A still from 'Hereditary'.
June 6, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Mommy Dearest

2018 / USA / 127 min. / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opens in wide release on June 8, 2018

Every cinematic experience is inherently subjective, but the horror genre presents a particularly vivid illustration of just how personal responses to films can be. Fear is a primeval emotion – perhaps the  primeval emotion – and as such it’s tremendously challenging to parse exactly why a feature might elicit shrieks of terror from one viewer and an indifferent shrug from another. A critic can describe whether a horror picture “works” from a storytelling standpoint, or why the elements of its style are distinctive, but there’s no guarantee that any given viewer will be on a particular film’s spine-tingling wavelength. Even ostensibly unassailable genre classics like The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), and The Shining (1980) have their stalwart detractors – not just the usual smugly contrarian critics, but ordinary people who simply don’t find those pictures scary.

All of this is to say that one should take the essential subjectivity of the frightening into account when weighing the following statement about writer-director Ari Aster’s feature film debut, Hereditary: It is, hands down, the most terrifying new horror film that this writer has seen in more than a decade.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that Aster’s feature is the best horror film in the past 10 years – that honor still goes to Robert Eggers’ 2015 masterpiece, The Witch – but, rather, that it elicits a deliriously intense reaction from the viewer, the sort of dark, pulsating terror that comes along only rarely in a genre lamentably overstuffed with schlock that is alternately tedious, clumsy, and insulting (and occasionally all three). In such a landscape, Hereditary arrives like a white-hot dagger driven directly into the base of the viewer’s skull. It’s not merely “good”; it’s downright traumatic. Aster conjures a sensibility of refined, gnawing anxiety that slowly swells over the course of the film’s opening 30 minutes and doesn’t relent until its hellishly glorious final shot. In an era where even casual filmgoers are inured to the formulaic shocks of mainstream horror, Hereditary is the most uncommon beast of all: a story that remains brutally unpredictable and unhinged right to its pitch-black conclusion.

That story begins with the funeral for Ellen Leigh, elderly mother to Annie Graham (Toni Collette), a miniaturist artist living in suburban Utah with her psychiatrist husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne); older teenaged son, Peter (Alex Wolff); and 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). It’s painfully apparent from the outset that Annie had a fraught relationship with her widowed mother, a “difficult” woman who spent the final years of her life as a bedridden, not-altogether-welcome guest in her daughter’s home. The eulogy that Annie awkwardly delivers is replete with backhanded compliments, and later she appeals to Steve regarding the appropriateness of her emotional reactions: “Should I feel sadder?” (Crucially, Aster never permits the viewer a glimpse of Ellen as she was in life, not even in flashback; the deceased are only accessible through the recollections of the living.) Notwithstanding her allegedly disagreeable demeanor, the mother's memorial service is well attended by a circle of friends who are completely unfamiliar to Annie and her family. Charlie, a quiet, compulsive, and perhaps autistic girl who was purportedly Grandma’s favorite, is the only one who notices a stranger surreptitiously dabbing a substance on Ellen's lifeless lips.

In the wake of the funeral, life for the Grahams initially appears to proceed normally, if pensively. Annie is preparing for an upcoming exhibition of her work, which seems to consist solely of exacting, 1:12 scale re-creations of the family’s home and various scenes from their life. (Her mother’s stint in hospice care and eventually the memorial service itself are among the subjects Annie incorporates into her dioramas.) Steve is the yin to Annie’s yang – reflective and conciliatory where she is voluble and dominant. Peter is a bit of a stoner hothead, perpetually at loggerheads with his mother over the usual trivialities of adolescence. Charlie, meanwhile, is the one who seems most discombobulated by her grandmother’s passing. Already a self-evidently “weird kid,” she begins hearing indistinct whispers and glimpsing strange omens. At night, she often escapes the cavernous (yet somehow suffocating) rooms and hallways of the main house for the sanctuary of her wooden treehouse, which is warmed by the red glow of ceramic heaters.

Annie too begins to see things that aren’t there, and – in one of those expedient lies that married couples silently and mutually agree not to prod at – sneaks off to a local grief support group under the pretense of going to the movies. There she opens up to a circle of strangers about her family’s calamitous history, encompassing a father who died before she was born, a brother who committed suicide in his adolescence, and a domineering, impossible-to-please mother with whom Annie never properly reconciled. It’s at this support group that she later meets Joan (Ann Dowd), an older woman with a sweetly hospitable and compassionate personality – a type so unfamiliar to Annie that she is too befuddled to reject the offer of a friendly shoulder to cry on.

Given that Hereditary is a horror film, Joan’s unctuous, overly familiar demeanor will probably set off alarm bells for the canny viewer. Suffice to say that Annie’s new friend is less than honest about her motives, although she also proves to be the least of the Graham family’s problems. To say more would stray too deeply into spoiler territory, but given the radical reputation that Aster’s feature gleaned at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it’s startling how familiar some of the plot’s fundamental building blocks turn out to be. Hereditary is a hybrid species that incorporates both ghost-story and occult-horror conventions, with a generous dollop of the dizzying psychological terror that characterizes “disturbed protagonist” thrillers like Repulsion (1965), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), and Black Swan (2010).

In the broadest sense, there might not be anything groundbreaking about Hereditary’s premise, but what makes the film instantly indelible is its peerless, skin-crawling execution of that premise. The menacing mood that the filmmakers conjure is nothing short of overwhelming, and almost agonizing in its sustained intensity. This is achieved not through the sensory overload of the blockbuster tentpole or the stomach-turning gore of “provocative” European art-horror. (Although the film is shockingly grisly in spurts, featuring a handful of jaw-dropping visuals that are guaranteed to serve as raw nightmare fuel for years to come.) Rather, director Aster and his crew rely primarily on slow-burn theatrics, gradually tightening the screws in such a way that the viewer is perpetually, nauseatingly aware that something – something awful – is going to happen. This premonition is confirmed, again and again, in scene after scene, but the sensation never has an opportunity to ebb. Every disturbing swerve that Hereditary takes is just a prelude to the next one, and once Aster’s film picks up some unholy momentum about a quarter of the way into its 127-minute running time, the viewer isn’t permitted a moment’s respite until the end credits mercifully begin to roll.

This film is, in a word, punishing. Obviously, enduring more than two hours of enervating anxiety is not every filmgoer’s notion of a jolly good time at the movies. It’s for this reason – rather than, say, any specific morsel of graphic content – that Hereditary arguably deserves a warning label. It is double-black-diamond horror cinema, pitched primarily at genre enthusiasts who will be enthralled to discover a new filmmaker who can make them feel so profoundly uncomfortable. Any halfway competent director can conjure Pavlovian shrieks with schematic jump-scares, baroque torture set pieces, and the dank, unimaginative visual vocabulary that dominates the horror genre today. Hereditary scratches at a deeper, more obstinate itch, filling the viewer’s mind with a terrible, formless unease through small yet oppressive details: a glimpse of a drawing in a child’s notebook; an ominously groaning bass clarinet on the soundtrack; a line of dialogue that clicks with dreadful implication.

As with most truly great horror films, it’s not one overriding factor that lends Hereditary its darkling potency, but the combined effect of numerous creative contributions. Aster’s writing is, admittedly, less impressive than his direction – a few of the film’s lines are unaccountably clunky, and the nitty-gritty details of the occult conspiracy plot start to unravel if one picks at them too closely. His command of the frame, meanwhile, is startling and exceptional. Enthusiastically wide ranging, the film’s compositions embrace a robust diversity of shots, angles, and depths of field, without ever straying into the distracting visual gymnastics of a show-off. Aster’s camera regularly creeps and slithers through the Graham home at the molasses pace of a nightmare, often tugging a character (or their quivering gaze) toward some appalling discovery. In several instances, the director employs a time-hopping match cut to evoke a sense of lurching disorientation – with an audible tick, day becomes night or a bedroom a classroom – but he is shrewd enough not to overuse this device.

Cinematographer Pawl Pogorzelski (Water for Elephants, Tragedy Girls) swathes the interiors of Hereditary – particularly the Grahams’ wood-filled home – in a shroud of gray, brown, and bronze shadows, lending a smothering aura to spaces that would normally be inviting. Meanwhile, editors Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame employ an approach that favors long shots during scenes of sustained terror, drawing out the film’s gestures until the screen itself seems to be trembling with a pent-up scream. However, no member of the crew is more proximally vital than avant-garde saxophonist and composer Colin Stetson (Blue Caprice), whose soundscape of ambient droning, shrill eruptions, and hoarse chuckles provides a bedrock of disquiet for Aster’s images. Often, it is Stetson’s score that provides the most conspicuous sensory clue that something disturbing is afoot.

The undeniable lodestone of the film is Collette, delivering a riveting, career-best performance that can heave suddenly from nervous incredulity to tearful contrition to venomous rage – and make it all seem wholly credible. As Annie, she conveys a woman who is at once the empress and prisoner of her family, a figure wracked with guilt and resentments in equal measure. She is prone to a sort of bottled-up reflexivity that drives her to reconstruct her life in miniature, crafting dollhouse worlds where she can both fuss the details and control the nascent narrative. Her grief and the attendant sludge of toxic emotions that it dredges up make her tragically vulnerable, unleashing her worst impulses and priming her for manipulation by sinister forces.

The places that Hereditary goes are exceedingly repulsive, emotionally speaking, touching on themes that few horror films are willing to tackle. Aster probes uncomfortably at the darker reasons that people elect to have children, which in the film’s formulation are akin to homunculi – fashioned out of their progenitors’ flesh for ends that are, at best, coldly pragmatic and, at worst, appallingly egomaniacal. Any viewer unfortunate enough to have been raised by a narcissistic parent will recognize the twisted vision of family life that Hereditary proffers. Children (and grandchildren) are seen as little more than vessels into which parents might pour their own ambitions and bitterness. More broadly, the film presents a harrowing allegory for the fetid legacies that are passed down from generation to generation through the sorcery of nature and nurture: addiction, violence, bigotry, and worse. The old saw that we all eventually become our parents is unsettling enough, but Hereditary suggests an even darker possibility. Whether through genetics, trauma, or black magic, the dead are always pulling the puppet strings of the living.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

Paul Schrader.
June 5, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Five Films. One Filmmaker.

[Photo: Zenith Entertainment]

There are many versions of Paul Schrader. He’s the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s great Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). He’s also a film academic, the author of Transcendental Style in Film (1972) and scholarly articles such as the much-studied “Notes on Film Noir” (1972). Too often, however, Schrader the filmmaker is overlooked. His directorial output includes 20 feature films spanning 1978’s Blue Collar to 2018’s First Reformed. His artistic reputation throughout those decades has waxed and waned, from hitmaker (American Gigolo [1980]), to award-winner (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters [1984]), to cultural pariah (The Canyons [2013]).

Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed, premiered on the fall festival circuit of 2017, garnering acclaim from critics such as the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, who said it “feels like a fresh discovery … more than that: an epiphany.” (Our critic here at the Lens was just as enthusiastic as Scott.) The film is the story of a priest whose faith is challenged by a litany of corporate, cultural, and environmental forces, as well as by his own emotional and physical ailments. It’s very much the contemporary version of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), featuring a diary-as-narration conceit and presented in the boxy Academy ratio. The films of that “patron saint of cinema” and those by Carl Th. Dreyer and Ozu Yasujiro formed the basis of Transcendental Style. These three artists created their own recognizable cinematic languages and, along with masters Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman, serve as influences throughout Schrader's work — including First Reformed. In some ways, this new film is the feature that Schrader has been working toward for 40 years. It is a compendium of the obsessions he shares with his forebears: questions of faith in a faithless world; criminals and their morality; the limits of desire; isolated figures in existential crises; and how the apparatus of cinema can explore these ideas. 

First Reformed, which opened locally this past weekend at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema and Tivoli Theatre, is proving to be among the most talked-about films of the year. Before seeing the filmmaker’s latest work, viewers are invited to familiarize (or re-familiarize) themselves with some of Schrader’s other noteworthy features.

The Hit: 'American Gigolo'

A still from 'American Gigolo'.

1980 / USA / 117 min. / Opened in U.S. theaters on Feb. 1, 1980

Other than his scripts for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Schrader’s third directorial effort is probably his most well-known work. The film takes Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and updates its narrative of a habitual criminal for a “Me Generation” milieu of post-disco, pre-Reagan 1980 Los Angeles. Richard Gere plays the titular character, a high-class sex worker with a penchant for older affluent women who afford him an opulent lifestyle, complete with his arsenal of Giorgio Armani suits. These become costumes for the man whose profession dictates he perform certain roles for his clients, and Gere uses his uncommon good looks and swoon-inducing charm to full effect in his breakout performance. 

Gigolo would prove to be a coup for both Armani and its original song, “Call Me,” performed by Blondie and produced and written by the film’s composer, electronic-music mastermind Giorgio Moroder. Although the fashion and lifestyle featured in the film would be influential among the economic elite in the coming decade, Schrader’s film is nothing if not critical of American capitalist culture, masculinity, misogyny, and queer panic. The aesthetic of the spare yet gaudy interiors of the LA locations are as enticing and inviting as the roving camera that mirrors its protagonist’s seductive ways. Similar to Scorsese’s 2013 celebration-cum-condemnation The Wolf of Wall Street, the film indicts the audience’s yearning for a similar lifestyle. When the film noir plot kicks in and Gere’s Julian finds himself framed for a murder, Schrader lifts a line directly from the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1948). Similar to Robert Mitchum’s reformed bad guy from that film, Julian’s past manipulations and schemes start to catch up with him in the worst ways.

The only saving grace for Julian is a California senator’s wife, Michelle Stratton (a luminous Lauren Hutton), whose boredom turns into a magnetic attraction to Gere’s unattainable paid companion. Her desire for Julian is alternately rebuffed and realized by him, until her support turns into devotion in the film’s gorgeous elliptical ending, wherein acts of self-sacrifice awaken Julian to the possibilities of good in humanity. The last shot is a direct reference to Pickpocket’s final moment, but unlike some cribs in his future films, this one feels wholly earned.

Rating: B+ [Now available to stream on MAX GO and for rent or purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and other platforms.] 

The Masterpiece: 'Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters'

 A Life in Four Chapters'.

1985 / USA, Japan / 120 min. / Opened in U.S. theaters on Sep. 20, 1985

The novelist, playwright, model, actor, and film director Mishima Yukio committed seppuku in July 1970 in front of members of his private militia and Gen. Masuda of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Mishima, born Hiraoka Kimitake, conflated nationalism with faith and aesthetics with ethics, providing perfect fodder for Schrader, who had explored similar territory in Transcendental Style in Film. The Japanese iconoclast had an unwavering sense of cultural obligation born of his repressed homosexuality and obsessive compulsions, seemingly disparate psychological splinters that Schrader and his co-writer, brother Leonard Schrader, deftly balance as parts of one whole. Mishima is another in the long line of Schrader lone wolves like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and the Rev. Toller in First Reformed, men wading through the swampy waters of morality and obsessive neuroses, predestined to violent ends. 

The film is refracted through Mishima’s art and memories as Schrader shows how his life informed his work and vice versa. The framing device is the coup d'etat that would be the ultimate end of Mishima’s life, filmed as a modern political thriller. Within those scenes are the four chapters – “Beauty,” “Art,” “Action,” and “Harmony of Pen and Sword” – composed of flashbacks that mimic neon-colored realizations of three of Mishima’s literary works and the Japanese Golden Era films of Ozu and Mizoguchi. It may seem like a convoluted structure, but the conceit makes for a far more fully realized biopic than such later true-life Schrader films Patty Hearst (1988) and Auto-Focus (2002). Although kin to Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), which constructs a portrait of its William Randolph Hearst-inspired central character via the memories of former friends and flings, Schrader’s film is built around the narratives Mishima himself created for public consumption.

Mishima is also a work of cinematic bravura, a film by a director utilizing every aspect of the medium to inspire awe. Everyone involved with the film is firing on all cylinders: minimalist composer Philip Glass’ maximalist score; John Bailey’s versatile lensing; Sasaki’s Kyoji’s set decoration, inspired by equal parts Brecht, Noh, and Douglas Sirk. It’s an exhilarating experience that by every right should be impenetrable, but every sweeping camera movement and perfectly calibrated cut keeps the audience barrelling toward an that can be viewed as tragic or transcendent, given that Schrader leaves the conclusion appropriately ambiguous. Unfortunately still too underseen, this is Schrader’s masterpiece and one that deserves to be mentioned alongside cinema’s all-time greats.

Rating: A [Now available to stream on FilmStruck and for rent or purchase on iTunes and other platforms.]

The Gem: 'Light Sleeper'

A still from 'Light Sleeper'.

1992 / USA / 103 min. / Opened in U.S. theaters on Aug. 21, 1992

Last year Willem Dafoe garnered raves (and an Oscar nomination) for his sensitive portrayal of Bobby, the manager of a run-down extended-stay motel in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. The performance was lauded as a change of pace for a performer who’s known for more volatile work like the villains in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1991) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002). However, shades of Bobby's pathos can be found in his John LeTour from Schrader’s Light Sleeper. John is the perfect role for Dafoe, whose prominent facial structure betrays a world-weariness even as his baby blues illuminate a lust for life. His character is a recovering addict still peddling dope to various clients across New York City’s boroughs, making rounds among his parishioners like the eponymous country priest in Bresson’s 1951 film. It’s also a film noir world with an interconnected network of low-lifes, social climbers, and complicit officials who – ignorant of the man’s quest for self-actualization that manifests itself in his insomnia-filled nights – all use and abuse John. No rest for the wicked, indeed. 

Schrader considers this film his bookend to Taxi Driver and a kind of companion to Gigolo, and the morally bankrupt worlds of those two films are depicted here as a post-“Greed is Good” landscape of entrepreneurial criminals all but drowning in the garbage bag-lined streets of NYC. The film pits capitalism and spiritualism against each other in both the background and foreground. The seemingly omniscient figures in the art decorating the interiors of Sleeper don’t look with judgment but act as another guiding force, much like the psychic John sees. She’s played by the inimitable Mary Beth Hurt, who’s joined by Susan Sarandon, Victor Garber, Dana Delany, Jane Adams, and other underrated performers who help realize Schrader’s fusion of Pickpocket and Pickup on South Street (1953). 

Rating: B [Now available to rent or purchase on iTunes and other platforms.]

The Swing-and-a-Miss: 'Auto Focus'

A still from 'Auto Focus'.

2002 / USA / 105 min. / Opened in select U.S. cities on Oct. 18, 2002

If American Gigolo had a complicated view of sex as an act of deep personal connection and power manipulation, Schrader’s Auto Focus sees it only as a drug that causes his protagonist’s rapid downward spiral. The film tells the story of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71) star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), his tech-wizard “friend” John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, more skeezy and gnarly here than in the former film), and their increasingly dangerous habit of videotaping their sexual activities with unaware women. The director evinces a much more moralistic viewpoint here, rather than the more open ambiguity of his previous work, choosing to show the crimes of its broken central figure without much exploration of his interiority. For all its failings as a portrait of addiction, it is much more knowing about the cultural and technological changes that allowed cinema to expand its vision for more nefarious use (as Schrader has it). 

Auto Focus chronicles cinema’s changing tides by adopting popular contemporary aesthetics that reflect its story’s myriad eras. Its unreliable narrator, the gee-whiz Crane (Kinnear is at a career-best here), opens the film over the mid-century popular American cinema look of his colorfully decorated family home. These scenes feel like the work of Douglas Sirk, complete with angst simmering beneath their candy-coated surfaces. Eventually, the film adopts further styles – for example, the grit and grime of early-1970s “New American” cinema, as Crane’s predilection for self-exposure and extramarital sex is gradually revealed in the film. His perversions are fully exposed to the audience as Auto-Focus lurches into full horror-movie aesthetic in a final violent act that ends Crane’s life. The murder of Crane by Carpenter’s video-camera tripod is as blunt a symbol as can be found in any of Schrader’s films – an obvious punctuation mark to an already condemning sentence. 

Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase on iTunes and other platforms.]

The Dud: 'The Canyons'

A Still from 'The Canyons'.

2013 / USA / 99 min. / Opened in select U.S. cities on Aug. 2, 2013

Who knew that after a long career dealing in transcendence via the cinema of Bergman, Ozu, and Bresson that Schrader would turn to MTV’s reality show The Hills for inspiration? Condemnation may be a more appropriate term, and that jumping-off point could be just from the mind of its screenwriter, Mr. Chic Modern Nihilism himself, Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero, American Psycho). The film plays as a series of forced meetings between members of a group of grade-Z young-Hollywood types, much like the structure of any given episode of reality television. But while The Hills is more a product of aspiration for a certain segment of its audience, The Canyons deals with the dregs of humanity, blaming fame and social media as the death knell for contemporary society and cinema. If the thematization of these ideas isn’t sufficient in the film proper, the stills of abandoned movie houses interspersed throughout the The Canyons make it clear. FIN DE CINEMA. 

All of this might be more dynamic fodder for a film if it weren’t for the paper-thin script. The plot consists of a series of manipulations by trust-fund bad boy Christian (porn star James Deen), concluding in a gruesome murder that reveals just how far his antisocial behavior can stretch. His girlfriend is Tara, a former star portrayed by a fallen-from-grace Lindsay Lohan, who shifts from apparent boredom with the material to raw-nerve emotionality. Deen and Lohan’s last scene together is a revelation for the former Disney star, but considered moment to moment, The Canyons is mostly just dead air. Coupled with its extratextual behind-the-scenes drama – the film was crowd-funded through Kickstarter, Lohan and Deen’s casting was decried as a stunt, and a New York Times chronicle of it exposed the interpersonal issues between Schrader, his stars, and producers – the film can be seen as a multimedia work worthy of study as a portrait of its era. It’s too bad it’s mostly boring.

Rating: C- [Now available to stream on Netflix and Hulu and for rent or purchase on Amazon and other platforms.]

Tags: Compendium Joshua Ray

Still from 'Westworld', "Les Écorchés".
June 4, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Isn't the Pleasure of a Story in Discovering the Ending Yourself?

Season 2 / Episode 7 / Written by Gina Atwater, Ron Fitzgerald, and Jordan Goldberg / Directed by Nicole Kassell / Originally Aired June 3, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

The return of Robert Ford in “Les Écorchés” highlights one inescapable truth about Westworld: Not to diminish the talents of Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, or any of the other lynchpin performers who have created the series’ most compelling characters, but there’s something about Anthony Hopkins’ velvety style that suits the series perfectly. Maybe it’s simply Hopkins’ inimitable ability to render the most purple prose with an unforced sort of gravity, giving mythic weight to every wry mutter and wistful aside. Certainly, as a veteran of the British stage with a considerable unselfconscious streak, he has a flair for the literary flights of fancy that writers are fond of sprinkling into the dialogue of high-minded sci-fi works like Westworld.

The indelible quality to Hopkins’ presence may also be attributable to the fact that Ford – his mind dwelling digitally inside Westworld’s backup system before becoming a dark passenger nestled within Bernard’s (Jeffrey Wright) android consciousness – has always been a figure of perfect, serene confidence. The park's creator has never once seemed frightened or flustered. He is, after all, the closest thing to a god in Westworld, and (almost) everything that has occurred in the series to date appears to have proceeded according to his secret schemes. No other character exudes Ford’s distinct stripe of cool certitude.

As if to underline Ford’s extraordinary qualities, “Les Écorchés” features a rare sight indeed: The normally bold and collected chairwoman of Delos’ board of directors, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), is reduced to pleading terror when android mastermind Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) threatens to saw open her skull, purely out of retributive spite. One of the features of the show’s second season is that the handful of human characters who previously seemed so cynical and self-possessed – particularly recurring regulars like Hale and William (Harris), but also the occasional “new” character like alpha-male Delos security officer Coughlin (Timothy V. Murphy) – have been knocked off balance by the hosts’ uprising. No one seems to have a firm handle on things anymore, except of course for Ford (and he’s dead, at least in the biological sense).

None of Westworld’s characters have suffered this season quite as much as Bernard, who has spent seven episodes being violently jerked this way and that by external forces that are either enormously suspicious of his motives or are overtly attempting to control him. Although Wright’s android remains one of the series’ most intriguing figures, his position in the story has effectively turned him into a passive character, one who spends most of his time blinking in dazed confusion at the events unfolding around him. This is particularly evident in his plunge into the virtual reality of the Cradle, which is largely an excuse for Ford to deliver 10 minutes of exposition, with Bernard acting as the bewildered audience surrogate. Ford confirms and clarifies much that has occurred in the “past” timeline (now just a few days behind the “present”) over the previous three episodes, but as is often the case with Westworld, there are still some conspicuous ambiguities and inconsistencies. 

Many of these revolve around the ultimate purpose of Delos’ secret project, in which the personalities of park guests are being meticulously profiled and then digitally archived. Ford intimates that the corporation’s goal is retail immortality for the ultra-wealthy, but this doesn’t jibe with James Delos’ failed resurrection in “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” or with Ford’s later assertion that his own mind would degrade if placed in an android shell. Furthermore, it would be disappointing if robot-based eternal life was all that Delos had up its sleeve: It’s fairly banal as sci-fi conceits go, at least compared to the conspiratorial possibilities raised in Futureworld (1976), wherein the global elite are neutralized and replaced by android sleeper agents.

Ford claims that his story – the story of the hosts' revolt against their human masters, to be specific – now belongs to Bernard, but he immediately contradicts himself by asserting direct control over the android’s will. This allows for some clever, horror-tinged visuals in the episode’s final stretch, as Ford follows Bernard around like a murmuring ghost. (The final shot of “Les Écorchés,” with Bernard’s face flickering back and forth into Ford’s in the strobe-like illumination of automatic gunfire, is a particularly disconcerting touch.) Westworld’s architect can’t have it both ways, however: Either Bernard is now on his own, self-determined path or Ford is still pulling his strings. Ford might be a self-serving megalomaniac, but he has so often been positioned as an astute, lucid character in a sea of blinkered dupes that it’s quite glaring when his declarations don’t line up with the facts. 

Such nagging inconsistencies crop up in several places in “Les Écorchés,” which uses Delores’ assault on the Mesa (and the Cradle that lies beneath it) as an opportunity to bring several of this season’s disparate subplots together. The quirks of fate necessary for those collisions to occur are themselves a bit far-fetched at times. While fleeing the Ghost Nation, Maeve (Newton) and her daughter (Jasmyn Rae) just happen to run into William and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.), and the standoff that unfolds between them just happens to be interrupted by the timely arrival of Lee (Simon Quarterman) and the park's security forces.

It’s easier to hand-wave away these chance meetings than some of the episode’s more dubious bits of characterization, however. For example: Stumbling on a bullet-riddled Maeve, Delores advises her to give up her never-ending search for her daughter – now in the hands of the Ghost Nation – observing that “the kin they gave us was just another rope they use to lash us down.” However, Delores just spent an entire scene weeping in anguish for her “father” (Louis Herthum) before extracting his control unit and thereby putting an end to his pain. Delores’ entire arc so far this season has essentially been the tug-of-war between her anti-human crusade and her gentler daughterly impulses, which makes her smug admonishment to Maeve ring a little hollow. Even more implausible is the supposedly hardened Delos enforcer (Ronnie Gene Blevins) who, in the tradition of moronic disposable male characters everywhere, fatally lets his guard down when confronted by Angela’s (Talulah Riley) seductive wiles.

Ultimately, “Les Écorchés” is an action-oriented episode centered on Delores’ Mesa attack, although the dimly lit shootouts between her forces and Delos aren’t especially memorable or exciting. Quite a few of the show’s ancillary characters perish in this chapter, including the aforementioned Angela, but also Lawrence, Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), Coughlin, and (presumably) Peter Abernathy. Thematically, the episode simply serves to reinforce many of the themes that have already been prominently featured in this season, such as the hosts’ capacity to embody humanity’s best and worst impulses – although the latter is more prominent in this outing.

It’s no accident that Charlotte’s efforts to virtually waterboard Bernard into revealing the location of Abernathy’s control unit (a disturbing detail, that) is followed by a flashback in which Delores threatens Charlotte with torture via bone saw. There’s some satisfaction in seeing the callous, arrogant Charlotte get some retroactive comeuppance, but the true takeaway here is that Delores has now completely internalized the sadism of her creators. Maeve later observes that Delores is being consumed by “darkness,” a criticism that the latter woman bats away by somewhat unconvincingly appealing to her past victimhood. Regardless, the brutality that the androids inflict on the humans in “Les Écorchés” clashes with Ford’s myopic proclamation that the hosts are nobler than their progenitors. As always, Westworld’s assessment of all thinking beings – humans and robots alike – seems to be exceedingly pessimistic.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • Both Maeve and William take a lot of bullets in this episode, and although the former can conceivably be repaired – perhaps with the assistance of a guilt-riddled Lee – it seems far-fetched that the latter would be able to survive (let alone quickly recover from) his multiple gunshot wounds. Plot armor strikes again!

  • It’s gratifying when the writers slip tiny details into the show’s dialogue that elegantly clarify previously hazy aspects of the world’s mechanics. In an almost admiring tone, Maeve observes that Lawrence is “awake” after her mind-control power fails to work on him, confirming that 1) some hosts other than Delores and Maeve are indeed self-aware and 2) Maeve’s new abilities don’t function on such sentient androids. It’s a nice callback to earlier hints that Lawrence was starting to remember his past “lives,” and also a retroactive intimation that the Ghost Nation hosts are (and have always been) awake.

  • On that note, it’s enormously encouraging to see that next week’s episode will center on Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon) and the secret history of the Ghost Nation. One of the on-point criticisms of Westworld’s storytelling to date has been its negligence towards the Native American hosts. The in-universe explanation has always been superficially plausible but ultimately limp: Namely, that the Native Americans are treated like an exotic, mysterious threat because that’s the way that they were portrayed in the cinematic Westerns on which the park is based. Among the show’s fans, it’s long been suspected that there was a deeper story to the Ghost Nation, and it’s exciting that viewers will at last be permitted to see Westworld through their eyes.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

June 1, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

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

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

The Cleanse

2016 / Canada, USA / 81 min. / Dir. by Bobby Miller / Premiered online on May 4, 2018

The Cleanse is an odd beast indeed, a comic riff on The Brood (1979) that feels like something Joe Dante or Robert Zemeckis might have helmed in the mid-1980s. Even that formulation gives the film too much credit, though – director Bobby Miller lacks the wit and journeyman talent of those filmmakers. The Cleanse isn’t remotely frightening or freaky enough to be a body-horror feature (the gross-out stuff is strictly PG-13), but it’s remarkably laugh-free for a comedy. So, what is the viewer left with? Johnny Galecki makes no impression at all in the role of a sad sack who attends a strange New Age purification retreat. At least the practical effects are striking when he and his fellow seekers start vomiting up creatures that embody their negative impulses. Although it aims for a bizarrely melancholy vibe, The Cleanse is ultimately just lifeless and uninvolving, distinguished only by its faintly gnarly premise and its ugly-cute creature designs. Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.]

Family Blood

2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. by Sonny Mallhi / Premiered online on May 4, 2018

Vanessa Shaw (3:10 to Yuma, Two Lovers) deserves far better than that the D-list Netflix Originals she’s been appearing in lately, but one supposes she has a mortgage like everyone. Last year she headlined the ludicrous psychological thriller Clinical, and now she’s starring in Family Blood, a dreary modern vampire tale with all the personality of a burnt microwave dinner. Shaw portrays Ellie, a single mom and recovering drug addict who has just settled into a new home in a dodgy but gentrifying neighborhood. Unfortunately, one of Ellie’s fellow 12-steppers, Christopher (James Ransone), begins stalking her, and after a hazy nocturnal encounter with him, she finds herself craving blood and spurning the sun. Visually speaking, Family Blood is bland but competent – at least for this sort of bargain-bin supernatural-horror picture – but the storytelling is ruinously aimless and monotonous. Vampire films are almost always chock-a-block with tropes, but this one doesn’t have even a drop of originality. Rating: D [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

The Noonday Witch (Polednice)

2016 / Czech Republic / 90 min. / Dir. by Jiri Sádek / Premiered online on May 10, 2018

Based on real-world Slavic tales of a malicious rural spirit, Czech director Jiri Sádek’s The Noonday Witch is a domestic sort-of-ghost story that is so determinedly slow-burning that it almost forgets that it’s supposed to be frightening. Its plot and themes recall The Babadook (2014), but Sádek’s picture swaps the former film’s raw focus for a drowsy, moldering Old World sensibility. The newly widowed Eliška (Anthropoid’s Anna Geislerová) moves to her husband’s native village with her daughter (Karolína Lipowská) for a fresh start. Remarkably, Eliška hasn’t yet told her child that Dad committed suicide – he’s merely “away” – and this lie of omission curdles their relationship, exacerbating creepy occurrences such as the dementia-addled old woman who keeps appearing on their doorstep. Admittedly, the film is both meandering and light on actual terror, and it concludes with something of a whimper. However, it’s also stylish and genuinely unnerving, a rare portrait of maternal protectiveness perverted into unholy mania. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

Cargo

2017 / Australia / 105 min. / Dir. by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke / Premiered online on May 18, 2018

Cargo might be a zombie-apocalypse picture – with all the stale baggage that implies – but it also draws from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and Rudulph Maté’s ticking-clock noir D.O.A. (1949).  Expanding on their seven-minute short from 2012, directors Ben Howlling and Yolanda Ramke begin their feature mid-Armageddon. In the Australian Outback, the middle-aged Andy (Martin Freeman) struggles to protect his wife, Kay (Susie Porter), and 1-year-old daughter from a viral zombie outbreak. Tragedy soon strikes: Kay is infected and killed, but not before biting her husband. Facing a 48-hour window until the contagion turns him into a cannibalistic ghoul, Andy is obliged to search the sparsely populated landscape for a caretaker for his child. Undeniably, Cargo is a cruel, wrenching piece of work, if frustratingly beholden to the subgenre’s tropes. Novel touches – like the Aboriginal ritual mobs that actively hunt zombies in the trackless bush – lend the film just enough flavor for it to linger. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Sequence Break

2017 / USA / 80 min. / Dir. by Graham Skipper / Premiered online on May 24, 2018

A cut-rate Videodrome (1983) for the retro-gaming geek set, Sequence Break is a horror film only in the loosest sense. The awkward, rumpled Oz (Chase Williamson of John Dies at the End) is a tinkerer at a dying arcade resale shop when two arrivals upend his sad-sack life: secretly nerdy girl-next-door Tess (Tabianne Therese), who has an improbable crush on him; and a mysterious, black-box arcade cabinet that quickly develops a maniacal hold on Oz. The film features some startlingly grotesque biomechanical imagery, but it just feels like a limp, facile copy of Cronenberg’s nightmarish hallucinations. (Instead of James Woods with a Betamax player vagina in his abdomen, here Oz mashes an oozing, clitoral game button to blast vector graphic aliens.) The performances are clunky as hell, and a late-game swerve into Primer-style time loops feels like a failed, Hail Mary attempt to save the film from its own shapeless, repetitive, and nonsensical plot. Rating: D+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

Feral

2017 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Mark Young / Premiered online on May 25, 2018

Mark Young’s Feral is ostensibly a zombie-outbreak film, but structurally if feels closer to a werewolf picture – not that it’s a tolerable specimen of either form. There’s only one undead beast at first, a scuttling creature that stalks a group of insufferable med students during a backpacking trip, infecting them one by one. Other than some ghastly makeup effects and the positioning of a lesbian couple (Scout Taylor-Compton and Olivia Luccardi) as the default protagonists – a welcome, if modest, changeup from the genre’s usual heteronormativity – there’s nothing distinctive about Feral. It’s chintzy, by-the-numbers indie horror through and through, with the added drag of some wince-worthy dialogue and acting. Director Young seems utterly unconcerned with inventiveness, preferring to arrange characters and situational tropes into a bland gruel of running, hiding, searching, waiting, and screaming. The only truly scary thing about the film is that it runs out of narrative steam with 30 or 40 interminable minutes still to go. Rating: D [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

They Remain 

2018 / USA / 101 min. / Directed by Philip Gelatt / Opened in select cities on March 2, 2018; premiered online on May 29, 2018

Two scientists (William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson) are assigned by their corporate employer to investigate a series of enigmatic wilderness sites where both cult activity and weirder phenomena are known to have occurred. Director Philip Gelatt draws from a host of cinematic influences – chiefly 1970s genre works like Silent Running (1972), Phase IV (1974), and Stalker (1979) – while still maintaining a sense of eerie novelty. They Remain has atmosphere in spades, and the film’s impressionistic images and unconventional editing underline the hallucinatory time slippage that the characters begin to experience. Unfortunately, there’s remarkably little plot to go along with all the mood. The film is more of a narcotic haze than a story, lacking any sense of rising action – just repetitive scenes of Harper wandering the woods and passive-aggressively sparring with his partner. Gelatt’s infatuation with elliptical mystery leads to narrative obfuscation, and he fails to resolve the dissonance between the film’s gaudier elements and its chilly sci-fi horror vibe. Rating: C [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'First Reformed'.
May 30, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Give Me That Old-Time Religion

2017 / USA / 113 min. / Directed by Paul Schrader / Opened in select cities on May 18, 2018; locally on June 1, 2018

The fundamental paradox of films about religious faith – at least in the West – is that the outstanding examples of the form are so often the work of apostates, heretics, and nonbelievers. Filmmakers who fit these descriptors crafted some of the 20th century’s high-water marks in spiritual cinema: Diary of a Country Priest (1951) by Robert Bresson, a heterodox Catholic; The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman, a lapsed Lutheran; The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1961) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, an erstwhile Catholic; and the immortal The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Th. Dreyer, who was essentially irreligious (not Lutheran, as he is sometimes described). Not to be outdone, the 21st century has already produced two masterworks about faith. In their black comedy A Serious Man (2009), Joel and Ethan Coen drew on their Midwestern Jewish upbringing to create one of the greatest features ever made about theodicy, aka the Problem of Evil. Meanwhile, no less a lapsed Catholic than Martin Scorsese crafted the Jesuits-in-Japan epic Silence (2016), a staggeringly profound work about belief, doubt, and freedom that ranks among the director’s best films.

If there’s a biographical factor that tends to be associated with superlative religious cinema, it’s not present-day piety but, rather, the formative years spent in a community of faith. First Reformed, the harrowing new feature from writer-director Paul Schrader, is yet another compelling argument for this rule of thumb. Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church – a Calvinist, confessional denomination – Schrader has been open about the potent, lasting influence of his religious upbringing on his work. (In fact, the future filmmaker was pre-seminary at Calvin College in his native Grand Rapids, Mich.) Schrader knows a thing or two about spiritual cinema, given that he literally wrote the book on it: His 1972 study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer remains a seminal work of film criticism.

However, even a filmgoer who didn’t know anything about Schrader’s early life might suspect that the director has Calvinist roots after witnessing First Reformed. It is the most ferociously Calvinist film Schrader has ever made, by an enormous margin, and not merely because its main character is a Calvinist minister. Schrader has grappled with matters of faith before in his work, most overtly in his screenplay for The Last Temptation of Christ – even if said script was later reworked by director Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks. (It’s also strongly evident, funnily enough, in Schrader’s ill-fated horror feature Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist [2005].) However, Last Temptation’s anguished and faintly Gnostic vision of Jesus’ life has nothing on the austere suffering of First Reformed, a portrait of spiritual agony that veritably quakes with stifled, pleading despair.

Which is to say, Schrader’s film doesn’t exactly make for a fun, rollicking time at the movies. It is, however, an exquisitely haunting work, one that begins tightening its wintery, iron-knuckled grip on the viewer from its first, ominous shot. The film fades in from darkness on the looming façade of the tiny First Reformed Church of Snowbridge, N.Y., its white, wooden colonial lines as sharp as those of a parson’s starched collar. The lonely shepherd of this house of worship is the Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), a former military chaplain whose son died in the 2003 Iraq War, a loss that subsequently rent the minister’s marriage asunder. When the film opens, the reverend explains in voice-over that he is beginning a diary (a nod to Bresson there) that he intends to keep for one year, recording the events of his day and his unedited thoughts, before finally burning it. First Reformed is thus a kind autobiographical confession, in the fashion of St. Augustine, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, and Schrader’s own screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976).

Despondent and alcoholic, Toller is effectively in exile at First Reformed, a historical curiosity where the vanishing congregation consists of a mere dozen or so regular worshippers. The Sunday services are even less popular than the canned tours that the reverend is obliged to give to the church’s infrequent visitors, wherein he points out holes from Revolutionary War musket balls and a secret room from the days of the Underground Railroad. Operating under the ownership and doctrinal aegis of the megachurch down the road, Abundant Life, the drafty little chapel is derided by Toller’s fellow ministers as “the gift shop.” However, the seclusion this posting affords him seems to suit the dyspeptic Toller just fine. 

On his nightstand at the adjacent parish house are works by Merton, the Catholic theologian and Trappist monk whose promotion of self-discipline, contemplation, and social justice seem to resonate with Toller – even if he doesn’t appear to derive much inner peace from those ideals. The reverend is presently preoccupied with the 250th-anniversary celebrations for First Reformed. His garrulous superior at Abundant Life, the Rev. Jeffers (Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles), is determined to turn this event into a see-and-be-seen media circus for wealthy donors and local politicians. Besides the church’s leaky plumbing and broken organ, Toller is also contending with an unspecified, neglected illness, one that has him urinating blood and self-medicating with whiskey.

The Reverend doesn’t have much in the way of ministerial duties, given his vestigial congregation, but one day he is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a wide-eyed young woman who is expecting her first child. She is concerned about her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger), a radical environmental activist who has lately slid into a neurotic depression about the state of the world – a descent triggered in part by the new life they are bringing into the world. At Mary’s urging, Toller pays the couple a visit, wherein the reverend attempts to soothe Michael’s anxieties about climate change and other emergent global catastrophes with platitudes about the necessity of hope. Unfortunately, the litany of looming disasters that Michael catalogs to the minister – with a matter-of-fact, suffocating sorrow that is somehow more unnerving than the ranting of a wild-eyed doomsayer – reverses the dynamic of the meeting. It is Toller who finds himself infected by Michael’s despair, precipitating a spiritual crisis for the reverend that spirals into some truly unimaginable and terrifying places.

Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan shoot First Reformed in the boxy 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio used in classic films. As in Kelly Reichardt’s masterful Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010), the effect of this unconventional framing is atmospheric, creating a smothering aura of entrapment and doom. At risk of oversimplifying a convoluted system of religious thought, one of the defining features of Calvinist theology is its certitude in the predestined salvation of a select few (and, by extension, the damnation of the rest). In Schrader’s film, this doctrine is expressed in the hovering sensation of an ordained and inescapable fate. “I know that nothing can change,” Toller writes, “And I know that there is no hope.” No hope for Creation, for humanity, or for himself. The end is near, but in the reverend’s somber brand of Protestant belief, this is not cause for celebration. When it arrives – and it will, soon – Armageddon will not unfold in accordance with the cues of divine seals and trumpets, but due to humanity’s greed, neglect, and short-sightedness.

It would be inaccurate to describe Toller’s tribulations as a loss of faith. If anything, his faith burns too brightly, drowning him in visions of a divine creation that is under siege. The doubt he feels concerns his own role in the nascent conflict. Like Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man, Toller despairs that he “hasn’t done anything,” sinning by omission and thereby failing his son, his wife, the world, and God. When Mary and Michael come into his life, they energize him, albeit in a way that wracks him with guilt over his past lassitude and uselessness. With a kind of sweaty desperation, he vainly tries to assert himself at Abundant Life and with millionaire benefactors like Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a smug, alpha-male industrialist who’s footing the bill for First Reformed’s sestercentennial. Balq Industries, it turns out, is among the worst greenhouse-gas polluters on the planet, and kissing the ring of such a man is too much for Toller to bear. Everywhere, the reverend sees signs and omens: a dead rabbit caught in a snarl of barbed wire, an inexplicable nocturnal brawl on a vacant lot, a toppled tombstone in the church’s graveyard.

Schrader’s film is an astonishingly powerful evocation of a distinct stripe of Protestant torment: a certainty that every human thought and action is irrevocably polluted – the pervasive “total depravity” of original sin – and that no human being is capable of abolishing that taint through their own action. In Mary’s Madonna-like purity, Toller sees a potential refutation of this doctrine, and it’s telling that the film’s main gesture of magical realism is associated with both her beatific presence and a distinctly non-Calvinist sort of shamanistic mysticism. (Said scene is also one of the film’s few miscalculations, coming off as slightly hokey and counterproductive to First Reformed’s terrifically severe atmosphere.) Mary might be the reverend's pole star, but it’s Michael’s path that tugs at Toller’s soul, whispering to him that the stakes are too high for half-measures. The imminent anarchy and incalculable death that the planet faces demand a sacrifice far beyond an afternoon spent ladling soup at the local homeless shelter.

Hawke is in virtually every scene of the film, and his performance is undeniably searing, yet also pitiful and quietly frantic in a way that puts the viewer perpetually on edge. When called on, the actor can exhibit the sort of range that any talented, veteran performer eventually cultivates, but in this feature, it’s his more singular qualities that make him essential. In films such as Dead Poets Society (1989), Alive (1993) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), Hawke projects a unique sort of strangled volatility, like a rope that’s been twisted the wrong way until it’s a snarl of groaning, pent-up energy. In First Reformed, this is Hawke’s overriding mode, and it’s never been more effective. He allows the weariness of his own 47 years to exude from Toller’s gestures and expressions, looking every inch a “sinner, poor and wretched,” in the words of 18th-century Calvinist hymnist Joseph Hart.

It’s clear that Toller’s story is slouching towards an inevitable detonation, but one of the marvels of First Reformed is that the specific, twisting path that the story takes remains consistently unpredictable right up to the film’s enigmatic, ambiguous conclusion. Schrader has long evinced a fascination with the inward-facing drama of solitary “men in rooms.” In features such as American Gigolo (1980), Light Sleeper (1992), Affliction (1997), and The Walker (2007), his less-than-admirable protagonists are hemmed in by crooks, killers, and corrupt authorities. For Schrader, however, the crime-thriller plot elements in each of these films are secondary to the psychological turmoil of the anti-hero, who typically finds his self-conception suddenly thrown into disarray by upheavels in his environment.

Toller is, in a sense, the YouTube-era incarnation of this figure, a man whose plummet into darkness is precipitated as much by omnipresent reminders of global despoilment and pandemonium as by his own pitiable circumstances. Like the knight Antonius in The Seventh Seal, the reverend looks around and sees – from Fukushima to Flint, Mich. – only “preposterous horror.” The only righteous path that leads out of this earthly Hell would have seemed like madness to Toller not long ago, but now it feels unavoidable, a martyr’s destiny decreed by God at the time of Creation. Schrader’s peerless conjuration of this dire sensibility is a wonder to behold. Although it doesn’t quite supplant the director’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) in terms of sheer artistic majesty, it’s undeniably a thematic culmination for the filmmaker, an impeccably realized vision of Christian angst to stand alongside those of his cinematic forebears.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A Still from 'Westworld', Season 2, Episode 6, "Phase Space".
May 29, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

We're Not at Full Apocalypse Yet

Season 2 / Episode 6 / Written by Gina Atwater and Carly Wray / Directed by Tarik Saleh / Originally Aired May 27, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

“Phase Space” begins with a role reversal, one that upends the viewer’s understanding of Westworld’s events stretching back to the beginning of Season 1. Meanwhile, the episode concludes with a cliffhanger twist that, while not entirely unforeseen, is nonetheless splendidly staged. Unfortunately, the galvanic quality to these bookends only draws attention to the deficiencies of the intervening material. This isn’t to say that “Phase Space” is poorly executed. It’s a perfectly functional Westworld episode, and Swedish graffiti artist and filmmaker Tarik Saleh (The Nile Hotel Incident) acquits himself well on the directing front – particularly in a Shogunworld katana duel and in the episode’s final scene.

The dilemma is that scripter Carly Ray (returning from “Reunion”) and staff writer Gina Atwater devote an inordinate amount of time to wrapping up existing subplots and kicking off new ones, without delivering much in the way of resonant dramatic beats. The exception is arguably a scene where Maeve (Thandie Newton) finally arrives at the homestead where her daughter (Jasmyn Rae) still dwells, only to find that the girl has been given a replacement “mother” (Erica Luttrell) and doesn’t even recognize Maeve. It’s a heartbreaking turn of events, in large part due to the utter predictability of it. Lee (Simon Quarterman) previously told Maeve that this was exactly what would happen, attentive viewers likely anticipated that this reunion would be a deflating event, and Maeve herself always knew, on some level, that she was chasing a phantom. None of that diminishes the anguish of the moment when it finally arrives; if anything, the inevitably intensifies it.

However, “Phase Space” undercuts the lingering agony of this scene by derailing it with yet another Ghost Nation attack, one that mirrors the homestead assault that Maeve recalls from her past (or, at least, she thinks she recalls it). Elsewhere, the episode is mostly preoccupied with the sort of housekeeping that can sometimes bedevil more sprawling television series. The welcome Shogunworld storyline from “Akane No Mai” is tied off in a wistful but somewhat underwhelming manner. After the aforementioned sword duel between the army officer Tanaka (Masayoshi Haneda) and the ronin Musashi (Kiroyuki Sanada) – a confrontation that is well choreographed and suitably gory, but essentially a digression – both Musashi and the geisha “madam” Akane (Rinko Kikuchi) elect to remain behind in Shogunworld while Maeve and her posse return to Westworld. There’s a strong sense that while the hosts from the two parks learned some vital facts about themselves and their world through their cross-genre interactions, the two groups are more akin to ships passing in the night than genuine allies.

The effects of Delores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) forced reprogramming of Teddy (James Mardsen) are revealed to be a bit more disturbing than anticipated. Predictably, Delores’ former white knight is now a ruthless bad boy, but rather than a dead-eyed Manchurian candidate in the service of her revolution, he’s all passive-aggressive asides and impulsive violence. (Indeed, he seems to remember that she forcibly changed his personality, and he’s not happy about it.) At one point, Teddy summarily executes a park security official without waiting for Delores’ say-so, the sort of individualistic act that her other minions, such as Angela (Talulah Riley), would never commit. The lingering, perturbed reaction shots of Delores suggest that she’s already having buyer’s remorse about Teddy 2.0. Her doubts about his loyalties have been mutated rather than mollified: Where before she feared that he didn’t have the spine to see their insurrection through to the end, now she’s concerned that he may be an uncontrollable junkyard dog.

The interactions between William (Ed Harris) and his daughter Grace (Katja Herbers) are one of this episode’s acting highlights, if only because Grace is the first human woman that has ever stood up to the late-model Harris version of William. It’s refreshing to see, and Herbers verbally spars with Harris in a way that teases out a bit of William’s oft-hidden humility and humanity. (William’s crotchety inability to even acknowledge that his adult daughter might have had a robot sex romp in Rajworld is a highlight.) Of course, Grace’s obvious intelligence and cynicism just make it even more frustrating when her father ditches her the next morning – she should have seen that one coming.

The same could be said of Robert Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) reappearance, which canny viewers had probably long ago riddled out as a likely reveal this season. (Kudos for HBO, at least, for wisely keeping Hopkins’ name out of the opening credits.) There were only so many candidates for the missing, 3D-printed identity sphere that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) pocketed at a Delos laboratory in one of the previous episode’s flashbacks. Although “Phase Space” doesn’t explicitly confirm that this was Ford’s digital brain, it seems the most likely justification for the man somehow resurfacing within the virtual reality inside the Cradle – which, evocative name notwithstanding, simply appears to be Westworld’s gigantic server farm. It certainly explains why Delos’ efforts to hack into the park’s systems are being stymied by mysterious, improvisational countermoves, as Elsie (Shannon Woodward) uncovers. It makes sense, in a way. Ford always spoke of Westworld as his creation, a reality where he was God. Where else would he want to live out his immortal existence but in a digital simulacrum of that same world?

The most gob-smacking twist that “Phase Space” presents, however, is proffered in the first two or three minutes of the episode. (This gives everything else that subsequently occurs a tinge of the unreal; the viewer spends the rest of the episode reeling from that opening reveal and attempting to sort out its implications.) What appears to be one of the numerous Socratic dialogues between Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) the creator and Delores the creation is, in fact, a kind of training exercise between Delores and Bernard, Arnold’s android replacement. The roles are reversed and reconfigured, with Delores taking command of the session and reprimanding Bernard for deviating from his script. The goal of their conversations is, she says, “fidelity,” a callback to the tests performed on the resurrected James Delos in “The Riddle of the Sphinx.” The potential inferences of this scene are far-reaching if still somewhat hazy – Have all of “Arnold” and Delores’ exchanges actually been Bernard training sessions? – but it’s exactly the sort of narrative upheaval that showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan do so well. Given that’s it far and away the most potent moment in the episode, it’s just a shame they didn’t save it for the end.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • The only Shogunworld host to follow Maeve back to Westworld is tattooed archer Hanaryo (Tao Okamoto). One suspects that it’s not loyalty to Maeve’s personal quest that entices her to jump genres, however, but her bizarre, semi-autoerotic fascination with her Westworld “doppelbot” Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). Sharp-eyed viewers will note that Hanaryo acquiesces to a stylish Western-themed costume change at some point after parting ways with Musashi.

  • Speaking of the ronin: Although his decision to remain in Shogunworld effectively brings that park’s storyline to an abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying end, Musashi offers an intriguing justification. He argues that he prefers to honorably defend his realm rather than to search for an indefinite “space place” outside the Delos parks – as Maeve eventually plans to do. So far, the hosts have been either eager to escape (e.g., Maeve and Delores) or too firmly embedded in their old loops to even imagine a life on the outside. Musashi seems to be the first android that, when presented with the option to leave, prefers to remain behind, transforming the post-human Shogunworld into a home rather than a prison. (The notion of a “wild” android park is certainly provocative, and disruptive of the escape vs. slavery binary that has dominated the series thus far.)

  • For a moment it seemed like the Mesa’s technicians were going to use a much more gruesome method to keep Peter (Louis Herthum) from escaping – Boxing Helena, anyone? – but nailing him to a table works just as well, with the added bonus of the crucifixion subtext.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Let the Sunshine In'.
May 24, 2018
By Joshua Ray

A Women Under the Influence

2017 / France / 94 min. / Dir. by Claire Denis / Opened in select cities April 27, 2018; locally on May 25, 2018

In Claire Denis’ last film, the director left viewers with the most unsettling images of her career. Her 2013 feature Bastards was a time-hopping narrative of betrayal and murder, culminating in the reveal of an incestual rape. While not exactly a change of pace from her ultra-violent revisionist vampire tale, Trouble Every Day (2001), or her apocalyptic critique of colonialism, White Material (2010), Bastards was still one of Denis’ most brutal works — a dirge for decency in the modern world. By contrast, when the first reactions to Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) were filed from the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, critics referred to it as “Denis lite,” a frothy confection about an older woman and her travails in love. It seemed that the chronicler of the lower depths of humanity had gone soft. 

Although Sunshine does indeed resemble the romantic dramedy in distilled form, the film is a mature work concerning the interiority of a feminine psyche and the forces that shape it. As a portrait of adult solitude, it’s remarkably candid about its protagonist’s mixture of sexual desire and woozy romanticism. The film is as complex of any of Denis’ previous works and as easy to digest as Ernst Lubitsch feature from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The script is loosely based on French philosopher Roland Barthes’ A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, a 1977 book of interconnected tales about young lovers. Denis and co-writer Christine Angot cohere the fragmentation around a middle-aged artist, Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a recent divorcee whose rotating cast of male lovers leaves her in various states of relationship purgatory. These couplings dictate the film’s structure, with disparate threads becoming increasingly entangled before knotting together in a swoon-worthy upbeat ending. 

Sunshine borrows as much from Barthes as it does from it from its leading lady’s persona. It’s a showcase role much like the stage and screen actress Binoche portrayed in Olivier Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), and she realizes Isabelle’s anxieties with her trademark deep reserves of humanity. The opening scene is of fully nude Isabelle engaging in unfulfilling sex with one of her partners, the emotionally stunted banker Vincent (Xavier Beauvois). She pacifies his performance before he launches into an inappropriate conversation about her past lovers. The scene is a glimpse of the push-and-pull that men exert on Isabelle, laying out reasoning for the financially and artistically successful woman to engage in a monomaniacal search for a harmonious relationship. Isabelle oscillates between charming and aloof, relaxed and anxious, and Binoche performs each note with expert precision while maintaining a naturalistic ease. She also understands that the comedy in Sunshine — there are, in fact, plenty of laughs — comes from Isabelle’s inability to communicate her feelings to her partners. Her strife can be located in the roles the men force on her, as well as in her own desires. She often finds herself in negative feedback loops with her partners, with escalating frustration leading to exhaustion. After dinner with her beer-swilling married actor boyfriend (Nicolas Duvauchelle), she tells him that they have wasted time: “I feel like we said nothing. We just said the opposite of what we meant.”

That scene reveals Denis’ modus operandi, with Sunshine functioning as a subversion of the standard coupling/uncoupling romantic-comedy narrative. The director debunks the reductive, sexist myths perpetuated by these films and ably depicts the struggle between negotiating personal wants and needs. Isabelle and the actor argue in his car about dissolving their relationship as they inch toward her apartment, and Denis maintains her camera impossibly close to each character as if to focus on the words and how they align (or fail to) with the couple’s behavior. As Isabelle fights the urge to open the passenger door and flee the scene, the director alternates between closeups of the woman’s hesitant hand on the door handle and shots of her begging the unnamed actor to come up to her apartment. With its soft and hazy cinematography by longtime collaborator Agnès Godard, Sunshine could resemble a Nancy Meyers film if it weren’t for the camera’s microscopic examination of Isabelle and her partners. As she and Vincent discuss the “dictator of the proletariat” imbalance in their relationship, the camera swings back and forth (à la Max Ophüls) between their faces, illuminating the shifting power between them before it finally unites them in a close two-shot as they decide to make love. 

The film’s blissful centerpiece is Isabelle’s dance to Etta James’ “At Last,” a counterpoint to Denis Lavant’s furious eruption of movement at the end of the director’s’ masterpiece, Beau Travail (2000). Here, she acknowledges both the ecstatic nature of falling in love and the impossible projections people create in the process. The extended final scene functions as an end and a new beginning, as evidenced by the credits rolling over it — just as another beacon of French cinema, Gérard Depardieu, enters like a galvanizing force. His medium urges Isabelle to abandon her preconceptions while also planting a seed of their predestined future together. It’s a giddily ambiguous finale that both reinforces and upends the nature of male/female relationships and cements it as a work to be reckoned with alongside Denis’ more explicitly dour work. With Let the Sunshine In, the director further showcases her versatility, setting high expectations for her forthcoming High Life. She’s already made one of the best films of the year.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A Still from 'Solo: A Star Wars Story'.
May 23, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Scoundrel? I Like the Sound of That.

2018 / USA / 135 min. / Dir. by Ron Howard / Opens in wide release on May 25, 2018

For decades, it was an open secret among serious Star Wars fans that some of the franchise’s most imaginative and stimulating stories could be found not on the silver screen, but in the so-called Expanded Universe (EU) of novels, comics, video games, and other media that carried the series’ logo. One of the prevailing virtues of George Lucas’ blockbuster creation is the rich potential of its fantasy-flavored space-opera setting, and for years ambitious writers and artists have spun innumerable stories from Lucas’ raw materials – all set in a galaxy far, far away, but encompassing myriad genres, tones, and levels of quality.

The EU was dramatically upended in 2014, when Lucasfilm’s new masters at Disney announced a fresh approach to the sprawling Star Wars canon. Whereas previously the EU had existed in a kind of secondary, twilight space – official in their branding, but “sub-canon” in relation to the feature films – now every fiction with the Star Wars name would be intertwined and internally coherent, beginning with the retroactive canonicity of the astonishingly excellent Clone Wars television series (2008-15). Perhaps most tantalizing to fans was the announcement that feature films outside the core “Episode” chapters would be produced. Here, at last, was an opportunity for the dazzling promise of the Star Wars setting to be explored at a blockbuster level.

The grim Episode IV prequel Rogue One (2016) was the first such entry, and while it remains a strangely undervalued chapter in Star Wars cinema just two years later, it did reveal the weaknesses of Disney’s initial approach to these supplementary films, branded Star Wars Stories. Director Gareth Edwards put a marvelously forbidding spin on the story of how exactly the Rebel Alliance filched the Death Star plans from the Galactic Empire, but Rogue One suffered from its sweaty efforts to wedge in fan-service jokes and connect the film to the events of A New Hope. Although tonally distinct from its forebears, Edwards’ film signaled that Disney was opting for the safe and familiar, indulgently filling in the narrative gaps immediately adjacent to the franchise’s greatest hits rather than venturing boldly across time and space. (Bioware’s acclaimed 2003 Xbox game Knights of the Old Republic, set 4,000 years before the original film trilogy but still recognizably Star Wars, was perhaps closer to what more adventurous fans were hoping for.)

Now the second such Star Wars Story has arrived, and it is, if anything, an even safer and more familiar digression from the core Episodes. Rogue One presented a bracing and terrifying depiction of Darth Vader – and threw in some cameos from tertiary heroes like Mon Mothma and Bail Organa – but it rested primarily on the shoulders of its vivid new characters. Solo, on the other hand, is built on the assumption that filmgoers longed to see the younger, formative years of their favorite heroes from the original cinematic trilogy. As one might expect, the new film is focused on a fresh-faced Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), although it also makes time for the notorious smuggler’s right-hand Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and suave gambler-cum-frenemy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). There are new characters, of course, but the “built-in audience” that studios covet won’t be lining up for Solo to see grizzled master thief Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) or underworld femme fatale Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).

There’s no use in mincing words: Notwithstanding the broad pop-cultural familiarity of its main characters, Solo is a deep cut as Star Wars films go, a work primarily of interest to the franchise’s most devoted fans. There’s nothing overtly dislikable about it, and compared to the gaudy, lumbering fiascoes that were Episodes I-III, it’s almost classical in its plot, tone, and sensibilities. This is hardly surprising, given the presence of studio journeymen and occasional almost-auteur Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) in the director’s chair. Taking the wheel after a rather public and embarrassing falling-out between Disney and the film’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Howard righted the ship capably, if the onscreen evidence is any indication. There aren’t any glaring seams in Solo, which gives Howard a welcome opportunity to flex his often-underappreciated action-cinema muscles (Willow, Rush, In the Heart of the Sea).

Howard’s reputation for crafting films that are “good enough” – not entirely deserved, as his directorial oeuvre includes both near-masterpieces and unbearable claptrap – is perfectly in line with Solo’s meta-franchise ambitions. Following last year’s critically praised, fandom-dividing The Last Jedi, Disney almost seems to be positioning its latest Star Wars Story as a palate-cleanser. Strip away the starships and blasters, and Solo is essentially a heist film combined with a skin-deep character study, owing its plot beats to both post-Furious contemporary action cinema and the Warner Bros. crime dramas of the 1930s and ’40s (The Public Enemy, The Big Sleep). The tone, however, is pure PG-13 breeziness, and even the film’s numerous betrayals and murders don’t diminish the sensation that Solo is designed to be tween-friendly while also stoking the nostalgia of middle-aged adults for whom Han remains the archetypal cinematic rogue.

The film opens on the grimy, smog-choked streets of Corellia, a shipyard planet where the young Han and Qi’ra live a Dickensian existence trapped under the spindly legs of centipede-like crime boss Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). The couple is young, reckless, and in love, and Han is stupid-lucky enough to nick a few grams of pricey, refined starship super-fuel – just enough to bribe an spaceport official, thereby securing transport off-world for himself and Qi'ra. Sadly, their hastily assembled and clumsily executed plan goes awry: Qi’ra’s is apprehended by underworld heavies and Han is obliged to present himself at an Imperial recruitment center to avoid capture.

Fast-forward three years: Thanks to his problem with authority and smart-ass inclinations, Han has flunked out of naval flight school and now is languishing as a scrub private in the Imperial infantry. Dodging enemy fire and AT-ST walkers on the hellish surface of a subjugated planet is not where the would-be pilot imagined himself, and when he bumps into a trio of savvy thieves posing as soldiers, he seizes on the opportunity to fast-talk (or blackmail) his way into their ranks. Through a convoluted series of events, Han is briefly captured for desertion and imprisoned with ravenous Wookiee slave Chewbacca, only to team up with the creature and escape. The addition of this 8-foot-tall newcomer – whom Han nicknames “Chewie” in short order – ultimately convinces Beckett to bring the pair on board for the crew’s latest heist.

Han’s new allies – including explosives expert Val (Thandie Newton) and four-armed alien pilot Rio Durant (Jon Favreau) – lay out a plan to steal a king’s ransom in starship fuel from an automated magnetic railcar on a snowbound planet, all to pay off an underworld debt. The scheme goes spectacularly pear-shaped, thanks to some truly crummy luck and the interference of a rival gang, which means that Beckett is back to square one with Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a cold-hearted underboss with the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Ever the bullshitter, Han salvages the situation, ad-libbing a proposal for a complex heist that involves filching a cache of unrefined fuel from a cryogenic vault on a mining colony, slipping through a cluster of treacherous dimensional wormholes, and getting the heat-sensitive material to a processing outpost before it becomes critically unstable. (It’s sort of a criminal, hyper-speed variation on the slow, nail-biting nitroglycerine delivery featured in Wages of Fear and Sorcerer.)

There’s also the matter of the sudden reappearance of Qu’ra, who as luck would have it is now a silver-tongued lieutenant in Dryden’s criminal fiefdom – throwing the lovesick Han completely off his game (when it wasn’t all that great to begin with). The new scheme requires a very fast starship, prompting Qu’ra to turn to an old acquaintance: smuggler, card shark, and irrepressible bon vivant Lando Calrissian. The swaggering, self-mythologizing Lando not only brings his modified Corellian freighter Millennium Falcon to the table, but also his feistily independent droid co-pilot, L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), whose celestial navigation skills are vital for Han’s nigh-impossible scheme.

That’s a massive amount of plot for a Star Wars picture that’s ostensibly all about the simple, fan-service pleasures of a young Han Solo bouncing off beloved franchise characters and familiar gangster-movie archetypes. However, while Solo relies on the same A-to-B-to-C, MacGuffin-centered episodic plotting that characterizes innumerable studio tentpoles these days, Howard handles it skillfully enough, keeping a weather eye on the primary, escapist appeal of the Star Wars saga. (These movies should, at bottom, be fun, dammit.) Although it admittedly drags a bit in its final stretch – Howard must love Mexican standoffs, because they pile up quickly at the film’s climax – Solo is lively enough that the viewer doesn’t really feel its 135-minute running time, which is more than one can say of most summer blockbusters that push past the two-hour mark. 

The most salient question about Solo is whether it justifies its own existence: Namely, is there anything that distinguishes it from any other $250 million action-adventure tentpole, aside from the Star Wars branding? Unfortunately, not so much. The film will undoubtedly appeal to the franchise’s fans – whether 14 years old or fortysomething – who have a fondness for the saga’s iconic characters, but it’s hard to recommend Solo strictly as a slice of Hollywood diversion. It’s too cinematically conventional to elicit a galvanic response from the average action filmgoer, and far too enamored with in-jokes, callbacks, and the mythological minutiae of the Star Wars galaxy. (Case in point: One late-film cameo will likely be startling and tantalizing to hardcore franchise devotees, but the viewer who hasn’t binged six seasons of Clone Wars will be baffled by it.)

In places, the screenplay from the father-son pairing of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan hints at a spikier, more fascinating feature, one less beholden to the tropes and schematic beats of the 21st-century event picture. The acidly charming L3-37 is often at the center of these gestures. A weirder, more daring Solo is visible in her unapologetic droid-liberation worldview – culminating in a scene where she ignites delightfully cartoonish robotic chaos in a control room simply by huffily removing one droid’s restraining bolt. It can also be seen in the deeply weird but enthralling intimation of a simmering, will-they-or-won’t-they romance between L3-37 and Lando. The Kasdans dribble other details into the margins that suggest rich, unexplored narrative threads, particularly an entire, un-captioned subplot between Chewbacca and an enslaved Wookiee miner that evinces more pathos than anything else in the film.

Solo is so hellbent on rushing from one planet to the next while shoehorning in ironic callbacks to previous films that the teasing presence of such breadcrumbs is more frustrating than nourishing. However, as a character study of the titular scoundrel, Solo holds up reasonably well, at least for a studio blockbuster. Ehrenreich, blessedly, doesn’t attempt a Harrison Ford impersonation, but rather concentrates on conjuring the inimitable combination of laid-back charm, growly menace, and comic overconfidence that defines Han. If the actor doesn’t quite hit the mark, it’s largely to the film’s benefit: His iteration of the smuggler comes off as slightly guileless and starry-eyed, which suits Solo’s intent to zero in on the moment when the character’s cynicism truly congealed. In this, Howard’s film functions as an inversion of another prequel from a Harrison Ford franchise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Where the latter film depicted the adventure that nudged archaeologist Henry Jones Jr. from greed to altruism, Solo pinpoints the downfall of Good Guy Han, who won’t re-emerge until years later, when the smuggler-turned-Rebel comes to Luke Skywalker’s rescue in a Death Star trench.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Westworld', Season 2, Episode 5, "Akane No mai"
May 22, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

We've Gone Completely Off the Rails Here

Season 2 / Episode 5 / Written by Gina Atwater and Dan Dietz / Dir. by Craig Zobel / Originally Aired May 20, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

Especially in its early scenes, “Akane No Mai” suffers from some noticeably clunky, even cringe-worthy dialogue. Characters declaim the importance of the episode’s events and revelations with the sort of tin-eared, pretentious lines that exemplify Westworld’s worst tendencies. (A conspicuous groaner from Delos Chief of Operations Karl Strand [Gustaf Skarsgård]: “How did all these disparate threads come together to create this nightmare?” Oof.) High-caliber acting can often mitigate even the crummiest writing, of course. In Season 1, Anthony Hopkins exhibited his usual talent for purring ridiculous, purple dialogue with cool authority, and Ed Harris consistently projects a flinty, unflappable demeanor – pitched halfway between cold menace and knowing humor – that salvages William’s most unwieldy lines. Those two veterans are nowhere to be found in “Akane,” however.

The episode’s more awkward dialogue is mitigated to some extent by the delight inherent in the series’ first full-fledged foray into Shogunworld, a companion Delos theme park modeled on Edo Period Japan (or, at least, the cinematic approximation of such). Viewers who were pining for the series’ stellar production design team to take a whack at a setting filled with samurai, geisha, and ninja will likely come away from “Akane” more than satisfied. Although Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) is afforded some screen time, this episode belongs to Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her companions, who stumble into (and proceed to disrupt) the Delos spin on Throne of Blood (1957) – or, perhaps more accurately, 13 Assassins (2010), given the over-the-top Takashi Miike-style gore.

For all the cross-genre thrills inherent in seeing Maeve’s gun-toting posse trespass in a lavish re-creation of the Tokugawa shogunate, there’s a telltale whiff of the familiar to Shogunworld’s characters and melodrama – as Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) cannily observes. Any basis for Lee’s (Simon Quarterman) insufferable self-importance in Season 1 has gradually been whittled away over the course of recent episodes, but “Akane” is a death blow to the former Head of Narrative’s artistic pretenses. As Maeve and her fellow hosts discover, Delos’ parks are all just rough facsimiles of each other, with mere changes in window dressing. Lee appears to have plagiarized liberally from himself, copying characters, plots, and whole chunks of dialogue from Westworld and pasting them into Shogunworld. (“You try writing 300 stories in three weeks,” he whines defensively.) This exacerbates the existential crisis that the hosts are already experiencing, with results ranging from the seething hostility between Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) and his ronin “doppelbot,” Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), on one hand, to the pseudo-erotic fascination between Armistice and her equivalent, Hanaryo (Tao Okamoto), on the other.

Maeve, meanwhile, is overwhelmed with sympathy for the senior geisha, Akane (Rinko Kikuchi), whose narrative loop roughly parallels her own. In Akane’s maternal protectiveness towards the young geisha Sakura (Kikki Sukezane), Maeve sees an echo of her quest to track down her lost daughter. Akane seems to be on the verge of “waking up” to true consciousness, given that she seizes control of her storyline by murdering the Shogun’s emissary when he comes calling. (“That’s not supposed to happen,” Lee deadpans.) Akane is not quite self-aware yet, however, and she reacts with confused terror to Maeve’s attempt to psychologically nudge her to the center of Arnold’s maze. Indeed, it doesn’t seem as though any of the Shogunworld hosts have awakened in the sense that Maeve has, although the park has diverged in dramatic, bloody fashion from its usual plotlines. The malfunctioning Shogun (Masaru Shinozuka) has begun acting much more vicious and erratic, while Akane has gone strikingly off script in the ruthless defense of “her” girls. All of this is bewildering to Lee, whose knowledge of park storylines is becoming less and less useful as the android uprising throws his narratives into chaos.

Meanwhile, Delores comes to a fateful decision about Teddy (James Mardsen), whose noble programming is no longer commensurate with her ambitions of violent revolution and conquest. The season premiere established that Teddy will eventually meet a watery end – restated here in a brief present-day scene where Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) spies him among a pile of android corpses. However, the more intriguing question has always been how he and Delores would finally come to loggerheads, a conflict rendered inevitable by their divergent ambitions for the future. Delores’ solution to her “Teddy problem” turns out to be even more monstrous than summarily executing the poor dope: She tasks a kidnapped technician to literally reprogram the do-gooder impulses out of him. While the viewer isn’t yet privy to the result, it’s probably safe to say that Teddy 2.0 will be a ruthless, compliant follower of Delores’ outlaw “Wyatt” persona, perhaps something akin to Angela (Talulah Riley). Here, “Akane” reveals yet another discomfiting way that Delores’ crusade of liberation has become a slippery slope, each act of brutality pushing her closer to the ends-justify-the-means amorality of the humans she claims to despise.

Much like the season’s first episode, “Journey into Night,” this chapter is generally more compelling for what it reveals rather than what happens. Nothing all that unexpected occurs, plot-wise, although in some instances, the way that events unfold is downright shocking. Case in point: Akane’s assassination of the Shogun, which any attentive viewer likely sees coming, is executed with jaw-dropping viciousness – the geisha literally sawing off the warlord’s head at the jaw with her dagger hairpin. Such horror-adjacent flourishes and a ninja brawl aside, however, “Akane No Mai” is most notable for its game-changing discoveries (e.g., all the parks are remixes of the same “narrative bones”) and some minor plot points (e.g., Lee surreptitiously lifting a communications device off a dead security officer). Of the former, none is more momentous than Maeve realizing that her ability to compel other hosts by voice command has somehow evolved into silent, wireless mind control. How exactly this upgrade came about is still a mystery, but said ability’s mechanism seems obvious in retrospect: the inter-host “mesh network” that Bernard mentioned four episodes back.

Maeve has always been the wild card in Westworld, but this season is illustrating just how starkly her story stands apart from the comparatively banal, militarized struggle between the humans and Delores. Maeve’s more intimate mutiny of self-discovery serves as a kind of commentary on Delores’ sweeping revolutionary ambitions. Not coincidentally, Maeve is consistently the series’ most enthralling character – more appealing than the sinister, inscrutable William and more proactive than the fumbling, shell-shocked Bernard. Even as Maeve awakens to her power, however, there remains a nagging doubt: Is she truly in control of her thoughts and actions, or is she still trapped in one of Ford’s loops? Those doubts were seeded near the end of Season 1, when she was shown computer readouts indicating that she was still adhering to her programming. He discoveries in Shogunworld only amplify those uncertainties: The memories programmed into her mind have been rehashed and repurposed, little more than stale tropes sown across multiple genres and worlds by “creators” who can’t be bothered with originality.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • There’s some gratifyingly meta-commentary in “Akane” about the laziness of genre fiction and the notion that there are only so many stories to tell before storytellers start repeating themselves. One of the recurring pleasures of Westworld is that the writers and performers routinely manage to have their cake and eat it too: self-critically drawing attention to the artifice and weaknesses of narrative fiction, while also hooking the viewer with in-universe moments of intense pathos. It’s a testament to the show’s strength that this doesn’t scan as cheap cynicism or fatal dissonance, but nimble intelligence.

  • Speaking of existential crises: Poor Clementine (Angela Searafyan) rejoins Delores’ army after completing her secret mission with Bernard in the previous episode, only to run into her replacement (Limi Simmons) in the pillaged Sweetwater saloon. She doesn’t take it well.

  • Cinephiles are probably more accustomed to the juxtaposition of the Western and samurai settings than the casual viewer, if only because the genres have famously been playing off each other for six decades or so, as any first-year film student can attest. Intriguingly, “Akame” flips the conventional wisdom about the primary direction of influence: Shogunworld is a copy of Westworld, but it was Western filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah (The Magnificent Seven) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars) who cribbed from Japanese master Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo).
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Rider'.
May 22, 2018
By Joshua Ray

A Cowboy Ain’t Easy to Love and He’s Harder to Hold

2017 / USA / 104 min. / Dir. by Chloé Zhao / Opened in select cities April 13, 2018; locally on May 11, 2018

Director and writer Chloé Zhao’s film The Rider opens on hypnotic equine images. The camera glides along the tan mane of a horse in slow motion, fading into other closeup images of its snarling mouth, the muscles writhing beneath its thick skin, and ultimately its eye. A quick cut reveals the dreamer, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), as he jolts awake. After a quick succession of shots depicting Brady drowsily ambulating around his mobile home, the camera goes close again, now on the back of his head as he wedges medical staples and removes gauze from his shaved skull, revealing an inches-long incision held together with even more staples. The wound recalls Frankenstein’s monster, as another character will later observe. 

The hypnagogic imagery butts up against brutal reality in what could be called the thesis statement for The Rider. Ostensibly, this is a “sports movie” about Brady, a former star who has suffered a near-fatal accident in his “court” of choice, the rodeo arena. The film is also informed by the reality of its performers, who more or less portray themselves as they work through events shaped from their personal narratives. The genesis for this film is the time Zhao spent on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota making her first feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015). It was during that film that she got to know rodeo star Brady Jandreau and his cohort of rider friends. Due to the circumstances of the film’s development and production, The Rider plays as a slow burn that relies less on the typical triumphant and tragic signposts of the genre and more on the inner life of its protagonist. Brady suffers not only physically but also existentially: Who am I if I’m not on a horse? Furthermore, Zhao’s film poses questions regarding the limitations of depicting “reality” in a quasi-docudrama such as this, and whether or not that matters for the purposes of creating a fully formed vision for the screen.

The gambit of using nonprofessional actors to flesh out versions of themselves is risky, but with Jandreau playing Brady Blackburn it pays off in spades. Zhao and her cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, keep the camera close on the tight-jawed, limitedly emotive Brady, maintaining him at the center of scenes where he’s surrounded by reminders of his localized celebrity. Possessing limited skills outside the rodeo world, the fallen star struggles with his identity and injuries as he takes on a part-time job in a local grocery store, trains horses he knows he shouldn’t ride, and deals with the anguish of being a twentysomething who is already past his prime. Brady remains in this pressure cooker throughout the film, but Jandreau’s reservedness ensures that he rarely betrays his character’s simmering pain to others, requiring the camera and the audience to focus on his eyes as emotional entry points.

The rest of the cast is not as naturally camera-ready as Jandreau, but within The Rider and its hybrid indie film-as-docudrama aesthetic, their performances work. His real-life father and sister, Tim and Lilly Jandreau, play his fictional father and sister, Wayne and Lilly Blackburn. Tim Jandreau eventually warms up after some flat line readings in the film’s first third, lending pathos to a climax where he confronts Brady about leaving to perform at a rodeo. Lilly Jandreau is a bright light in the film and in the life of her brother, and she’s given scenes that don’t utilize her autism for emotional heft or comedic condescension – she simply is.

One of the most tender moments of the film occurs when Brady, after visiting his paralyzed ex-rider friend, Lane Scott – portrayed by the actual Lane Scott, who was injured in a car accident and not riding as the film may imply – breaks down alone in his truck as he fights against welling tears. The scene is a rare glimpse of a rupture in the performative stoic manliness that Zhao, a female filmmaker, is somewhat critical of throughout the film. Granted, when Brady takes his last ride with his beloved horse Gus, she lapses into a giddy-up celebration of horse-riding and its macho bravura with earnest dollies across the plain, all set to a triumphant score. However, the director also points out the relentlessly dangerous nature of rodeo life, as in long scenes of the reflective and paralyzed Lane – who now communicates via American Sign Language – watching videos of his former, do-or-die cowboy self on YouTube. 

The schism between past and present selves also manifests itself physically and symbolically in Brady, who suffers from a post-accident condition called “partial complex seizures” in which his hand locks up from a sensory overload from his brain. The past is always somewhat present in The Rider. There’s no mention that the film takes place on the reservation that inspired it or of the history that led to such places. The film disregards the racialized baggage of the cowboy figure that inspires its Native American characters, distinguishing The Rider from the Hollywood images that perpetuated the dualistic formulation of the indigenous enemy and the heroic white man. Closeups of craggy faces against the Western vistas recall the work of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [1967]) but without the performative filmic grandeur. Silhouettes line the cloud-laden horizon, bringing to mind John Ford’s films, sans the American myth-making of a period piece. (Zhao even subtly duplicates the oft-quoted final shot from The Searchers [1956] that frames John Wayne in a doorway.) Winds move through tall grass as if in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) – a film that shares the same geographical terrain as The Rider – but here there is no divine presence. 

These scenes vary from awe-inspiring to Instagram-inspired; some carry the weight of characters lost in a vast landscape and relegated to the predetermined roles their land and society dictate, while others are simply “nice.” The film presents a unique vision springing from Beijing native Zhao’s identification with the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Lakota people who dwell there, but it’s possible that the director is too close to the subjects to imbue her film with more complexity. However, The Rider, which is sure to be Zhao’s breakout film, is certainly enough to encourage any viewer to look forward to the director’s future works. 

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray