

December 25, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

In a year in which real-world political and cultural events often seemed like fodder for a surreal nightmare, horror cinema could often appear superfluous. Even dedicated aficionados of the genre could be forgiven for questioning the escapist value of ghosts, demons, and chainsaw-wielding maniacs in a time when natural disasters, mass shootings, and super-villainous politicians seemed ascendant. Certainly, film distributors both big and small didn't do viewers or themselves any favors by flooding the multiplex with an embarrassment of cheapjack sub-theatrical rubbish. While 2017's horror releases didn't quite reach the insulting and offensive depths attained in 2016, looking back on this year reveals a dispiriting streak of lifeless crappiness. On the positive side, the year also produced an encouraging number of superb films. Rather than just one or two standouts, 2017 delivered several striking features that will be savored, unpacked, and re-evaluated for years to come. Intriguingly, the most exciting works of horror this year were often those that embraced the present moment (intentionally or not) rather than running from it, finding rich potential in notions of privilege, trauma, oppression, and apocalyptic uncertainty.

What follows is an all-inclusive assessment of this year’s theatrical horror features, ranked from worst to best. A film qualifies for this list if it could be viewed theatrically by the ticketed general public in the St. Louis metropolitan area between January 1 and December 31, 2017.

The Bye Bye Man

26. The Bye Bye Man

2017 / USA, China / 97 min. / Directed by Stacy Title / Opened in wide release on Jan. 13, 2017

It’s not just that Stacy Title’s film-shaped excretion is miserably ugly, laughably chintzy, and terminally un-scary. It’s that absolutely nothing about The Bye Bye Man is remotely functional. The unbelievable, unappealing characters consistently behave like morons who richly deserve their unholy fates. The villain is an unthreatening, arbitrary grab-bag of attributes with no backstory. And the plot is horrendously dull and nonsensical, when it’s not outright schizophrenic. How such an obnoxious, incompetent mess ever managed a wide theatrical release—even in January—defies human reasoning. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.

 Blood Wars

25. Underworld: Blood Wars

2017 / USA / 91 min. / Directed by Anna Foerster / Opened in wide release on Jan. 6, 2017

Given the franchise’s history, anyone who blundered into Anna Foerster’s Underworld: Blood Wars expecting even a halfway bearable film was always bound to be disappointed. However, there’s something galling about the fact that the series’ producers continue to churn out features as unpleasant, wearisome, and stridently stupid as this unwanted fifth helping of vampires vs. werewolves compost. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.

Don't Kill It

24. Don't Kill It

2016 / USA / 83 min. / Directed by Mike Mendez / Opened in select cities on Mar. 3, 2017

Redoubtable meathead Dolph Lundren enjoys himself in the role of a grizzled, acerbic demon hunter, and the film’s splatterhound goofiness is fleetingly enjoyable. However, Mike Mendez’s Don’t Kill It is a dismal exemplar of low-budget horror’s worst inclinations: boring characters; terrible dialog; aimless narrative; and all the transgressive “cleverness” of a 14-year-old glue huffer’s creative writing project.

Flatliners

23. Flatliners

2017 / USA, Canada / 109 min. / Directed by Niels Arden Oplev / Opened in wide release on Sep. 29, 2017

Setting aside whatever reasoning could have possibly prompted a remake of Joel Schumacher’s stylish and moody 1990 feature, Niels Arden Oplev’s Flatliners is a cavalcade of cinematic blunders from start to finish. Squandering a talented cast and betraying not one glimmer of visual or narrative originality, it also commits the worst possible sin for a supposed horror thriller: never being remotely scary.

Phoenix Forgotten

22. Phoenix Forgotten

2017 / USA / 87 min. / Directed by Justin Barber / Opened in wide release on Apr. 21, 2017

Justin Barber’s sci-fi horror nothingburger seems convinced that the world wanted a shameless Blair Witch clone about the 1997 Arizona UFO sightings. Even if that were true, surely no one asked for a film as ungainly, tedious, and charmless as Phoenix Forgotten, which bewilderingly elects to nest a dull found footage story inside another dull found footage story.

 The Final Chapter

21. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

2017 / UK, France, USA, Germany, South Africa, Canada, Japan, Australia / 107 min. / Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson / Opened in wide release on Jan. 27, 2017

Consistent with every entry in this inexplicably still-twitching series, the only appealing aspect of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is Milla Jovovich’s magnetism and her enthusiasm for such chuckleheaded material. Those alone aren’t remotely sufficient to redeem the sixth entry in the franchise, which is just as mind-numbing, visually unintelligible, and grimly idiotic as its predecessors. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.

Friend Request

20. Friend Request

2016 / Germany / 92 min. / Directed by Michael Verhoeven / Opened in wide release on Sep. 22, 2017

Michael Verhoeven’s film isn’t quite as insufferable as its dire “haunted social media” high concept forebodes, and it even manages some grisly funhouse shocks at times. However, such meager merits hardly outweigh the tin-eared dialog, derivative design, and predictable plotting. Most repugnantly, Friend Request proffers a message that seems to advocate the pitiless spurning of misfits and outsiders. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.

The Mummy

19. The Mummy

2017 / USA, China, Japan / 110 min. / Directed by Alex Kurtzman / Opened in wide release on Jun. 9, 2017

Alex Kurtzman’s muddled, dreary attempt to kick-start an ill-conceived Universal monster multiverse isn’t as unremittingly wretched as its reputation implies. Still, a couple of modestly inspired action-fantasy set pieces and Sofia Boutella's formidable allure can’t salvage a film so hilariously misconceived, shabbily considered, and atrociously written. At least Stephen Sommers’ 1999 version was fun in a self-consciously kitschy way.

Jigsaw

18. Jigsaw

2017 / USA, Canada / 92 min. / Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig / Opened in wide release on Oct. 27, 2017

Whenever a new entry in the Saw franchise shambles along, one can at least count on the spectacle of distasteful characters perishing in inventive death traps. In this respect, Michael and Peter Spierig’s Jigsaw delivers, and more stylishly than usual, but the series’ most obnoxious characteristics are also accounted for: ludicrous dialog, moral incoherence, and a distracting direct-to-VOD shoddiness.

47 Meters Down

17. 47 Meters Down

2017 / UK, Dominican Republic, USA / 89 min. / Directed by Johannes Roberts / Opened in wide release on Jun. 16, 2017

Johannes Roberts’ film fulfills the most essential function of a killer shark picture, in that it does a capable, even thrilling job of sending ravenous great whites hurtling towards the tender flesh of its heroines. That’s about all that the colorless 47 Meters Down has going for it, however, in between bland characters, limp melodrama, and a contemptuous third act fake-out.

Wish Upon

16. Wish Upon

2017 / USA, Canada / 90 min. / Directed by John R. Leonetti / Opened in wide release on Jul. 14, 2017

Joey King’s lead turn as a hard-luck yet self-absorbed Everygirl is the only bright spot in John R. Leonetti’s peculiar, ludicrous mashup of “The Monkey’s Paw” and the Final Destination films. Gloomy yet daft, Wish Upon often feels like a “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons, but its palpable contempt for teenagers sours any potential for black comedy.

Rings

15. Rings

2017 / USA / 102 min. / Directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez / Opened in wide release on Feb. 3, 2017

More passable than a 15-years-later sequel to The Ring has any right to be, F. Javier Gutiérrez’s film is just barely held afloat by some stylish touches and a plot that cleverly remixes that of the original. At bottom, Rings is more of a creepy, silly “what if” follow-up than a sturdy standalone feature, but it could have been much worse. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.

Life

14. Life

2017 / USA / 104 min. / Directed by Daniel Espinosa / Opened in wide release on Mar. 24, 2017

The conventional wisdom is largely on point regarding Daniel Espinosa’s unapologetic Alien rip-off Life. The story is derivative as hell, and the allegedly brilliant scientist and engineer characters consistently make roundly stupid choices. However, the film is also genuinely nerve-wracking, conjuring a potent mood of raw animal dread and cascading pandemonium. Moreover, twist endings don’t come much bleaker.

The Belko Experiment

13. The Belko Experiment

2016 / USA, Columbia / 89 min. / Directed by Greg McLean / Opened in wide release on Mar. 17, 2017

Greg McLean’s white collar horror satire never figures out exactly what it’s satirizing, and the screenplay is prone to ham-fistedness where story and character are concerned. Still, The Belko Experiment’s sheer viciousness is a thing to behold. There’s gore aplenty, of course, but the film doesn’t skimp on pitch-black pessimism or cruel subversions of viewer expectations. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.

Annabelle Creation

12. Annabelle: Creation

2017 / USA / 109 min. / Directed by David F. Sandberg / Opened in wide release on Aug. 11, 2017

While David F. Sandberg’s forbidding killer doll feature isn’t original enough to qualify as a truly standout horror film, it’s an absurdly steep improvement over 2014’s asinine and unbearably dull Annabelle. Haunted house and demon possession story clichés abound, but Annabelle: Creation implements them with lush gothic atmosphere and a pair of engaging performances from its lead child actresses. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine.

Happy Death Day

11. Happy Death Day

2017 / USA / 96 min. / Directed by Christopher Landon / Opened in wide release on Oct. 13, 2017

If there was an honest-to-god surprise in 2017’s cinematic landscape, it was Christopher Landon’s ridiculously charming slasher comedy Happy Death Day. Anchored by a winning lead turn from Jessica Rothe, the film transcends its elevator pitch premise — Scream meets Groundhog Day — with brisk visual and situational wit, an infectious sense of morbid fun, and a surprisingly earnest indictment of self-absorption.

It

10. It

2017 / USA, Canada / 135 min. / Directed by Andy Muschietti / Opened in wide release on Sep. 8, 2017

Andy Muschietti’s film takes a few story missteps and doesn’t quite give Stephen King’s novel the expansive treatment it deserves. These quibbles aside, however, It is a deliriously entertaining dose of childhood nightmare fuel. With its phenomenal tween cast, unfailingly creepy visuals, and Bill Skarsgård’s bracingly inhuman Pennywise, the film expertly balances mortal terror and carnival absurdity. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.

 Covenant

9. Alien: Covenant

2017 / USA, UK / 122 min. / Directed by Ridley Scott / Opened in wide release on May 19, 2017

Ridley Scott finds a darkly intoxicating sweet spot with Alien: Covenant, striking a gratifying equipoise between Prometheus’ solemn Big Ideas science fiction and the elemental, creature-in-the-dark terror of the franchise’s 1979 original. Stellar action-horror set pieces and a chilling gothic-apocalyptic mood are vital to the film’s success, but it’s Michael Fassbender’s astonishing dual performance that steals the show. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine.

Split

8. Split

2016 / USA, Japan / 117 min. / Directed by M. Night Shyamalan / Opened in wide release on Jan. 20, 2017

Notwithstanding the psychological authenticity of its premise, M. Night Shyamalan’s ingeniously constructed and consistently mesmerizing Split is the director’s all-around best feature in years. James McAvoy’s nimble (and surprisingly witty) portrayal of serial killer with multiple personalities is the film’s marquee draw, but it’s Anya Taylor-Joy’s quietly superb performance that lends pathos to the feature's Tales from the Crypt high concept. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine and discussed further at Gateway Cinephile.

It Comes at Night

7. It Comes at Night

2017 / USA / 91 min. / Directed by Trey Edward Shults / Opened in wide release on Jun. 9, 2017

Horror stories don’t come much more shattering than Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, a post-apocalyptic chamber piece that trades the subgenre’s plague zombies for the more insidious monsters of terror, paranoia, and despair. With a handful of raw materials — two families, a farmhouse, and a mysterious plague — Shults transforms everyday human failings into the stuff of nightmares. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine.

Thelma

6. Thelma

2017 / Norway, France, Denmark, Sweden / 116 min. / Directed by Joachim Trier / Opened in select U.S. cities on Nov. 10, 2017; opened locally on Dec. 1, 2017

Joachim Trier’s film blends freshman campus melodrama, aching queer romance, and the uncanniness of X-Men to achieve a haunting and morally thorny tale of psychic terror. Thelma’s splendidly chilling visuals and a tormented, enigmatic performance from Eili Harboe are the most vivid attractions, but what’s most commendable is the film’s fearlessness in confronting the grotesque implications of its premise.

mother!

5. mother!

2017 / USA / 121 min. / Directed by Darren Aronofsky / Opened in wide release on Sep. 15, 2017

Widely (and inexplicably) misconstrued as both pretentious and misogynistic, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is the most audacious studio feature of the year: a primal scream of feminine rage with a searing contempt for the negligence of the self-absorbed male ego. Drawing from Polanski, de Palma, and del Toro — among others — and painting with Old Testament fire and brimstone, Aronofsky presents an allegorical nightmare with numerous potential interpretations. In its final 25 or so minutes, mother! mutates from skin-crawling psychological horror into unrelenting apocalyptic pandemonium, delivering one of 2017's most harrowing cinematic passages. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.

Get Out

4. Get Out

2017 / USA, Japan / 104 min. / Directed by Jordan Peele / Opened in wide release on Feb. 24, 2017

Distilled down to its fundamental plot workings, Get Out is a relatively straightforward hybrid of the satanic cult and survival horror subgenres, albeit one executed with astonishing dexterity and agreeably eccentric flourishes. What truly distinguishes Jordan Peele’s galvanic debut feature is what the director achieves with those conventional story components: a candid, deeply resonant depiction of black Americans' daily indignities and worst fears. Eschewing alt-right buffoons and Klan dragons for the more Machiavellian evil of wealthy, body-snatching white liberals, Peele creates an entirely new category of incisive horror overnight, etching Get Out’s place as a one of the seminal works of the genre in the 2010s. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine.

A Cure for Wellness

3. A Cure for Wellness

2016 / USA, Germany / 146 min. / Directed by Gore Verbinski / Opened in wide release on Feb. 17, 2017

The most obvious factors that distinguish Gore Verbinski’s mad riff on The Magic Mountain from the lush gothic B-pictures of the 1960s are the absence of Vincent Price and the presence of R-rated gore and nudity. No cobwebby Technicolor castle ever looked as eerily magnificent as anything in A Cure for Wellness, however, and no Roger Corman chiller was ever so gloriously, evocatively nightmarish in its disregard for lucid storytelling. There’s no denying that Verbinski’s film is wanton, undisciplined, and illogical. It’s also utterly spellbinding for every one of its 146 indulgent minutes. Reviewed at St. Louis Magazine and discussed further at Gateway Cinephile.

Raw

2. Raw

2016 / France, Belgium, Italy / 99 min. / Directed by Julia Ducournau / Opened in select U.S. cities on Mar. 10, 2017; opened locally on Mar. 31, 2017

Positioning a young woman’s emergent cannibalistic urge as a proxy for her wild and alarming sexual liberation, Julia Ducournau’s feature embraces its central allegory as lustily as its anti-heroine scarfs down raw chicken breasts and nibbles at a severed finger. Dense with desolate visuals, Raw transforms a modernist college campus into a carnal inferno of concrete, blood, linoleum, and gristle. What most impresses about Ducournau’s film, however, is the nimble intelligence of its unapologetically feminist ethos. Keenly attuned to the way that society polices women’s choices, Raw employs its cannibalism metaphor to sharply interrogate the enforcement of sexual norms. Reviewed at Gateway Cinephile.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

1. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

2017 / UK, USA, Ireland / 121 min. / Directed by Yorgos Lathimos / Opened in select cities on Oct. 20, 2017; opened locally on Dec. 1, 2017

Director Yorgos Lathimos takes the plunge into full-fledged psychological horror, and the result is absorbing, unsettling, and profoundly perverse. In world where even the most familiar human connections are defined by blank awkwardness, The Killing of a Sacred Deer depicts a bizarre revenge story as fantastical as it is implacable. Colin Farrell is subtly enthralling in his depiction of a self-absorbed surgeon who cannot accept the horror that is lurching towards him, but the film’s standout performance is Barry Keoghan’s cold-blooded adolescent monster. Lathimos and his crew unfailingly demonstrate a virtuosic command of composition, lighting, sound, and music, crafting some of the most viscerally disturbing imagery and sequences of 2017. WIth cold precision, Killing reaches down into the shameful depths of human anxiety, extracting the blind, unreasonable terror that every secret will be uncovered, every sin will come to light, and every evil will be returned in kind. However, like all great horror films, Lathimos’ feature is ultimately frightening for reasons that defy articulation. It pulses with the sublime terror of the irrational and trembles with the fearsomeness of a vengeful, inscrutable god. Reviewed here.

Tags: Best Of Andrew Wyatt

December 21, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together

2017 / Italy, France, USA, Brazil / 132 min. / Directed by Luca Guadagnino / Opened in select cities on Nov. 24, 2017; opens locally on Dec. 22, 2017

Broadly speaking, romantic coming-of-age dramas—which are typically centered on a formative, head-over-heels relationship—often follow one of two approaches. Some films aim primarily for social and emotional realism, erecting an authentic depiction of the way that romance blossoms (and, frequently, withers) between young people (e.g., Summer with Monika [1953], Summer of 42 [1971], Raising Victor Vargas [2003]). Other features take a more poetic but no less genuine track, focusing instead on conjuring the intoxicating, almost agonizingly intense sensation of love (e.g., The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [1964], Heavenly Creatures [1994], Moonrise Kingdom [2012]).

If one were obliged to identify the most striking achievement of director Lucia Guadagnino’s sensuous and bittersweet new film, Call Me by Your Name, it would be the feature’s elegant reconciliation of these two cinematic modes. Guadagnino, screenwriter James Ivory, and the film’s lead performers all exhibit a sharp attentiveness to the nuances of young, hormonal attraction: the uncertain circling, the awkward flirtation, the green-eyed sullenness, and the embarrassing erotic preoccupations. At the same time, Call Me by Your Name is positively drunk on the exhilaration of having one’s desires cherished and reciprocated. The feature achieves this mood primarily through its vivid setting: a sumptuous, sun-kissed Italian countryside as idyllic as any painting by Claude Lorrain. Guadagnino’s film looks like idealized young love feels. It’s as warm, lush, and timeless as a sacred Apollonian grove.

Adapted from the 2007 novel of the same name by American writer André Aciman, Call Me by Your Name depicts an erotically momentous summer in the life of precocious Jewish-American adolescent Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet). It is 1983, and the 17-year-old Elio is spending the season at the Italian estate owned by his academic parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar). It’s not exactly a life of privation: The boy whiles away the balmy Mediterranean days by lounging around the villa, exploring the countryside, and taking idle jaunts into the nearby town.

Elio is quiet but also bright and curious; he’s not prone to the usual brand of mopey adolescent boredom. He reads literature, composes for the piano, and socializes with his parents and their friends in a manner that suggests a like-minded adult, rather than a scrawny high school senior. However, he also has companions his age—including Marzia (Esther Garrel), his eager, dimpled French girlfriend. Fortunately for Elio’s nascent sex life, the Perlmans take an open-minded, deferential approach to parenting. They seem to genuinely respect and cherish their son, their only aspiration for him being that he grows to understand himself.

Such a scenario is hardly the usual raw material for an angst-ridden tale of forbidden love. Indeed, there’s little in Ivory’s screenplay or Chalamet’s performance early in the film that suggests the emotional hell of stifled longings and repressed identity. However, Elio still betrays a distinct restiveness that is not alleviated by the release valve of his summer romance with Marzia. It’s as though he’s waiting with vague impatience for his adult life to begin, even if he is still uncertain about exactly what shape that life will take 

Into this gravid emotional moment strolls Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student who arrives at the villa to spend the summer assisting Mr. Perlman with his archaeological research. Formidably tall, athletic, and Dartmouth-handsome, the 24-year-old Oliver resembles a Yankee Adonis. Elio is therefore faintly nonplussed to learn that the grad student is, like the Perlmans, a “Jew of discretion”. Oliver is a match for Elio’s erudition (and self-regard), but he’s also everything that the professor’s son is not: confident, relaxed, gregarious, and disarmingly glib. His penchant for abruptly departing conversations with the flippant farewell, “Later!”, is a source of amused preoccupation for the Perlmans.

Elio initially seems to resent Oliver’s forceful charisma and strapping self-possession—not to mention the loss of his own bedroom, which he is compelled to vacate so that it can be converted into Oliver’s guest quarters. Before long, however, Elio finds that he has grown unexpectedly enamored with his father’s assistant. Consistent with the approach taken by many lovesick adolescent boys, Elio affects a studied nonchalance as a flimsy cover, while blatantly arranging his daily routine so that he can spend as much time as possible in Oliver’s company. For his part, the older man doesn’t seem to notice Elio’s coded flirtations at first; his demeanor towards the boy is approachable and flattering but also somewhat aloof. (Elio’s embarrassed, smoldering jealously reaches its peak when Oliver begins a fling with a donna from town.)

Eventually, however, Oliver acknowledges that he is aware of Elio’s amorous signals. In an exquisitely composed and emotionally dizzying scene, the two young men stroll around separate sides of a war memorial in a piazza. The camera slowly pans, maintaining Elio in the foreground and Oliver in the distance; their pace, like their conversation, is outwardly languid yet anxiously calculated. In the coyest possible language, Elio reveals his emergent gay identity, in the hopes that this will open the door for Oliver to concede to a mutual attraction. This is, by a decisive margin, the most pivotal scene in Guadagnino’s film, at least tonally speaking. It’s the moment when Call Me by Your Name’s heady mood shifts from a steady late afternoon wine buzz to episodic upsurges of wild, all-consuming euphoria.

Oliver admits to feelings for Elio but is initially reluctant to pursue them; after a passionate lakeshore kiss, the older man puts the brakes on further physical intimacy between them. However, there is a sense of inevitability to their romantic relationship from the moment that Oliver accepts Elio’s first caress with a grateful, hungering whimper. After that, it’s not so much a question of “Will they or won’t they?” as it is “When, where, and how will they?” (Their age difference and Elio’s youth might not sit well with all viewers, but it bears noting that in Italy, the age of consent is 14.)

Critically, Guadagnino doesn’t rush towards this moment of sexual consummation. Oliver assumes a newfound standoffishness at first, much to Elio’s anguish, but he eventually leaves the boy a scribbled note proposing a rendezvous. Mirroring the frustrated urgency of Elio’s adolescent longings, the film then dilates time to almost comic effect. On the day of the scheduled tryst, Elio is obliged to feign interest in his usual preoccupations—including sex with Marzia—even as he is transparently twitching with anticipation over his forthcoming midnight meeting with Oliver. Guadagnino’s mise-en-scène in this passage is ingeniously droll, subtly drawing attention to Elio’s wristwatch (and the agonizingly slow countdown to 12 a.m.) in shot after shot. A brilliant touch, that, and one that perfectly captures the maddening fixations of teen horniness.

When the starlit hook-up finally occurs, it’s presented as an unabashedly joyous and liberating occasion for both Elio and Oliver, even if the film is uncharacteristically modest when it comes to the depiction of gay sex and male frontal nudity. (The contrast with Alain Guiraudie’s unfathomable queer dream-quest Staying Vertical from earlier this year couldn’t be sharper: That film presented a bizarre same-sex coupling that seemed designed to be off-putting to even the most broad-minded straight viewers.) Whether this narrow but disappointing strain of prudishness constitutes an outright neutering of Call Me by Your Name’s queerness is a question that is best left to queer critics.

In the wake of their first sexual encounter, Elio and Oliver grapple with the parameters of their relationship, in all its clumsy ardor and nourishing coziness. The film’s title derives from their decision, apropos of nothing, to reverse their given names when engaged in private conversation—the kind of dopey, affectionate private joke that gay couples rarely seem to be permitted on screen. They pass through the expected bouts of romantic elation, feverish arousal, dizzy disconnection, and the persistant gut-twisting anxiety that their relationship will be discovered. Fortunately, the latter ultimately proves to be a baseless concern: Elio and Oliver’s romance is not the Big Secret that they imagine it to be.

Chalamet and Hammer are both superb, evincing a curious but credible erotic chemistry. (One never truly buys the 31-year-old Hammer as a grad student of 24, but the marvelous screenplay and the actor’s command of the role’s more enigmatic nooks and crannies allow one to suspend disbelief.) Stahlburg is also characteristically exceptional, with a closing monologue that’s been justly praised for its depth and delicacy of feeling. To the extent that Call Me by Your Name is foremost about the evocation of a romantic mood, however, the actors are outshined by Guadagnino’s direction, as well as the peerless work of Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and production designer Samuel Deshors. Together, this trio conjures a ravishing vision of pastoral Italy that seems plucked from a 16th-century painting—the presence of the odd Walkman or K-car notwithstanding.

At times, the homoerotic aspects of the Roman art and artifacts that surround the characters are plainly highlighted, alongside Elio and Oliver’s awkward fascination with such objects. This resonates with a strain of boisterous Olympian masculinity that runs through the film, most prominently observable in the way that the lovers’ foreplay frequently begins with an ad hoc wrestling match. On other occasions, the setting's homoerotic Classical elements are permitted to recede gently into the background, where their effect is more subliminal. Guadagnino’s eye for tangible sexual details, meanwhile, is rarely subtle: The way he lingers on the semen slowly dripping and pooling from a mangled peach is indulgent, but also pure cinematic loveliness. (Yes, semen on a peach. It makes sense in context. Sort of.)

It’s undeniable that Guadagnino’s feature is atypical for a film about an adolescent struggling to resolve his sexual identity. Despite the Reagan-era setting, Call Me by Your Name replaces the familial shame, reactionary politics, and religious bigotry of countless gay narratives with subtler, psychological enemies: pessimism; confusion; negligence; self-loathing; fear of rejection; and the desolate awareness that good things never last. This makes for a relationship drama that can feel light on conflict at times. Ultimately, Elio is a privileged white kid with endlessly understanding parents, and Call Me by Your Name is the story of his magical summer love affair. Boys Don’t Cry or (1999) Pariah (2011) it’s not. Even at its most sorrowful, this is a profoundly warm film. Guadagnino handles the material with exceptional skill and a sensitive touch, but Call Me by Your Name doesn’t exhibit the sort of creative delight that—perversely enough—radiates from director’s nastier, virtuosic work such as I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015).

Not every drama is obliged to feature vicious arguments, repellent bigotry, and murderous jealousy, however. Call Me by Your Name is a first-rate example of a story primarily concerned with the evocative portrayal of a certain feeling. In this case, it’s the feeling of being young and messily, hopelessly in love with someone who returns that affection in spades. What lends Guadagnino’s film its aching edge is its mindfulness that such bliss cannot last. Long before the film’s epilogue, Elio is all too aware that Oliver will be returning to the U.S. at the end of the summer, and that the chances that they will ever see each other again are minimal. It’s a credit to Aciman’s novel and Ivory’s script that the boy’s misery over this reality is never allowed to devolve into some delusional fantasy where the lovers run away and leave the world behind. Far from diminishing the summer that Elio and Oliver share, the fleeting nature of their time together makes every moment even more precious. This might not be the most insightful romantic observation in history, but it’s rarely articulated with such loveliness and poignancy as it is in Call Me by Your Name.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

December 14, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

The Life Aquatic

2017 / Canada, USA / 123 min. / Directed by Guillermo del Toro / Opened in select cities on Dec. 8, 2017; opens locally on Dec. 15, 2017

If Guillermo del Toro’s monster vs. battle-bot indulgence Pacific Rim (2013) is the film that an eight-year-old version of the director might have wanted to see, then del Toro’s latest effort, The Shape of Water, is the sort of feature that might have inflamed the imagination of his 14-year-old self. The filmmaker’s new picture has it everything a geeky adolescent cinephile with a Frankenstein fixation could want: a freakish yet misunderstood monster; a mad science laboratory; Cold War espionage; graphic nudity and sex scenes; striking gore; macabre humor; and a giddy, self-reflexive awe for the magic of the movies. Underneath these evocative genre elements, however, The Shape of Water is a swooning, star-crossed romance at heart, presented with nary a trace of ironic waggle. 

Initially, this might seem surprising. The closest that del Toro has ever come to a love story in his films is the fraught relationship between a demon and a pyrokineticist in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). Nonetheless, the director’s work has repeatedly demonstrated—up to and especially including Crimson Peak (2015), his opulent homage to Walpole, Poe, and the Brontës—that he has the black bile of the gothic pumping in his veins. And if one scratches the surface of the gothic, one often uncovers a glint of wistful romance. Nowhere in his filmography is that more apparent than in The Shape of Water, a dark fairy tale about the irresistible, purifying power of True Love. In this instance, it just happens to be the love between a woman and a fish-man.

The film’s unlikely heroine is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a night shift janitor at the (fictional) Occam Aerospace Research Center in early 1960s Baltimore. Elisa, who is mute, is a creature of habit. Each evening she irons her clothes, shines her shoes, and makes hard-boiled eggs for her brown bag lunch. As the water roils, she masturbates in her bathtub for the exact duration of the egg timer. She’s tidy and polite, but her expressive brown eyes reveal a devil-may-care mischievousness. Her preference for sleeping on a plush divan rather than a bed hints at a romantic side. Her best friends are Giles (Richard Jenkins), an acerbic, closeted commercial illustrator who lives across the hall, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her affable co-worker on the research center's cleaning crew. The scars on Elisa’s throat attest to a secret or two, but her dim longing is all too apparent when her gaze drifts to some unseen, faraway vista.

Elisa’s routine is disrupted by the appearance of the humorless Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who arrives at the Occam Center with a curious prisoner, brought stateside in chains from the South American river where he was found. This “Asset” (Doug Jones) is an amphibious humanoid straight from the Black Lagoon, his green-brown scales strikingly adorned with stripes of azure blue. Strickland’s superiors believe that an understanding of the creature’s mysterious physiology could be valuable to the U.S. space program. Toting an electric cattle prod, the cruel Strickland would prefer to have the aggressive, razor-clawed monster dissected, but researcher Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) pleads for more time to study the Asset while it he still alive. In truth, the scientist is a Soviet spy, but his motives are complex, and Hoffstetler soon grows to question the judgment of his Kremlin masters.

Into this beastly drama wanders a beauty in the form of Elisa. Stealing intrigued glances of the Asset while he is sealed within massive metal and glass tank, she later sneaks into the laboratory to find him manacled in an inky pool covered in green nutrient scum. She is quickly spellbound by the creature’s restiveness, sensitivity, and alien magnetism, to which she seems uniquely attuned. Elisa gains his trust with gifts of hard-boiled eggs, and eventually she spends several illicit lunch hours with him, playing records on a portable turntable and teaching him rudimentary American Sign Language.

These languid passages are where The Shape of Water is at its most self-assured and defiantly strange, impressing upon the viewer the perplexing depths of Elisa’s infatuation with the Asset, whose piscine anatomy is not remotely erotic in any conventional sense. Still, with a tilt of the head, one can discern what Elisa sees in him. For a mute woman, accustomed to men who feel obliged to fill the air with the sound of their own chatter, the Asset’s inability to articulate human languages seems like a substantial plus. He’s attentive but not clingy, and devoted but not tiresome, with just enough untamed fierceness to get a girl’s fish oil flowing, so to speak. As for the fins, spines, and whatnot, del Toro’s film accepts Emily Dickinson’s observation with an amused shrug: The heart wants what it wants—or else it does not care.

Once Elisa overhears Strickland’s plan to euthanize the Asset, however, the film's plot shifts from this woozy secret romance to a suitably paranoiac Cold War heist. Elisa devises a perilous scheme to smuggle the Asset out the Occam Center, enlisting the aid of the reluctant Giles by appealing to his compassion and romanticism. Zelda eventually tumbles to the plan after observing her co-worker’s suspicious behavior, but she too is won over by the righteousness of this bizarre prison break. Later still, the film changes gears again into a slower, more despondent ticking-clock scenario. Elisa counts the rainy days until an nearby egress to the Patapsco River and Chesakpake Bay is open, while Strickland searches for the escaped monster with a violent remorselessness that steadily slides into deranged obsession. The Colonel’s state of mind is not improved by the distressing fact that two of his fingers—neatly amputated by a swipe of the Asset’s talons and then uncertainly reattached—are gradually growing black with gangrene.

As one might expect with a del Toro picture, The Shape of Water is bolstered by a characteristically deep bench of accomplished artists and craftspeople working at the top of their game. Notable among these are composer Alexandre Desplat, whose score gracefully juggles the film’s numerous tonal changes. However, the dominant mood of the music is unsurprisingly a romantic one. The prevalence of flutes, harp, glockenspiel, and glass harmonica lend the score a distinct undersea character, while Desplat employs accordion and whistling to add an unexpected touch of Parisian whimsy.

The clear standouts among the crew’s contributions, however, are the one-two punch of Dan Laustsen’s cinematography and Paul D. Austerberry’s production design, which conjure a vision of a greenish, rain-slicked Baltimore that never was. As in Hellboy, the look of The Shape of Water is a rich amalgam of urban hyper-realism, vibrant nostalgia, institutional Brutalism, and quasi-steampunk fantasy, suggesting an unlikely marriage of Edward Hopper and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen artist Kevin O’Neill. Meanwhile, the conspicuous Kennedy-era analog technology of Shape’s government lab not only connects the story to the kitschy mid-century B pictures that del Toro reveres, but also paradoxically lends the film an air of mythic timelessness. From the vantage point of 2017, the mammoth computers of the Occam Center might as well be contraptions in the Expressionist robotics lab of Metropolis’ Rotwang.

An affectionate awareness of cinematic history has always been a vital part of del Toro’s filmography, but previously it was expressed primarily through allusions: Inferno (1980) in Cronos (1993); The Searchers (1956) in The Devil’s Backbone (2001); andThe Innocents (1961) in Crimson Peak, to name a few. With The Shape of Water, the director allows a genuine, gooey adoration for cinema’s transportive power to cut through the film’s darkness, mirroring the warmth of the story’s unconventional romance.

This is most conspicuous in the film’s central conceit, which is quite explicitly a rejiggering of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) as an erotic fable. However, one can also discern in it the way that characters savor real-world movies. At one point, Elisa and Giles watch as Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson tap-dance along a staircase in The Little Colonel (1935), with Giles marveling, “That’s so hard!” The subtext to this awestruck comment is the fact that Temple and Robinson’s performance was the first on-screen interracial dance number, a detail that resonates ironically with Giles’ privileged distaste for all the “ugly business” on the news, i.e., civil rights protests and police brutality.

Elisa and Giles also happen to live above a movie theater, where the biblical romance The Story of Ruth (1960) and the musical comedy Mardi Gras (1958) are playing—an unlikely and out-of-date double bill that Elisa nonetheless enjoys. Crucially, the theater allows for what is The Shape of Water’s most indelible image among many worthy contenders: The Asset, having slipped the confines of Elisa’s bathtub, stands staring in amazement as The Story of Ruth plays to an empty house. In this moment, Del Toro captures not only the esctatic reverie of a cinematic virgin’s "first time", but also a striking metatextual uncanniness. It as though Black Lagoon’s Gill-Man had stumbled upon the silver screen that gave birth to him, and all he can do is gape in humbled wonder.

Broadly speaking, there’s little in The Shape of Water that hasn’t been done before. The genre components work in part because of their familiarity, and the story ultimately proffers a stock "Man Is the Real Monster" moral. No filmmaker quite does this theme like del Toro, however, and the pleasures of this feature are those of seeing something recognizable executed with luscious style, fulsome sincerity, and a half-twist of gleefully perverse weirdness. Most conspicuously, that perversity is evident in the fact that, yes, the monster unambiguously screws the girl—or, more accurately, the girl screws the monster. The Shape of Water’s intoxicating aura is attributable to the earnestness that del Toro brings to its Paleolithic-meets-Camelot love affair, as well as the fierce profundity of feeling that Hawkins conveys. It’s quite a trick: Elisa’s eyes sparkle with such unvarnished desire and adoration at the sight of the Asset’s lanky, scaled body, one never questions the genuineness of what she feels, no matter how incomprehensible it might seem.

The fairy tale lineage of The Shape of Water is evident in its characters, who often seem more akin to archetypes than fully realized people. Naturally, as an older ‘confirmed bachelor’ in the 1960s, Giles is erudite, neurotic, and lily-livered. Naturally, as a working class black woman, Zelda is sassy, meddling, and perpetually fed up with these damn foolish white people. (Lamentably, Spencer is essentially portraying another minor variation on the Octavia Spencer Character; it’s long past time for casting directors to give her an opportunity to play against type.)

Strickland, meanwhile, is a repellant brute through and through, a clean-cut caricature of aggressive, mid-century American masculinity. He feverishly screws his obligingly horny Stepford wife (Lauren Lee Smith)—in the missionary position, naturally—without a whiff of amorousness. At one point, he is seen with his nose in Norman Vincent Peale’s crypto-puritanical self-help book The Power of Positive Thinking. Feeling that he deserves a reward for his professional accomplishments, he buys himself a Cadillac, but is wary of the dealer’s suggestion of a teal paint job rather than button-down black. It’s no coincidence that the film’s heroic troika—a mute Latina, a gay man, and a black woman—all represent demographics have felt the end of the proverbial cattle prod wielded by Strickland and other men of his ilk.

The main ensemble might be a tad cartoonish, but this being a del Toro film, these characters are regarded with a generosity that reveals the director’s sincere affection for their humanity. Despite the clear focus on Elisa, the film (mostly) makes time to flesh out the lives of its supporting cast, and it’s an immense credit to del Toro’s direction and his script—co-written with Vanessa Taylor—that these subplots never feel extraneous or momentum-busting.

The film thus observers Giles’ sublimated anger over his homophobic dismissal from an advertising firm, and his aching crush on a slab of All-American beefcake behind the counter at a local diner. Likewise, non-trivial screen time is given to Hoffstetler’s emergent empathy for the Asset, and his creeping terror at the possibly murderous intentions of his Soviet handlers. Even the fascist Strickland is afforded a measure of consideration. Shannon and the director might portray him as unremittingly vile, but in allowing glimpses of the Colonel’s travails under the boot of his superiors’ (and society’s) expectations, they guide the viewer to an understanding of his villainy without requiring outright sympathy. Only Spencer’s Zelda receives comparatively short shrift; the third act glimpses of life with her churlish, craven husband (Bewster Fuller) hint at a subplot del Toro left unfortunately undernourished.

Like the director’s Grimm nightmare Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), this film is a densely layered fairy tale, but The Shape of Water differs from that earlier feature in small but fundamental ways. Pan’s Labyrinth is a film for adults, but it is firmly embedded in the sorcery of childhood, illustrating the bittersweet triumph of innocence and selfless virtue over the evils of authoritarianism. Del Toro’s latest film, meanwhile, is primarily concerned with grown-up feelings and situations: lust and love, of course, but also failure, regret, rage, despair, and an explicitly adult strain of loneliness. (In a strange sense, this is del Toro’s mythical riff on Todd Haynes’ quietly subversive lesbian romance, Carol [2015].)

None of this is remotely original, thematically speaking, but what del Toro achieves with The Shape of Water—as he does in all his best features—is a crystallization of timeless themes with exhilarating emotional frankness, spacious humanism, and extravagent style. In contrast with Pacific Rim, where the visceral toybox pleasures never compensated for the film’s shallowness and frequently irritating triteness, Water finds the director back in his enchanted groove. He elegantly assembles a genre-spanning array of tropes to serve as the bedrock for a profoundly heartfelt story, which in turn bestows those familiar elements with fresh dramatic resonance. This heady feedback loop of the old and the new is what distinguishes del Toro’s lush brand of cinematic magic from virtually every other director working in the horror, fantasy, and science fiction genres.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

December 7, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

No Exit

2017 / USA / 104 min. / Directed by James Franco / Opened in select cities on Dec. 1, 2017; opens locally on Dec. 8, 2017

James Franco is a bit of an enigma. Following his breakout in the television series Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films (2002-2007), Franco has become a ubiquitous presence as an actor: shoring up broad, bro-friendly comedies (Pineapple Express [2008], This Is the End [2013]); appearing in projects from esteemed directors like Gus Van Sant (Milk [2008]) and Danny Boyle (127 Hours [2010]); and taking roles in television series ranging from day-time soap operas (General Hospital [2009-2012]) to prestige dramas (The Deuce [2017]). Like a Nicolas Cage with more creative integrity, Franco seems game for almost any role that is offered to him, so long as he finds it stimulating. Regardless of the project, it’s the actor's eager, malleable magnetism that consistently leaves the strongest impression. He is uniquely capable of simultaneously radiating a regular-guy ease and the narcissistic fervor of an armchair philosopher-artist—even when his charisma is turned on its head to menacing effect, as in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto (2013).

However, Franco has also evolved into a prolific writer, director, and producer, one whose artistic choices often baffle observers. How is one to explain his attempt, with co-director Travis Mathews, to reconceive the production of Williams Friedkin’s exploitative gay crime thriller Cruising (1980) as the peculiar, meta-fictional Interior. Leather Bar. (2013)? Or his relentless campaign to adapt the works of American literary luminaries such as Cormac McCarthy (Child of God [2013]), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury [2014]), and John Steinbeck (In Dubious Battle [2016]), efforts that have reliably been met with critical jeers? 

The generous reading of Franco’s eccentric career as a filmmaker is that, as with his actorly choices, he is unfailingly catholic, willing to tackle any project that he feels passionate about—even when it proves tone-deaf, ill-conceived, or just plain inexplicable. To his credit, even his most questionable and pompous auteurist ventures never exhibit the sort of affected insouciance that many artists don like armor against failure. One gets the sense that Franco always wants viewers to like his work, whether he’s playing an affable stoner goofball or making an ungainly hash out of a Great American Novel.

It’s somehow fitting, then, that his new feature, The Disaster Artist, is an absurdist comedy about an enigmatic auteur—and that it emerges as Franco’s warmest, most crowd-pleasing directorial effort to date. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by actor Greg Sestero, the film chronicles the notorious production of The Room (2003), a film that has been dubbed by its ardent admirers (anti-admirers?) as The Worst Film Ever Made. (Devotees of Plan 9 from Outer Space [1959] or Troll 2 [1999] might beg to differ, but cinematic catastrophes, much like masterpieces, are highly subjective.) The Room’s awfulness proved inimitable and mesmerizing that the film eventually spawned a giddy cult following, complete with sold-out midnight screenings and Rocky Horror-style audience participation.

Crummy, bungling indie films are a dime a dozen, of course, but those films don’t boast The Room’s writer, director, and star, Tommy Wiseau, a secretive oddball distinguished by his mane of greasy black hair and mumbly, unplaceable accent. Had he been dreamed into existence by Kurt Vonnegut (or even John Waters), Wiseau would have been regarded as too outlandish. Natrually, Franco portrays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, donning a layer of prosthetics—the filmmaker claims to have survived a car accident in his youth—and uncannily recreating his bizarre cadences and pronunciations. It's obvious that Franco, while he might not feel an outright artistic kinship with Wiseau, at least understands the power of the outsider filmmaker's ambitions, frustrations, and creative compulsions.

Sestero’s book, co-written with Tom Bissell, contends that The Room’s production was exactly the sort of surreal experience that the on-screen evidence suggests. Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber’s adapted screenplay unflinchingly and hilariously conveys the set's atmosphere as a kind of absurdist hell, with Wiseau presiding as both an enthusiastic master of ceremonies and a Kubrickian tyrant. While they delight in poking fun at Wiseau’s incompetence and the cinematic abomination he spawned, the writers and Franco crucially frame The Disaster Artist not as an exercise in self-flattering scornfulness, but as a celebration of male friendship, artistic fearlessness, and the discovery of unabashed delight in the aesthetically terrible. Tellingly, Franco’s film opens with snippets of real-world comedians explaining why they adore The Room—not with an ironic sneer, but from a place of genuine affection and astonishment.

It is a testament to the unassuming success of The Disaster Artist that one need not be an enthusiast of The Room to appreciate the tragicomical arc of Franco’s feature, or its big-hearted generosity for dreamers, weirdos, and weirdo dreamers. Indeed, while some of the film’s allusions and recreations assume a line-by-line intimacy with Wiseau’s dumpster fire magnum opus—from “Hi, doggie” to “Cheep cheep cheep” to “I definitely have breast cancer”—these are ultimately ancillary pleasures. If one brushes away the meta-jokes, The Disaster Artist is an accessible, sweetly sad farce about the relationship between Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau.

Aspiring actor Sestero (James’ brother Dave Franco) is 19 years old and living with his mother in San Francisco when he first encounters fellow wannabe thespian Wiseau. The awkward Sestero suffers from petrifying stage fright, but Wiseau's alarming, go-for-broke methods makes Marlon Brando and James Dean look positively restrained. In the eyes of acting coaches and casting directors, Wiseau is not only an awful performer, but hopelessly deluded about his leading man appeal. He’s a Frankenstein type, not a Stanley Kowalski type, as an acting instructor (Bob Odenkirk) bluntly explains. The shy, self-critical Sestero is awestruck, however, by Wiseau’s audacious confidence, and before long the pair have become unlikely friends, and eventually L.A.-bound roommates. Never mind that Wiseau seems to be a couple of decades older than Sestero, or that the source of his seemingly bottomless income is a complete mystery. (He doesn’t live extravagantly, however; Franco’s Wiseau plainly craves the populist celebrity and artistic recognition of Hollywood stardom, but the opulent lifestyle seems almost incidental to him.)

The new roommates struggle to find steady acting gigs in Los Angeles, although Sestero’s fresh-faced good looks allow him to land a respected agent, as well as a girlfriend, Amber (Alison Brie). This leads to rumbles of petulant envy from Wiseau, particular when Sestero moves out of his friend’s apartment and in with said girlfriend. Distraught over this perceived treachery and his complete failure to find acting opportunities, Wiseau is eventually motivated to write his own screenplay, the hothouse meldrama The Room. He proudly presents the script to Sestero as “a real Hollywood movie”. Despite Sestero's misgivings about the screenplay, the younger actor is ultimately cajoled into the project by a (seemingly) plum co-leading role, the obligations of friendship, and Wiseau’s typically glib confidence. In short order, the pair are ramping up production at a small, rented studio, where Wiseau makes liberal use of his checkbook to ensure that his baffling vision is executed just as he desires.

What follows is a professional train wreck of legendary proportions, where Wiseau responds to every dispute—with actors and crew alike, particularly script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogen)—by doubling down on the unimpeachable correctness of his artistic choices. The director’s bizarre understanding of dramatic logic and audience expectations drags everyone involved  into a demented, enervating purgatory of delays, reshoots, and exhausting, circular arguments. These Wiseau always seems to win, given that he holds both the purse strings and the auteur trump card. The friendship between Sestero and Wiseau is put under colossal strain, their rift culminating when the former is obliged to ditch a high-profile opportunity due to the drastically over-extended shoot for The Room. There is little Florence Foster Jenkins-style coddling on Wiseau’s set: The cast and crew are forthright about their frustrations with the intolerable working conditions, the story’s rank illogic, and the director’s general ineptness. However, it’s only when the previously unfailingly loyal Sestero gives voice to these same qualms—that Wiseau has no idea what he’s doing, and his film is unremittingly awful—that the director seems truly wounded.

There is built-in happy ending of sorts, in which The Room finds a keen audience among the connoisseurs of cinematic crap, but Franco relegates this roundabout triumph to the epilogue, concluding the film’s narrative proper with the L.A. premiere of Wiseau’s misbegotten child. Franco’s version of Wiseau embraces the film’s terribleness that first night, but the actual history is undoubtedly less tidy, given that the film’s sensationally toxic reputation congealed mainly through word-of-mouth. However, Franco is less interested in accurately recreating the origin of The Room’s cult fandom than in conveying the agony and the ecstasy of the film's creation—right up to that galvanic moment when it was released into the wild and suddenly belonged to the world.

Mordantly funny and consistently winsome, The Disaster Artist is essentially two stories: one about the strange bromance between Sestero and Wiseau, which is presented as simple-minded, but still weirdly touching in its junior high neediness; and one about the punishing fever dream that was the making of The Room. Franco and the writers cleverly present the former as the key to understanding much (though not all) of the latter. They frame Wiseau’s film as the means by which the dubious auteur grappled with his and Sestero’s fraught friendship. In one of the The Disaster Artist ’s more astute scenes, the bemused cast and crew commiserate over the confounding script, posing myriad theories about who or what various characters were intended to represent in Wiseau’s fevered imagination. As various hypotheses are ventured—Does adulterous Lisa symbolize the world’s unjust cruelty to the misunderstood Wiseau?—Sestero slowly comes to an unspoken realization: Everything in The Room reflects some aspect of his and Wiseau’s relationship. He is the obscure object of Tommy’s desire.

It’s hardly the most emotionally sophisticated depiction of a male friendship, and its relatability is hindered a bit by both Wiseau’s childishness and Sestero’s inexplicable affection for the filmmaker's maddening, off-putting strangeness. However, there’s an unexpected poignancy to the relationship melodrama, one bolstered by the Franco siblings’ easy real-world rapport. It gives the cringe comedy a welcome glaze of credible pathos, even as the elder Franco does his best to potray Wiseau as an alienating, intolrerable creep. The resulting tension between humane anguish and repellent weirdness has a startling, strangely pleasing character that enlivens The Disaster Artist, scene after scene.

There’s more to Franco’s film than guy-on-guy bonding, sulking, and screaming matches, however. It’s The Disaster Artist’s untrammeled affection for the often-hellish ordeal of artistic creation that elevates the film from a droll, scuzzy Hollywood fable about ambitious losers to something more sparkling and munificent. Much like Ed Wood (1994), Tim Burton’s swooning and gleefully freakish ode to auteurism, Franco’s feature is entranced with the turbulent process by which an artistic vision becomes reality, no matter how half-baked that vision might be. The Disaster Artist is not invested in the heartfelt “family of monsters” portraiture that preoccupies Burton’s film, but Franco’s feature is more richly appreciative of the collaborative nature of filmmaking. In what might be regarded as the film's statement of ethos, one actress observes that even the worst day at a film production is better than the best day at any other job. Given that it concerns the Worst Movie of All Time, The Disaster Artist is remarkably, deeply, sloppily in love with the movies. It loves them less for their formal or thematic attributes than for their ability to unite people through the communal experiences of creation and consumption.

During the film’s climactic scene at the premiere of The Room, Franco’s Wiseau experiences his first real moment of runaway terror, as the audience descends into hysterics at the spellbinding terribleness of his film. It’s Sestero’s encouragement that hastily turns Wiseau’s distress to pride: All their blood, sweat, and tears have resulted in something that is making people unapologetically happy. Whether deliberate or not, they’ve made an enduring mark (of sorts) on the world. Franco's penchant for such sanguine reflection is consistent with The Disaster Artist's dual nature as both a cockeyed celebration of the quixotic auteur and an illustration that the artist’s intentions matter not one whit once the lights go down.

Rating: B- 

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt