A still from 'Luce'.
August 23, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Luce Lips Sink Ships

2019 / USA / 109 min. / Dir. by Julius Onah / Opened in select cities on Aug. 2, 2019; locally on Aug. 23, 2019

The single thing that connects Luce and The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) is director Julius Onah’s ability to start conversations with his films. If it weren’t for his name in the credit, there’s no indication that these features could have come from the same person — one’s a searing drama, the other’s the third entry in an ongoing series of science-fiction films. However, in spite of their thematic differences, both are surrounded by clouds of buzz. Dropped by surprise on last year’s Super Bowl Sunday, The Cloverfield Paradox was watched by nearly a million Netflix subscribers in a single night — critical opinions were mostly negative, but an overwhelming majority agreed that this release strategy was novel. Luce’s rollout is practically the opposite, premiering at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and then receiving a limited release and steady expansion six months later. Whereas The Cloverfield Paradox got people talking because of its spontaneous distribution, Luce is bound to be controversial for its smorgasbord of hot topics.

By opening with a speech from disarmingly confident high-school student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the film presents the audience with all the information they’ll need going forward: Adopted from Eretria and effectively rescued from a future as a child soldier, Luce has undergone years of therapy under the doting eyes of his American parents, Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, reunited as another married couple after Michael Haneke’s 2007 U.S. remake of Funny Games). Luce is now a model student and a star athlete, and it’s clear how much the school’s staff fawns over him. Well, everyone but his history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), that is. She’s the only one who seems to view his exceptional behavior as some sort of façade.

After one of her assignments calls for students to emulate an important historical figure’s key talking points, Luce’s paper from the perspective of a radical activist gives Ms. Wilson enough reasonable doubt to search his locker. As it turns out, her suspicion that Luce has the potential to be violent proves (apparently) correct, and a concerning discovery inside a paper bag results in a phone call home. This unleashes a storm front of paranoia and lies that sweeps up Luce, Ms. Wilson, and anyone closely associated with them. Slowly, family and friends begin to turn on one another as the general atmosphere of anxiety and distrust continues to spike.

This slow-burning discord is largely fueled by Luce’s subtext: Every main character embodies a different political archetype. As a young black male, Luce feels confined to either exceptionalism or failure, with no in-between. Amy, who drives a Toyota Prius and frequently voices concerns for social-justice issues, represents the modern upper-middle-class liberal. Peter, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about politics — he could be seen as representing the swath of American non-voters. Ms. Wilson constantly indulges in identity politics by singling out students of color during her American-history lectures, much to the disdain of Luce and his friend Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang). By trying to keep all this discourse under wraps, principal Dan Towson (Norbert Leo Butz) stands in for those in positions of power who turn a blind eye to the problems facing their constituency. The combination of competing interests and worldviews proves to be volatile.

Luce couldn’t succeed without the sheer amount of talent attached to the project. Watts and Roth make for a believable couple, perhaps because of their past collaboration. (After all, nothing could bring a pair of actors closer together better than co-starring in one of Haneke’s darkest features to date.) Their hopelessness and inexperience is palpable as the two bicker about how to handle the escalating tension in their home and at their son’s school. Spencer delivers an unhinged performance akin to the one she gave in Tate Taylor’s Ma (2019), toeing the line between deranged and reserved in a way that is uniquely her own. Harrison exhibits exceptional talent, especially for an up-and-comer. All four are pulling equal weight, a quadruple punch that bewilders and disorients the viewer relentlessly.

Although the characters and the actors portraying them are vital, it helps that director Onah employs a few unnerving stylistic flourishes throughout Luce. It’s unsurprising that the dialogue is calculated and the acting is top-notch — Onah and J.C. Lee adapted the script from the former writer’s original play, and the words the characters speak feel tightly crafted and controlled. Editor Madeleine Gavin’s jarring juxtapositions are what help this adaptation soar above and beyond a stage performance. Her cuts transport the viewer from Luce to Ms. Wilson to Amy and back again, often suddenly and without warning. Never knowing where the film’s gaze might go next heightens the looming sense of mistrust. Composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, the team behind Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018), only elevate this feeling. Their sound is abrasive and confrontational, just like the conversations unfolding onscreen.

Luce has plenty of moving parts, many of which it juggles quite well. Still, it would take a masterful director to balance everything perfectly, and Onah isn’t quite there yet, despite a respectable list of credits in just four short years. There’s no denying the impressive skill he brings to the table, but he doesn’t quite stick the landing on this complex story. Luce’s final moments feel like an ending that has a lot to say but doesn’t actually end up saying anything at all. The themes are crystal clear, but the solutions, if any, to the problems depicted in the film remain murky.  It’s one thing to leave the viewer with something to ponder, but it’s quite another to send them off confused about the real-world implications of such a politically and culturally charged story. Still, regardless of how ambiguous the film’s message might be, Luce is bound to initiate discussions.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'Ready or Not'.
August 21, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

One Mississippi

2019 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett / Opens in wide release on Aug. 21, 2019

Anxious bride-to-be Grace (Samara Weaving) has been looking for a family for most of her life. A former foster child with no peers she can count as close friends, she feels like she’s hit the jackpot with fiancée Alex (Mark O’Brien), who is handsome, attentive, and well attuned to her silly, sardonic vibe. After a whirlwind romance of 18 months – what Grace not-so-blushingly calls their “bone-a-thon” – she is ready to get hitched, but Alex insists that the nuptials be performed according to his family’s traditions. That would be the Le Domas family, a glowering, tight-knit clan of WASPs whose fortune was originally built on playing cards, board games, and other amusements. (Imagine Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers as as a proper 21st-century billion-dollar dynasty, complete with ownership of multiple major-league sports franchises.) The down-to-earth Grace regards the Le Domas fortune as more of a millstone than a glittering enticement, a sentiment that Alex – the wary black sheep of the family – wouldn’t dispute. Of course, he still toes the line where family tradition is concerned, reluctantly returning home to hold his wedding on the grounds of the sprawling Le Domas estate.

Even Alex’s regal but approachable mother, Becky (Andie MacDowell) – who was herself once an unwelcome interloper in the Le Domas “dominion” – can’t quite put Grace at ease on her wedding day. The bride longs for a proper family, but perhaps not this one: Alex’s pompous, tightly wound father, Tony (Henry Czerny); his boozing brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), and his icy social-climber wife, Charity (Elyse Levesque); his batty, cokehead sister, Emilie (Melanie Scrofano), and her hapless husband, Fitch (Kristian Bruun); and, most menacing of all, his widowed Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni), Tony’s gnomish, unsmiling elder sister. The relatively modest outdoor wedding ceremony rushes by in a blur, and it’s only after the knot is tied that Alex sheepishly reveals the most august of the Le Domas’ matrimonial traditions: a midnight game session to officially initiate the new daughter- or son-in-law into the family. Despite Alex’s visible apprehension, Grace chalks this oddball custom up to the eccentricities of the one percent and sportingly plays along.

When the family is gathered around the game table, Tony produces an antique puzzle-box and regales Grace with a hoary Le Domas legend: Great-granddad allegedly struck a hazy deal of some sort with a wandering gambler named Le Bail. The family now honors that pact with a random wedding-night game, selected by a card dispensed from the clockwork box. “I got chess,” explains Charity; “I got Old Maid,” guffaws Fitch. To Grace’s amusement, the card she pulls is Hide and Seek, but no one else is smiling, least of all Alex, who has abruptly gone white as a sheet. Tony explains the straightforward rules of the game – remain inside the mansion, try not to get caught – before Grace dashes off to hide, sensibly removing her wedding pumps along the way. Things quickly turn from ominous to alarming when the family members proceed to arm themselves with an assortment of antique weapons plucked from the game-room walls, including a shotgun, crossbow, and headsman’s axe. Even viewers who haven’t seen The Most Dangerous Game (1932) – or Run for the Sun (1956) or Bloodlust! (1961) or Hard Target (1993) – will already have some inkling of where this is headed, but it turns out there’s more at stake here than slaking the bloodlust of the ultra-wealthy. The Le Domases are obliged to offer Grace up as a ritual sacrifice to their infernal benefactor or their entire dynasty will collapse by dawn (or so they believe).

Gory, profane, and a hell of a lot more fun than it has any right to be, Ready or Not is co-directed by longtime collaborators Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Best known for their contributions to horror anthologies like V/H/S (2012) and Southbound (2015) – as well as the better-forgotten “Satanic fetus” dud Devil’s Due (2014) – the filmmakers have unquestionably turned out their tightest, most effortlessly enjoyable genre work to date with Ready or Not. As with several other recent survival-horror features, there’s a half-baked satirical streak to the film’s ambitions: The Belko Experiment (2016), Assassination Nation (2018), and Mayhem (2017) (the latter also starring Weaving) all come to mind as comparable late-model films that attempt (and fail) to serve up cutting cultural insights. Fortunately, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett seem to apprehend that their acerbic swipes at the super-elites – Spoiler Alert: Wealth turns people into heartless monsters! – aren’t especially shrewd or original. Accordingly, Ready or Not prefers to lean into the adolescent spectacle of over-the-top carnage, a near-constant barrage of f-bombs, and the bickering, bumbling ineptitude of the Le Domases themselves. (Count Zaroffs, they are not.)

Quite unexpectedly, the feature achieves a dexterous balance between the appalling and absurd that it capably maintains for a lively 95 minutes. Although this results in an ostensible horror film that is rarely outright scary, it does manage to be delectably thrilling and grotesquely funny, often simultaneously. Ready or Not is also distinguished by its ravening enthusiasm to make good on its R rating, without resorting to the sort of pugnacious, boundary-pushing cruelty that characterizes many contemporary horror films, even satires like Cheap Thrills (2014). Indeed, there’s something almost charming about the film’s reliance on old-fashioned splatterstick and vulgarity, which – combined with the convincing faux-35mm look of its digital photography – suggests the unrated special edition of some lost Joe Dante/Stuart Gordon collaboration. Unquestionably, the film’s exploitation-flick subject matter is given a striking Hollywood polish by the jaw-dropping opulence of the De Lomas estate – actually Ontario’s renowned Casa Loma and Parkwood mansions – which cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz saturates in a dense, coppery-orange gloom.

The supporting players range from tolerable to enjoyable, with the veterans the clear standouts: Czerny is always a delight when he’s allowed to go unhinged, while MacDowell lends a familiar, misleading warmth to Becky’s chilling, family-first zealotry. However, Weaving is unquestionably the film’s star attraction, both in billing and in fact. Most familiar to genre fans for her roles in Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015-18), The Babysitter (2017) and the aforementioned Mayhem, the actor winningly and emphatically shrugs off any lingering “off-brand Margot Robbie” typecasting with a performance that’s at once B-movie juicy and rousingly authentic. Critically, Weaving, her co-directors, and screenwriters Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy all refrain from turning Grace into a steely action star once the games begin. The actor plays the hunted bride as a deft blend of frightened victim, dogged survivor, and exasperated heroine in a screwball comedy. Second only to pants-shitting terror, Grace’s prevailing mode is one of furious, sputtering disbelief, as in, “I can’t believe this is happening to me on my goddamn wedding night.” Which perhaps points to her potentially lethal error in judgment: Where money and family are concerned, one should always expect the worst.

Not that the De Lomases are all that threatening as villains. What’s modestly refreshing about Ready or Not’s nefarious clan of devil-worshipping Brahmins is their utter cluelessness. In contrast to the sinister cabals that populate most horror films, the De Lomases are cartoonishly incompetent, stymied at every turn by Grace’s desperate cunning even with all the advantages at their disposal (i.e., numbers, weapons, and familiarity with the mansion’s nooks and crannies). Indeed, except for the bloodthirsty Aunt Helene and the family’s brutish butler, Stevens (John Ralston), the household treats the ritual slaughter of Alex’s new wife as a kind of miserable familial duty. There’s nothing gleefully malevolent about the De Lomas’ cultish traditions; they’re simply paying the Devil his due to protect the family’s staggering wealth and power. This, in its low-key way, might be the film’s most biting and cynical theme: Evil is less about cackling malfeasance than grubby, self-serving pettiness, where the wealthy will gladly lower themselves to hacking up corpses if it means preserving the comforts of the status quo. It’s telling, perhaps, that many of the De Lomases are willing to toss out their hallowed customs – Why rely on Civil War-era weaponry? Why not exploit the estate’s security cameras? – when Grace proves to be a slippery quarry. Decorum, traditions, and allegedly inviolate moral codes are all discarded the moment they become inconvenient to people who have everything to lose.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Mike Wallace Is Here'.
August 16, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking

2019 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Avi Belkin / Opened in select cities on July 26, 2019; locally on Aug. 16, 2019

The title of Avi Belkin’s Mike Wallace Is Here may be a nod to the phrase used to introduce the television journalist on his influential news magazine show 60 Minutes, but it also cleverly points to the late Wallace’s authorial presence within this documentary. Culled together exclusively from a treasure trove of archival footage, it’s ostensibly Wallace spinning his own yarn through his preferred medium – the news television interviews for which he became a household name – as both interviewer and interviewee. With that in mind, Mike Wallace Is Here has a surface resemblance to the trendy archival footage-only mosaics like this year’s hit docs Apollo 11 and They Shall Not Grow Old. However, the wrinkle Belkin adds – shaping the film so that the subject seems to interrogate himself – allows for a uniquely rewarding, sometimes opaque, and often very funny experiential montage.

Wallace is not a co-author in the sense that he’s helped shape the material here; he died in 2012, so this is emphatically not auto-biography. However, his braggadocious technique and intrepid reporting comprises the film’s content, and it also informs the lean shape Mike Wallace Is Here takes. Interviews with a cavalcade of both famous and infamous 20th-century notables – Bette Davis, Arthur Miller, Eldon Edwards, Richard Nixon, to name just a few – flash through the title cards, set to the Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock,” the propulsive rhythm-section-only track that previously scored the opening robbery in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). From this, it’s clear that Belkin is uninterested in traditional documentary technique, attempting to move the dial of a more staid mode of talking-head docs into a possibly more involving and modern one. It’s also a move analogous to what Wallace and Don Hewitt were up to when they entered the stately CBS newsrooms to eventually modernize that medium.

That hyper-slickness does make for one of the most entertaining biodocs in recent memory, given that this particular milieu could bore the hell out of an uninitiated viewer. (Although it’s worth noting that the newsroom frequently makes for compelling narrative cinema: His Girl Friday [1940], Network [1976], Broadcast News [1987], et al..) Mike Wallace Is Here is at once a biography and an exploration of how the parasitic nature of politics, culture, and the media has increasingly mutated into something more insidious since Wallace first appeared on local radio programs in the early 50s. In this way, the film introduces big ideas while jumping through Wallace’s greatest hits and misses. While they’re not dished out and then dispensed with in a perfunctory manner, many of these ideas may require more mulling than what Belkin allows for within his tight 90-minute feature. 

In a prologue of Wallace’s interview with persona non grata Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, the conservative huckster and braggart draws a line from his own political firebrand methods to Wallace’s take-no-prisoners style, the latter having helped shift news from simple reportage to “entertainment,” as some pigeonholed the now-venerated Wallace throughout his career. It is, like many things that come from O’Reilly’s word-hole, a false equivalency, but Wallace’s unlikely reaction suggests at least some culpability on his part.

Belkin weighs O’Reilly’s assertion throughout the film, but the director thankfully leaves the question open-ended while still attempting to mark the points at which such a thing might have occurred. Wallace’s early days in television as an actor, game show host, and cigarette spokesman meant that his entrée into news with his heavy-hitting interview programs, Night-Beat and The Mike Wallace Interview, initially prompted scoffs from establishment journalists. He persevered, landing a gig at "America’s most trusted" news outfit CBS News, but his more traditional cohorts there, including Walter Cronkite, saw him as a rowdy upstart.

The cycle of two steps forward and one step back is a constant for Wallace, and it's here where the biodoc draws parallels between Wallace’s professional trajectory and the sensationalization of television journalism. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini calls for an Egyptian uprising against their president, Anwar Sadat, in an interview with Wallace, seemingly resulting in the assasination of Sadat shortly after. This, along with the increasing proliferation of news magazines and tabloid programs – as well as a lawsuit from General William C. Westmoreland against CBS News on the basis of a Wallace interview – casts a national black cloud over the established media.

Throughout his narrative of causality, Belkin is occasionally prone to obvious comparisons to our current political and media landscape, sometimes with blunt force, as when he features Wallace with a then-late-30s Donald Trump who denounces any intention of running for public office – although the real estate mogul believes he’s the type who could get the job done. The moment is chilling, sure, but it all feels like warning signals that have arrived far too late, touching a raw nerve just to provoke reaction. That inclusion does, however, allows Mike Wallace Is Here to function as a case study in media ethics, both in its content and its very storytelling.

Elsewhere, particularly when dealing with Wallace’s insecurities and personal life, the director deploys a lighter touch and creates a much greater impact. Eisenstein would be proud (or at the very least, intrigued) by Belkin’s trick of cutting between Wallace’s hard-nosed interviews of various subjects and the multitude of times the reporter was the subject himself; he was a celebrity in his own right, after all. He challenges Bette Davis’ assertion that all she ever needed in her life was work, not people, and whether that could be true for any human – and then voices virtually the same sentiment himself in a retirement-era interview with a 60 Minutes producer. He prods Larry King about his personal relationship woes, later shutting down a similar question posed to him as “bullshit.” Most revealing regarding the schism between his private and public self is his seemingly insensitive line of questioning to Leona Helmsley’s about her son’s death, juxtaposed against the suicide of Wallace’s own son and the lifelong trauma it inflicted on the newsman.

While the conceit of using pre-existing interview material exclusively doesn’t allow for a fully formed biography of Wallace – although, admittedly, the film and the man himself suggest that his work was the sole reason for his existence – this complex documentary is likely the closest any filmmaker can get to the contradictory truths surrounding the legendary journalist. If he truly was the swaggering blowhard this film presents, he’d likely raise hell and red flags about the entire enterprise. It would be hard for him to present a defense against it, however, since Belkin has lovingly crafted a paen as complicated and rich as Wallace’s legacy itself.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Dora and the Lost City of Gold'.
August 15, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

She Can Lead the Way

2019 / USA, Australia / 102 min. / Dir. by James Bobin / Opened in wide release on Aug. 9, 2019

Nickelodeon tried to make Dora the Explorer (2000- ) relevant to older audiences once before. A television staple for many Millennials and Gen Zers, Dora’s a young girl who — along with her talking animal friends and an animate backpack and map — aims to teach basic Spanish words and phrases to children between the ages of two and seven. It remained on air for nearly two decades before Nick decided to try something new. Trading the original iteration of the show for a more mature version aimed at tweens, Dora and Friends: Into the City! (2014-17) saw the character swap her animal comrades and jungle setting for a fictional city filled with other girls her age. It was not remotely as successful as its predecessor, as evidenced by its mere three-year run. However, just two years after shuttering Into the City!, the studio is back at it again: This time, Dora’s a real-life high schooler (Isabela Moner) in search of ancient artifacts. Unlike the last attempt to make the pint-sized adventurer relevant, Dora and the Lost City of Gold modestly strikes it rich.

From the highly stylized opening sequence that sees a young Dora (Madelyn Miranda) and her cousin Diego (Malachi Barton) swinging through the jungle singing the show’s opening theme song, it’s apparent that the film is dedicated to its source material. That is, until Dora’s parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) call the kids’ names and reality snaps back into place. The suggestion that the cartoon is nothing more than Dora’s imagination drives the new film’s narrative. She’s living in her own world — one where she’s the host of an infantile adventure show. When Diego moves to the city for his mom’s new job, the film flashes forward a decade. Now 16 years old, Dora is still sporting the same brightly-colored outfit and touting around her trusty companions as she rollicks through the jungle without an iota of fear. This reckless behavior results in a tough decision for her mom and dad: Dora will head into the city to finish her schooling while they complete their career-long search for a lost Incan civilization. As it turns out, high school is the one adventure Dora has yet to tackle.

Her parents aren’t the only ones searching for the lost city of gold, however. A team of villainous mercenaries know they can beat Dora’s parents to the treasure if the adolescent explorer leads them straight to it. What transpires is a mashup of Elf (2003) and all four Indiana Jones films, with Dora serving as the adventurer/fish-out-of-water hybrid. After an unexpected turn of events, Dora, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), and fellow classmates Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe) must make their way through the South American rainforest with the help of family friend Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) while also making sure to avoid the bad guys hot on their trail. Their journey contains plenty of what Randy dubs “jungle puzzles,” most of which are boosted straight from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Last Crusade (1989), before heading into a third act that is more Temple of Doom (1984) and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). (Considering that the Indiana Jones franchise was roped into Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm back in 2012, Dora is odd but admittedly sensible candidate for an off-brand Indy substitute.)

However obscure or arbitrary the idea might sound initially, Nickelodeon’s decision to produce a feature film based on Dora the Explorer makes sense. Not only does it qualify as a nostalgia mine, but it’s also the longest-running show in their educational programming block Nick Jr. From toys to books to home videos to video games, Dora is intellectual property that Nickelodeon would be foolish not to cash in on (especially when their rival Walt Disney Studios looming like a juggernaut over the multiplex landscape). Co-writer Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin are the ideal choices for an adaption of this kind — the pair are responsible for The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014), while Stoller has also written successful animated films like Storks (2016) and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017). The sense of humor is more family-friendly than some of Stoller’s R-rated comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and Neighbors (2014), but his signature brand of British cynicism turns what could have been a tiresome money-grab into a decent live-action adaptation that far exceeds Disney’s recent efforts.

Along with co-writer Matthew Robinson, the two have found a way to honor the original program while refusing to be bound by it. Dora’s sanguine attitude and sing-songy nature are openly mocked, while the animation style of the show is reduced to a particularly memorable sight gag. Meanwhile, Boots’ alleged ability to talk is questioned by anyone who happens to see Dora "conversing" with her CGI monkey sidekick. (For whatever reason, Swiper the Fox, voiced by Benicio del Toro, openly talks to his gang of soldiers-for-hire, who don’t bat an eye at this. Shouldn't Dora’s crew be just as accommodating to Boots’ anthropomorphism?) It’s a shame when Dora resorts to easy potty humor because the majority of the comedy actually works quite successfully. The film’s blend of high- and low-brow gags conjoined with big-time thrills and a real sense of peril culminate in an unpredictable outing that ranks among some of the more amusing live-action remakes to date.

In the wake of The Lion King (2019) and Disney’s apparent determination to dully remake all of its animated features, it’s admirable to see something as imaginative as Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Isabela Moner operates as a human cartoon character who embodies the film’s namesake with ease. Who would have thought that the stand-out pairing of Moner and del Toro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) would be replicated within the year? And in a self-aware adaptation of an educational TV series, no less? There’s no telling if Nickelodeon will continue to go down a similar route with some of their other Nick Jr. titles — perhaps a Blue’s Clues (1996-2006) neo-noir?  — but even if Dora ends up standing alone, it will remain a stand-out in a time where profit seems more important than ingenuity. At least The Lost City of Gold seems to give the two equal weight.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'The Nightingale'.
August 13, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Revenge Is Never a Straight Line. It's a Forest.

2018 / Australia, Canada, USA / 136 min. / Dir. by Jennifer Kent / Opened in select cities on Aug. 2, 2019; locally on Aug. 16, 2019

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

The Nightingale is a film of staggering cruelty. The feature’s writer and director, Jennifer Kent, established a formidable international reputation with her creepy, psychologically transgressive horror hit The Babadook (2014). While the director’s sophomore feature isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense, The Nightingale is a work steeped in the sort of unforgiving, authentic brutality that would make a grindhouse gorehound blanch. Set in Tasmania in 1825, Kent’s film is unsparing in its depiction of the everyday monstrousness of 19th-century British colonialism – as well as that system’s close yet complicated connection to misogyny. It’s a sharply political work that doesn’t feel didactic for one moment of its intentionally exhausting 136-minute running time, in part because the director is so adept at thrusting the viewer into the rawboned, harrowed headspace of her protagonist, 21-year-old Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi, in an undeniable breakout performance).

Over the first half-hour of The Nightingale, Kent expressively sketches Clare’s miserable circumstances with a keen-eyed affinity for detail – such as the kitchen knife that the woman clutches defensively while walking along a wooded path, even as she sings sweetly to her infant child. Convicted of theft at a young age, Clare now lives as a glorified slave to a British lieutenant, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), at a remote wilderness outpost in colonial Tasmania (then Van Dieman’s Land). Although she is married to fellow Irish Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and is caring for her newborn, Clare is obliged to work long, grueling hours as a scullery maid in the garrison kitchens, to sing for the troops on command, and to submit to the lieutenant’s vicious sexual assaults. It’s technically been three months since her sentence was completed, but Hawkins has no incentive to issue the letter recommending Clare’s release. Resentful at his backwater posting and burdened with a platoon of hard-drinking, ill-disciplined soldiers, the lieutenant humiliates and abuses Clare as an outlet for his seething frustrations – in between murderous sorties against the local Aboriginal people.

During an inspection, a visiting captain reveals that Hawkins has not been recommended for the promotion and reassignment he desired, setting off a terrible chain of events for Clare. His confidence bolstered by drink, Aidan confronts the already-livid lieutenant about his wife’s overdue release, and raised voices eventually escalate to blows. This incident only compounds Hawkins’ burning sense of professional disgrace, and later that night he storms into the couple’s hovel with his drunken infantrymen in tow. In a scuffle that spirals into atrocity with nightmarish speed, the soldiers inflict a veritable horror show of unfathomable violence against Clare and her family. Everything in her life collapses into one shattering singularity, leaving Clare utterly alone and broken – or so Hawkins and his men assume, to their eventual peril.

Kent presents these awful events in a manner that emphasizes Clare’s agony and powerlessness, and for this reason, it has a sickening intimacy. While the director’s choices reflect a female filmmaker’s sensitivity to the psychological details of Clare’s ordeal – such as the way the woman’s glassy gaze fixates on her shack’s dusty ceiling as a means of dissociation – there’s no point in glossing over the severity of the feature’s graphic violence. The Nightingale will test many viewers’ ability to stomach unblinking cinematic depictions of human barbarism. The night that incites Clare’s unholy mission of vengeance is only the opening act in the film’s litany of rape and murder, much of it salted with unapologetic (even gleeful) racism. Indeed, the film’s screening at the Sydney Film Festival in June reportedly prompted the inevitable indignant walkouts from some audience members. (The feature's U.S. distributor, IFC Films, prudently included frank content warnings with screeners issued to critics.)

The obvious question is whether all this misery – however accurate in its depiction of Australia’s colonial history  – adds up to something meaningful, or just the contemporary prestige version of an exploitation rape-revenge flick such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978). Like Jen and Sylvia Soska’s American Mary (2012), Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. (2017), and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017), Kent’s feature employs the sub-genre’s lowbrow conventions for revisionist, feminist ends. However, The Nightingale lacks the self-aware sleaziness and gallows humor that typically characterize such neo-exploitation works. In terms of setting and tone, it is a closer relation to the Aussie “meat pie Western,” especially that subgenre’s grimmer, de-romanticized 21st-century entries like The Tracker (2002), The Proposition (2005), and Sweet Country (2017). Kent puts her own haunted spin on this sort of blood-soaked bush tale, slowing things down to a crawl and submerging the film in her heroine’s bad dreams and black hate.

The morning after her old life is obliterated, Clare discovers that Hawkins has abruptly departed the outpost with a small band that includes soldiers, convicts, and an Aboriginal guide. Headed overland on foot to his company’s headquarters to the north, the lieutenant is under the perhaps-myopic assumption that his boldness will secure him the captaincy that he has been denied. Clare, who is so hungry for blood that she doesn’t even take time to bury her dead, seeks out an Aboriginal guide of her own in the form of Billy (newcomer Baykali Ganambarr, just as impressive as Franciosi). A sullen yet hard-headed young man, he is persuaded by the promise of an eventual payday, once Clare hocks the jewelry and other mementos the lieutenant has gifted to her over the years. Their tetchy, cross-gender, cross-racial alliance thus struck – a kind of rancorous historical forebear to Walkabout (1971) – the pair race to gain ground on Hawkins’ party, even as Britain’s Black War against the indigenous Tasmanians rages around them. Although Billy doesn’t yet know of Clare’s murderous intentions, her dead-eyed zeal is plainly burning white hot. Indeed, her recklessness puts both of their lives in jeopardy on more than one occasion as they traverse the bush’s buzzing forests, stony hills, and swollen rivers, perpetually nipping at Hawkins’ heels.

While The Nightingale functions quite fantastically as a pitiless revenge thriller – one that unavoidably recalls the hell-and-back intensity of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015), absent that film’s fable-like qualities – Kent is ultimately up to something more akin to the meditations on violence and vengeance in The Great Silence (1968), Unforgiven (1992) and True Grit (2010). (Or, to venture outside the Western genre, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 cloak-and-dagger masterwork, Munich.) In contrast to the rape-revenge exploitation pictures of yesteryear, Kent’s feature doesn’t endeavor to titillate viewers with the spectacle of righteous violence. When Clare finally has one of the soliders in her clutches, the struggle that ensues is ugly stuff, as ungainly in its scrabbling desperation as John Wick’s homicidal rampages are elegant. Simply put, revenge doesn’t look daring, exciting, or even all that satisfying in The Nightingale. It looks like a journey into the bowels of hell.

This is at least partly attributable to Kent’s choice to build her tale around outsiders who have both suffered at the hands of British colonizers: an Irish woman enslaved and exiled for a petty offense and an Aboriginal man whose clan has been slain and scattered. The filmmaker walks a fine line here, depicting the way her lead characters – who initially boil with mutual, unconcealed contempt – gradually become aware of the cruelties they have both suffered, all without permitting the screenplay to slip into implausible kumbayas. (Green Book this is not.) The fumbling, uncertain empathy that Clare and Jimmy discover as they trek through the Tasmanian wilds is probably the closest thing to real humanity to be found in The Nightingale. However, their bond is less a friendship than a two-way acknowledgement that their pain is real and their grievances are deep. (Though Kent suggests, in the most delicate way possible, a longing for something more, as fleeting as a hand reaching out momentarily in the darkness.)

The Nightingale advances that, in contrast to the extraordinary injustices that often motivate cinema’s white male vengeance-seekers, the wrongs perpetrated on Clare and Jimmy are, by definition, un-extraordinary. Slavery, rape, and slaughter: It’s all in a day’s work for the British Empire. Although it would be a century and a half before “intersectionality” entered the lexicon of the social sciences, Clare and Jimmy exhibit a nascent awareness that they share a common devil draped in the Union Jack, and that battling him will require a kind of crude solidarity. Moreover, The Nightingale is deftly and consistently attuned to the ways that power manifests along innumerable axes: man and woman; white and black; native and colonist; freeman and convict. That this never feels like an anachronism is a testament to Kent’s nimble cinematic storytelling and to Franciosi and Ganambarr’s credible performances.

Implicit in the film’s sociological reflections, however, is a sour skepticism towards personal acts of retribution, especially when the villains’ actions are underlain and protected by a vast, powerful system of patriarchy and white supremacy. Left unsaid is the truism that if slain, Hawkins will simply be replaced by another cog in the colonial machine, perhaps one equally malevolent (or worse, if such a thing is possible). By offering glimpses of the intricacies of the story’s hierarchies – illustrating, for example, how Hawkins pulls an indentured orphan boy into his confidence by dangling the promise of a pistol, that totem of imperial authority – Kent cunningly questions the broader, utilitarian effectiveness of the classic revenge quest. She does this, impressively enough, without diminishing the howling pain of her heroine’s losses or suggesting that Hawkins and his men deserve anything less than death for their evil deeds.

On a more psychological level, The Nightingale also expresses a pessimistic view of revenge as an ultimately fruitless and self-destructive endeavor. An aphorism often attributed to Confucius could very well be the film’s alternate tagline: Before embarking on a journey of revenge, first dig two graves. The observation that vengeance poisons the soul might not be especially original, but Kent underlines it evocatively by means of heightened, horror-film flourishes. Clare’s nights are initially bedeviled by ghoulish visions of her slain family, but eventually her victims begin to haunt her dreams as well, gibbering from mutilated faces and wheezing through collapsed lungs. The pernicious nature of revenge can be a resonant theme; Game of Thrones (2011-19) vividly and subversively explored it before disappointingly retreating into more shopworn fantasy tropes. Kent’s feature evades such a fate, partly through the screenplay’s emotional and philosophical rigor, and partly through the hard-nosed, often horrifying authenticity of the period setting, which grounds the film in the inescapable grasp of history.

Indeed, Alex Holmes’ grimy, ragged production design only heightens the film’s intense atmosphere of stultifying doom. (As in Jane Campion’s New Zealand-set 1993 masterpiece The Piano, most of the non-indigenous characters seem to be perpetually clammy and filthy.) Frequently, the viewer feels as trapped as Clare does by this hellish environment, an island at the end of the world that is improbably swarming with the same redcoat demons that plagued her distant emerald homeland. Who could fault her for believing that she has nothing left to cling to other than her bottomless sorrow and incandescent rage? Jimmy, for his part, nurtures a myth-embellished clan pride beneath his bitterness, playfully expressing his spiritual kinship with the native blackbird and speaking fondly of his past initiation into his people’s ritual culture. It’s not until he learns of his far-flung clan’s fate that he begins to exhibit the same hollowed-out fury as Clare, the same zombified conviction that he has nothing left to live for except the annihilation of his enemies. Kent never takes her characters to task for this vindictive compulsion, but she does venture – particularly in her film’s final, aching shot – that the cold satisfaction of vengeance might be a poor substitute for the warmth of human connection.

Rating: B+

Viewers take note: The Nightingale features potentially triggering acts of sexual violence towards women, violence towards children, and violence motivated by racism.

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Them That Follow'.
August 8, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Snake, Rattle and Roll

2019 / USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage / Opens in select cities on Aug. 2, 2019; locally on Aug. 9, 2019

Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s debut feature, Them That Follow, suffers greatly from its lack of an interesting point-of-view. Set in secluded foothills of the Appalachian mountains in which a community of evangelical Pentecostal devotees deploy venomous snakes as a ritual test of faith, this hyper-indie-movie vision of a toxic community gone awry makes an early promise to which it just can’t commit. It may be cut from the same quasi-thriller cloth as Sean Durkin’s 2011 debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, but Poulton and Madison only retain that slow-burn identity-mystery's sensationalism and almost none of its acute exploration of the allure of cults and the trauma they inflict on their members.

Casting Walton Goggins as Lemuel, the rattlesnake-catching and blustery preacher of this church, should be a major coup for these new filmmakers and screenwriters, but even the performer’s seething insidiousness for which he’s best known (as in television’s Justified [2010-15]) coupled with his innate charm (see his scene-stealing turn in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight [2015]) can’t truly elucidate the pull such an obviously dangerous dogma has on its believers. Poulton and Savage’s script is simply too basic and too rote in its mechanics to elevate the material beyond its mix of soap opera and suspense trappings – and there are enough of these to propel a viewer through it – burdening the resulting film’s incredible cast with all the heavy lifting.

Shouldered with most of that weight is Alice Englert as Lemuel’s daughter, Mara, and she carries the young and troubled woman with great dignity and doubt, making her a credible center for both the narrative and the community that surrounds the character. Arranged marriages and the protection of one’s virginity are the norm here, and Mara has broken the latter vow with her secret boyfriend, Augie (Thomas Mann), who’s already distanced himself from the church to which his mother, Hope (Olivia Colman), and father, Zeke (a straight-faced Jim Gaffigan), are so devoted. Mara’s lustful “sin” sends her into a downward spiral.  She steals a pregnancy test from the convenience store Hope runs and (of course) it reads positive, forcing her to conceal – even to her best friend and surrogate sister, Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever of Booksmart [2019]) – not only her relationship and condition but also the increasing schism between her upbringing and her diverging beliefs.

Complicating matters is a newcomer to the community, Garret (Lewis Pullman), and his romantic interest in Mara – interest Lemuel so wholeheartedly endorses, he convinces them that a nuptial union is in order. As per tradition, Mara is given the opportunity to decline, but the timing is all too convenient for her to pass up. Her intended ruse doesn’t last long after Hope performs an invasive “rite of passage” on the bride-to-be and discovers her secret. What follows gives Them That Follow its thriller components as community members are pitted against each other in a test of faith vs. logic: Two instances of reptile-as-absolution end with wildly different results as the film pivots from hillbilly soap opera into a gory race against the clock.

Throughout, surface-level assessments and depictions of the religion don’t allow for an audience to identify with the given theology or its members’ unmoved devotion. Accordingly, there’s condescension towards the lifestyle and characters presented here, although to convince any viewer differently may be an absurd task, given the particulars of it. Poulton and Savage are likely too green to imbue their film with the same sort of subversive attraction Paul Thomas Anderson lent to the faux-Scientology of The Master (2013). Their script mostly just lifts aspects of snake-worshipping for the purpose of by-the-numbers filmic conflict, resolution, and exploitation, as opposed to the more multifaceted exploration of influence and identity seen in Anderson’s superb work.

That said, Colman, fresh off a Best Actress Oscar win for The Favourite (2018), sells this sort of depth through her performance. Her Hope is a solemn worshiper who bears the heavy cross of her past – the character alludes to the rough road of sins that led her to the church – until the weight of it virtually crushes her when she’s forced to choose between the source of her supposed salvation and a life-or-death matter. Once the pressure ruptures her already unstable constitution, the actor pushes the film into its most humane moment. In a production filled with dressed-down Hollywood-types acting as the new silent majority (director Debra Granik navigates similar territory with both Winter’s Bone [2010] and Leave No Trace [2018] to better results), Colman is the best embodiment of what could simply be an unconvincing stock-type in a film unfortunately filled with them.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Otherhood'.
August 8, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Bad Moms

2019 / USA, UK / 100 min. / Dir. by Cindy Chupack / Premiered online on Aug. 2, 2019

Long-time television writer Cindy Chupack’s directorial debut, Otherhood, was supposed to be released around Mother’s Day but was pushed to August because of actress Felicity Huffman’s legal proceedings. In March, Huffman and nearly 50 others were arrested for their involvement in a nationwide college entrance exam cheating scandal. Huffman and fellow members of America’s rich and famous were charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, with Huffman specifically paying $15,000 for a proctor to correct any wrong answers on her daughter's SAT. The intention is clear — what parent wouldn’t want their child to get accepted into their dream school? — but the ethical ugliness is even more obvious. It’s exactly the kind of well-meaning but completely inappropriate thing Helen Halston, Huffman’s character in Otherhood, would do for her son.

Despite plainly being a Mother’s Day film, the early August release date still works with the film’s theme (to some extent). Moms undoubtedly get their feelings hurt when their kids don’t call on Mother’s Day, but the same disappointment can surface when children head off to college and communication tapers off. It’s a topic that pervades the film: Grown-up children disappoint their parents without meaning to. Helen, Gillian (Patricia Arquette), and Carol (Angela Basset) have been empty-nesters for so long, they’ve grown tired of the way their adult sons treat them — ignored phone calls, unanswered text messages, forgotten holidays. They’re fed up. After another Mother’s Day goes by with little-to-no contact from the three boys, the moms — drunk on whiskey before noon on a Sunday — devise a scheme to forcibly involve themselves in their sons' lives again. On a whim, they pack their bags and head from upstate New York into the city, showing up unannounced at their sons’ apartments. (Less than 10 minutes in, it’s clear why their children don’t give these domineering women the attention they think they deserve.)

One by one, Helen, Gillian, and Carol are dropped off outside their destinations. Only Carol dares to directly confront her son Matt (Sinqua Walls) — Helen and Gillian both get cold feet and put off their surprise reunions until the next day. From here, the plot splits into three overlapping threads. For example: Gillian’s son Daniel (Jake Hoffman, son of Dustin Hoffman, playing a dollar-store version of Ben Braddock from The Graduate [1967]) walked in on his hairstylist girlfriend Erin (Heidi Gardener) having an affair, so she’s determined to get them back together so her boy can be happy again. When Carol’s son Matt tells her she needs to focus on herself after the death of her husband, Gillian leaps at the opportunity to suggest a makeover at Erin’s salon. Gillian and Erin’s conversation then inspires Helen to resolve unspoken issues with her son Paul (Jake Lacy), who has always felt neglected by her. Their respective journeys intertwine like this for a solid hour before the trio realize the only way they can improve their relationships with their sons is to improve their relationships with themselves.

This sort of three-pronged plot should be expected from someone who has spent most of her career writing for television. Chupack has penned episodes of modern sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005), Sex and the City (1998-2004), and Modern Family (2009- ), so it makes sense for her first screenplay to preserve the episodic structure to which she’s accustomed. Unfortunately, the resulting film doesn’t flow smoothly; Otherhood plays like several episodes of a Netflix Original Series loosely strung together. Major plot points are either abandoned or resolve themselves off-screen, all so that Chupack can add more twists and turns to a story that’s barely there in the first place. Another component that feels imported from the commercial-heavy network sitcom model is the film’s overt product placement. The moms fawn over a box of Dunkin’ Donuts at their Mother’s Day brunch. Once in New York, Gillian raves about her hotel’s one-of-a-kind amenities with the brand name conveniently centered in the frame. These embedded ads are as distracting as a commercial break, made worse by the legitimately talented, veteran performers doing the hawking.

It’s a shame that these characters aren’t as good as the actresses playing them. Patricia Arquette won an Academy Award for bringing nuance and grace to the role of a mother in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014). Angela Bassett has played important figures such as Dr. Betty Shabazz in Malcom X (1992), Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), and the titular heroine in The Rosa Parks Story (2002). In direct contrast to their undeniable talent, Otherhood limits its three leads to caricatures — the extent of Arquette’s character is Overbearing Mom, Bassett’s is Grieving Mom, and Huffman’s is Entitled Mom. The script leaves no room for further development, instead choosing tired jokes over meaningful moments. Their lines sound like Chupack and her co-writer Mark Andrus were trying to replicate what they imagine a group of fifty-something moms would sound like, with the trio griping about social media and cell phones and “the world today.” One line near the beginning of their trek into the city remains particularly confounding: When Bassett sees a new bridge being built, she says, “What was wrong with the old bridge?” The likely answer is “It was structurally unsound,” but for some reason this perplexing query is regarded as wise and profound. It’s baffling dialogue like this that makes the viewer wonder what drew these actresses to the project in the first place.

As the film ends, the credits list Arquette, Bassett, and Huffman as executive producers while an outtake of the three of them laughing and dancing plays to the side. Even Cindy Chupack can be seen in the corner of the frame, beaming along with the rest of the cast and crew. It’s enough to evoke dissociation. How could these stars not realize how bland this film is? It looks like they’re having a blast. Then it hits: These talents must realize how hard it is for women in Hollywood to get roles past a certain age. Despite her Oscar, Arquette hasn’t landed a significant role in a serious film since 2014. Hoffman’s career post-sentencing has a big question mark looming above it. Bassett is the only one who continues to score consistent work in genre franchises like Marvel Cinematic Universe and American Horror Story (2011- ), but even she seems to struggle to find work that challenges her dramatic acting abilities. It’s possible that these actresses saw Otherhood as a solution to their problems, in some small way — or a corrective to similar issues plaguing the entertainment industry at large — but if that’s the case, they were woefully off the mark.

Rating: D+

Otherhood is now available to stream from Netflix.

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'The Kitchen'.
August 7, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Married to the Mob

2019 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Andrea Berloff / Opens in wide release on Aug. 9, 2019

If something seems eerily familiar about writer-director Andrea Berloff’s kludgy NYC underworld potboiler The Kitchen, you’re not just imagining things. The film’s conceit – three convention-bucking Irish mob wives take control of a Hell’s Kitchen criminal fiefdom while their husbands are locked up – bears more than a passing resemblance to Steve McQueen’s riveting 2018 Chicagoland heist epic Widows. In truth, the similarities are probably just a fluke, given that both films are adaptations of other works: McQueen’s from Lynda La Plante’s 1983 British television miniseries, Berloff’s from a 2015 DC Vertigo comic series by writer Ollie Masters and artist Ming Doyle. However, the proximity of the two features, with The Kitchen opening in wide release less than a year after Widows’ Toronto premiere, unavoidably calls attention to how generic and ungainly the former film feels. While Berloff’s feature boasts a solid cast, one suspects that even the best performers couldn’t salvage the screenplay, which repurposes the source material’s prickly femme fatales and 1970s scuzziness into the stuff of a confused girl-power fable. It’s as though the tepid feminism-by-committee of a late 2010’s studio blockbuster had been dropped into the hard-boiled world of a George Higgins novel and rendered incoherent in the translation.

The Kitchen’s fumbles are evident from the jump, as a muddled 1978-set prelude zips through the setup that will drive the rest of the film. What might have been an opportunity for lean-and-mean characterization – all three women and their spouses are introduced in a flurry of quick domestic scenes – just feels like a rushed succession of stiff clichés. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) is the dutiful wife and mother; Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is the flinching abuse victim; and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) is the belittled outsider, whose husband Kevin (James Badge Dale) is the oldest son of the Irish mob's dyspeptic matriarch (Margo Martindale). Pinched by a pair of FBI agents (Common and E.J. Bonilla) during an inept liquor store robbery, husbands Kevin, Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), and Rob (Jeremy Bobb) are sentenced to three years in prison, leaving their homemaker wives alone and effectively destitute. Kevin’s interim replacement, younger brother Little Jackie (Myk Watford), offers the women a paltry stipend for appearances’ sake, but the sum won’t even cover their rent. When the trio come crawling to Jackie and his goons to politely beseech for more, they’re furiously told to take the crumbs they’re given with a “thank you”.

Given their disdainful treatment at the hands of this boys’ club, Kathy devises a plan upon overhearing that the outfit’s protection racket is having trouble making collections. The three women resolve to pick up the sub-legal slack from their husbands’ absence, secretly wheedling a pair of foot soldiers out from under Jackie to serve as their muscle. In no time at all (i.e., over the course of a hasty musical montage), the wives manage to breathe fresh life into what was an ailing criminal enterprise, through a combination of honeyed words, entrepreneurial pluck, and survivors’ ruthlessness. Eventually, the women add exiled triggerman Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson) to their arsenal, and it’s roughly at this point that both the indignant Jackie and the suspicious FBI agents start to take notice of the slow-motion takeover of the Hell’s Kitchen underworld. What’s more, the women are soon summoned to Brooklyn by an Italian mafioso (Bill Camp) who is annoyed at their encroachment into the Hasidic-run diamond district. Being forward-thinkers, however, the ladies cut a deal with this rival crime boss, dividing territory in an arrangement that will definitely not come back to bite them in the third act.

The Kitchen’s most immediately obvious flaws are those of cinematic craftsmanship, or, rather, the lack thereof: This is a distressingly slipshod, lead-footed film. Berloff’s unfocused direction, Christopher Tellefsen’s belly-flop editing, and Maryse Alberti’s bland lensing (with a few vivid exceptions) combine to turn a functional-if-banal story into an astonishingly sloppy work. (Again, the comparison to Widows, which boasted razor-sharp editing and sound design, is not a flattering one.) It’s less one glaring defect than lots of little inept decisions, from the awkward, halting way that the film’s montages compress time to Berloff’s tendency to stretch out scenes until every drop of crime-thriller tension has leaked away. It’s never a good sign when the viewer, rather than white-knuckling their armrest, is just tapping their fingers for the film to dispense with the inevitable eruption of violence and move on to the next scene. Like the knockoff Gucci handbags sold on the film’s street corners, The Kitchen apes the general look, sound, and story of a Martin Scorsese crime epic, except that it's shabbily constructed from inferior materials. (Or, in some cases, the director’s worst inclinations. Is there a soundtrack full of on-the-nose period needle-drops, including tracks from Fleetwood Mac and Heart? You bet there is!)

The three leads make the best of the script that they’ve been given, with McCarthy faring the least-bad in a role that feels like a cozy fit for her baseline dramatic mode, even if the film never finds a way to plausibly resolve Kathy’s mama-bear brutality with her sheltered-housewife guilelessness. Haddish has the worst of it, though not through any fault of her own. Berloff’s screenplay plainly wants to position Ruby as the wild card, a woman of sly ambition embittered by a violent childhood and years of casual racism from her husband’s family. Yet she comes off as more of a plot-pushing Grand Theft Auto NPC than a flesh-and-blood human, her characterization consisting of little but stale disco-era sass – which sounds curiously flat coming out of Haddish’s mouth, no matter how tart her delivery. Moss, meanwhile, is left with an idiot-simple arc that takes her character from cringing victim to cold-blooded killer, and her attempts to inject some humanity into Claire end up feeling like a hollow effort. After Gabriel abruptly enters the film just in time to save her from a back-alley rape, Claire falls for his reedy Irish charms, a development that doesn’t feel any less hackneyed just because the director is a woman who knowingly lampshades this sort of retrograde, exploitation-esque plot turn.

This points to The Kitchen’s most intractable problem: It has no idea what it values are supposed to be. Marvelous things can come from female filmmakers reworking the tropes of historically male-dominated genres. Just last year, Lynne Ramsay crafted an enervating, elliptical work of cinema out of a bog-standard urban vigilante narrative in You Were Never Really Here. Unfortunately, Berloff – a screenwriter-turned-director who scored an Oscar nomination with her Straight Outta Compton (2015) script – doesn’t seem to have given much thought to how a woman-centered story might uproot crime drama conventions (if at all). Potentially fruitful thematic avenues, such as the equalizing effect of guns on the otherwise muscle-heavy world of organized crime, are often left dangling out in open, frustratingly unexplored. The film’s most hard-hitting idea concerns the vicious punishment of women who are perceived as ungrateful for what men deign to give them – not to mention women who dare to be proud of what they’ve accomplished without (or despite) men – but even this notion is undernourished in Berloff’s screenplay.

Kathy, Ruby, and Claire aren’t portrayed as good-hearted, tragic figures unwittingly drawn into the underworld like Body and Soul’s Charley Davis, but nor are they pathetic, contemptible villains in the mold of Goodfellas’ Henry Hill. At times, the film seems to regard their misdeeds – which include corruption, extortion, and murder – as inherently heroic simply because they’re women elbowing their way into an overwhelmingly male-controlled system. This is reinforced by the film’s meager allusions to the women’s liberation movement, including a flat-footed moment where an Italian mobster’s wife (Annabella Sciorra) surreptitiously name-drops Gloria Steinem and gives the protagonists a supportive fist-pump. The triumphant tone of the film’s perplexingly sudden conclusion also points to this rather cynical worldview.

Elsewhere the feature suggests it has the ambitions of an anguished, almost Shakespearean tragedy about the corrupting effects of money and power. In other instances, it seems to be striving for a lurid domestic melodrama that just happens to be set in the criminal underworld of rat-infested, garbage-choked old New York City. In this, at least, The Kitchen enjoys some success. While it never achieves the moody period verisimilitude of, say, A Most Violent Year (2014), it nails something closer to the every-so-slightly affected retro vibrancy of Summer of Sam (1999) and Wonderstruck (2017). Simply put, the costumes, hair styles, makeup, and overall production design are pretty damn delightful, walking right up to the line of – but never actually shrieking – “See? It’s the '70’s!” In a film that frequently feels like an insipid, misshapen chore, the casual glamour of, say, Haddish’s mulberry eyeshadow and snakeskin trench coat can seem like the only port in a storm.

Rating: C-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A stil from 'Sword of Trust'.
August 2, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

The Scam Is Mightier Than the Sword

2019 / USA / 88 min. / Dir. by Lynne Shelton / Opened in select cities on July 19, 2019; locally on Aug. 2, 2019

Not too long ago, before the opinions of YouTubers and Redditors were treated like facts from trusted experts, a film that opened with an online conspiracy theorist ranting about the Earth being hollow would have gotten a few chuckles just for the sheer absurdity of the scenario. How could anyone believe this drivel? In 2019, a movie that opens this way earns laughs for being topical. That’s the case with Sword of Trust: A nameless video blogger (played by co-writer Mike O’Brien) goes on and on about how “we’re living our lives as programmed robots” that never question the way the world works. Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a pawnshop employee whose head might be as hollow as this delusional version of Earth, listens intently. The scene makes for an effective juxtaposition — the past, manifested through the relics that line the walls of the store, and the present, represented by this millennial glued to his connected devices. This theme permeates Sword of Trust: By looking to the past, it’s possible to change the future. Noble as this notion may be, the film’s frequently loose and improvisational nature prevents its message from hitting as hard as it could have.

Mel (Marc Maron), the no-nonsense owner of an Alabama pawnshop, and Nathaniel, his sole employee, seem to spend most days going through the same old motions. Mel deals with customers and makes them (less than fair) offers, while Nathaniel sits off to the side and watches videos on his iPad. Customers are often in dire straits when they come to Mel — they’re selling family heirlooms or prized possessions because they need cash, not because they need a good deal. He treats his ex-girlfriend with even greater mercenary contempt: Deirdre (played by the film’s co-writer and director, Lynn Shelton) comes to him looking to pawn a ring, but he just sends her off empty-handed. Mel does the same thing to Mary (Michela Watkins) and Cynthia (Jillian Bell), a couple looking to get a good deal on Cynthia’s grandfather’s sword from the Civil War. He offers them several hundred bucks. They spin a yarn about the sword being proof that the Confederates won the Civil War as a rebuttal, but Mel doesn’t budge.

Although pleasant enough up to this point, Sword of Trust takes an interesting turn here: After the couple leaves, Mel and Nathaniel discover that there’s a lot of money to be made in the world of Civil War truthers. After a quick Internet search, the two uncover a crudely edited video littered with Confederate flags and Southern imagery that promises to pay tens of thousands of dollars for items that support their fallacious claim about the South’s alleged victory in 1865. Looking to make bank, Mel and Nathaniel agree to pay two or three times their initial offer to get their hands on Cynthia’s sword and parlay their investment into a hefty profit via the wrongheaded racists in the video. When the couple returns, Mel tries and fails to scam them — Cynthia and Mary demand to split the profits 50/50 (or 25/25/25/25, technically). The foursome call the number from the video and meet with one of their appraisers, a man aptly named Hog Jaws (Toby Huss). They then warily clamber into the back of a moving truck to go meet with “the boss” (Dan Bakkedahl).

The cast is composed of familiar faces: Bell has been a rising star in the comedy world ever since landing a supporting role on Comedy Central’s scripted series Workaholics (2011-2017) and playing minor roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice (2014), and Watkins has been a part of David Wayne’s regular rotation since Wanderlust (2012). However, standup comedian-turned-podcasting royalty Marc Maron is the obvious marquee star. That being said, it isn’t until Sword of Trust’s midpoint that Maron really gets to show off. Seated in the back of Hog Jaws’ truck, Maron’s character opens up to the other three about his relationship with Deirdre and their struggle with drugs, a saga that eventually led to him getting clean and leaving her for his own good. It doesn’t really matter whether O’Brien and Shelton wrote out this stirring monologue for Maron or he improvised it all based on his own experiences with addiction during the 1990s. This moment where Mel lets his guard down is easily the most moving scene in the film. For a podcaster who only recently started to go beyond minor roles — e.g., an integral part on Netflix’s Glow (2017- ) — Maron is unexpectedly commendable here.

Most of Sword of Trust’s humor tends to conform to the standard-fare indie-comedy routine. Conversations and interactions between characters are dry and frequently uncomfortable, with the writers clearly aiming for the occasional “pfft” from audiences by trying to make them cringe instead of laugh. Bell and Bass’ characters are prone to this kind of humor, especially when Bass leans into “lovable idiot” territory. (It’s almost as if he’s trying to emulate Danny McBride’s comedic style at times.) This can become grating — it’s a flavor of comedy that tends to drag out scenes long after the joke stops being funny — but it’s nothing new for those familiar with Shelton’s previous work or the films of Jay and Mark Duplass. In other words, it’s typical mumblecore: a genre that prides itself on low budgets, naturalistic sets, and improvised performances. (Shelton and the Duplass brothers have long been pillars of the style, with the former’s My Effortless Brilliance [2008] and the latter’s Puffy Chair [2005] serving as the genre’s templates for more than a decade now.)

The most innovative aspect is the film’s reliance on jokes about conspiracy theories and the notion of a “Deep State.” These are two of the more patently absurd facets of the political zeitgeist in 2019, and there’s some pleasure to be had in watching a film discredit such ridiculousness, even by proxy. Shelton’s use of long takes also feels like a departure from the traditional mumblecore style book. They give Sword of Trust an almost documentary feeling, despite the obvious improvisational comedy. This is refreshing, especially considering how many contemporary comedies rely on big-name improv comedians like Will Ferrell doing 10-plus versions of a joke with the understanding that the possible final take will be unearthed in the editing room. (This is so common, in fact, that Paramount was able to release Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: Super-Sized R-Rated Version with “763 new jokes” — all alternate takes — back in 2013.) In general, fewer cuts are better, and Shelton seems to grasp this.

Leaning more toward enjoyable than galling for most of its running time, Sword of Trust is at its peak when it’s slicing through mumblecore norms in this way. While still embracing characters who are young, white, and aimless, the film does its best to discredit some of the worst people in America today — dogmatic individuals who would gladly harm anyone in opposition to their beliefs. It also manages to offer up a poignant commentary on consumerism and the notion of doing whatever it takes to earn enough money to get by (even if “whatever it takes” proves to be morally questionable). Bringing in real-world problems is a creative way for Shelton to push the boundaries of her cinematic niche, even if her characters just seemed irked by the film’s villains, rather than regarding them as any sort of real threat. Mel is just as annoyed with Nathaniel for wearing headphones at work as he is with the Civil War truthers and their dangerous ideology. Still, Sword of Trust suggests that mumblecore is changing, albeit slowly, into a genre with a more forthright social consciousness.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'The Mountain'.
August 1, 2019
By Joshua Ray

A Hammer to the Head

2018 / USA / 106 min. / Dir. by Rick Alverson / Opened in select cities on July 26, 2019; locally on Aug. 2, 2019

Rick Alverson’s The Mountain begins in a familiar fashion, mixing elements of Paul Dano’s Wildlife (2018) with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2013). In this mid-century mood piece about the perils of masculinity, a doe-eyed cipher with a troubling familial lineage comes under the insidious influence of a drunk, horny, yet charming huckster. But Alverson, with the droll and provocative The Comedy (2012) and Entertainment (2015) behind him, doesn’t resemble the more humanist artists of those aforementioned films. Instead, with this, his fifth feature, he’s established himself as the heir apparent to the patron saint of cinematic condescension, Michael Haneke.

It’s a shame, too, as the narrative that sits atop The Mountain’s repository of roiling nuclear waste is rife with insights into toxic white cishet behaviors — notions eventually passed over in favor of perpetuating archetypes that explore artistic purpose and the viewer’s role in the cinematic apparatus. Andy (Tye Sheridan of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life [2010], an actor seemingly bound to playing blank products of parental discord), having just lost his unloving and emotionally abusive father (a brief appearance by Udo Kier) finds himself traveling with a mysterious family friend, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (a perfectly modulated and relatively tic-free Jeff Goldblum). Fiennes equips the young man with a camera, teaching him the concepts of aperture and focus and thereby putting a fine point on film’s explorations into the limitations of vision.

That Andy would take Fiennes as a surrogate father figure is no surprise. Fiennes — verbose, intellectual, and seemingly caring — is the polar opposite of his biological parent, but the young man’s purpose on this journey racks focus pretty quickly. The doctor is a preeminent practitioner of lobotomies as a treatment for any given mental-health issue, traveling to facilities across the U.S. to perform the procedure, and Andy is present to be the documentarian of Fiennes’ “patients.” Their relationship morphs into just another abusive and manipulative one for Andy, as his past, morals, sexuality, and identity dictate that he question Fiennes’ mission.

A narrative hairpin turn, as foreseeable as it is, reconfigures the numbing and nearly intoxicating slow-burn propulsion previous to it. One of The Mountain’s big disappointments is Alverson’s creation of more interesting and intricately constructed mise en scène than in his previous work, before ultimately squandering it on his bludgeoning Big Ideas. Leos Carax muse Denis Lavant  — as physically and mentally unhinged as ever, thankfully — appears and announces the director’s patronizing intentions in an extended art-as-metaphor monologue to his character’s literally brain-dead audience.

With that, The Mountain emerges as a cousin to Haneke’s Funny Games films (the 1997 Austrian original and his 2007 shot-for-shot American remake), an overbaked and self-serious “art film” thumbing its nose at an audience it believes relishes glib and violent miserablism. To wit, in the film’s very press materials, Alverson speaks to his admittedly noble intentions:

I want the audience to be active, to contend with the film as something outside of themselves. Too often films and episodic television reinforce audience’s perspectives and world-views as a kind [of] commercial narcotic. They are manipulated by forms and are taught to be unaware. I want people to struggle with and in the film, not just under the influence of its narrative but with the material of it, to be skeptical of it, to question its use and authority.

However, there’s a fine line between the didactic beating of material into an audience’s supposedly empty cranial cavity here and the resplendent deconstruction of film form into societal screed, as in the cinema of Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Brian De Palma, or even the more austere works of Robert Bresson. Sure, Alverson is likely fingering the average Hollywood tentpole that’s taken over multiplexes as his culprit, and it’s possible he couldn’t be convinced that the audiences of Black Panther (2018) or Us (2019) understand those films’ complex political quandaries through their generic framework. He instead reveals himself as out of touch with the niche viewer primed to pay for a ticket to his new film – the adventurous and erudite sort who frequents arthouses and might be familiar with the works of the masters mentioned above.

With Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino — another supposed filmmaker-as-provocateur — teased out similar ideas about the futility of nostalgia, masculinity, cinema, and audience complicity and awareness. The timing is unfortunate for Alverson, since juxtaposing the two recent releases makes his film’s failures all that much more apparent. Tarantino’s evocation of his cinematic truths is graceful, forgiving, and downright tender, yet still delivers them with the movable force of stuntman’s kick to the chest. The Mountain simply hammers holes into its audience’s brain, leaving them numb to its purpose.

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray