A still from 'Darlin''.
August 2, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

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

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

Darlin’

2019 / USA / 100 min. / Dir. by Pollyanna McIntosh / Opened in select cities and premiered online on July 12, 2019

Now here’s an odd cinematic pedigree: A sequel to Lucky McKee’s divisive domestic bloodbath The Woman (2011), Darlin’ is written and directed by Pollyanna McIntosh, who played the titular feral woman in McKee’s feature and reprises her role here. The new film’s protagonist, however, is Darling (Lauryn Canny), the adolescent daughter of McIntosh’s cannibalistic forest-dwelling matron. After stumbling into an emergency room, the snarling, disheveled Darling is placed into the care of a Catholic children’s home, where the scheming bishop (Bryan Batt) plans to fundraise off the spectacle of the girl’s forcible civilization. Following both Darling’s tribulations at the exploitive orphanage and the Woman’s violent, often absurd search for her missing daughter, McIntosh’s film positions itself as a sharp-elbowed feminist companion/counterpoint to McKee’s. However, the new feature’s ambitions are stymied by its scattershot plot, clumsy characterization, and tonal indecisiveness. At best, Darlin’ feels more like a feverish midnight-movie riff on Truffaut’s The Wild Child (1970) than a trenchant jab at the patriarchy. Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms.]

Trespassers

2018 / USA / 88 min. / Dir by Orson Oblowitz / Opened in select cities and premiered online on July 12, 2019

There’s a disquieting racial dimension to Orson Oblowitz’s visually glossy and narratively lumpy home-invasion thriller, Trespassers, which pits a foursome of vacationing wealthy Americans against a band of vicious, steroidal Mexican intruders, complete with bandanas and gang tattoos. However, it seems a bit unfair to critique the film’s racial stereotyping too severely, given that the villains don’t even show up until the 50-minute mark. Oblowitz spends an unfathomable amount of screen time mucking about in the weeds of petty character melodrama – which includes a miscarriage, secret infidelity, and a physically abusive partner – and playing coy with an overabundance of strange plot swerves like the late-night appearance of a mysterious neighbor (Fairuza Balk, dispiritingly overqualified for the material). The film’s gruesome violence is fittingly ruthless, but the director doesn’t do much of anything to distinguish this morally scuzzy tale of unsympathetic victims vs. demonically wicked criminals from numerous features that follow a similar template and execute it much more capably. Rating: D+ [Now available to rent from Amazon.]

DeadTectives

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Tony West / Premiered online on July 18, 2019

If Peter Jackson’s cult classic The Frighteners (1996) illustrated that a ghost story staged as a cheesy live-action cartoon could still be a spooky delight, director Tony West’s irksome treatment of a similar story in DeadTectives proves that over-the-top occult silliness is no substitute for proficient filmmaking. Pitting a team of poltergeist-hunting fraudsters against a very real and nasty haunting at a cobwebby Mexican estate, West’s film consistently pushes its most grating horror-comedy elements to the forefront: broad slapstick, “wacky” personalities, and painfully unfunny running gags. Mistaking contemptible characters and ordinary shrillness for humor, West and his performers – including, inexplicably, Altered Carbon’s Martha Higareda in a minor role – fail to unearth the droll charm that might have counterbalanced the film’s splatstick violence. It’s enough to make Abbott & Costello’s myriad run-ins with the Universal monsters look like nuanced drawing-room comedies in comparison. There’s a certain low-rent charm to the film’s Haunted Mansion-style makeup effects and sub-Ghostbusters cosmology, but they don’t alleviate the film’s puerile monotony. Rating: D [Now available to stream from Shudder.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Share'.
July 31, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Virtual Hell

2019 / USA / 87 min. / Dir. by Pippa Bianco / Premiered online on July 27, 2019

The opening images and sounds in Share, writer-director Pippa Bianco’s icily intense debut feature, are impressionistic but easily identifiable: rain-slicked asphalt captured in fuzzy close-up, the dark surface occasionally flaring orange-white from the headlights of passing cars. These are the sensations that greet 16-year-old Mandy (Rhianne Barreto) as she awakens, groggy and bewildered, on her parents’ front lawn in the early-morning hours. It’s an out-of-the-gate indication of the film’s harrowing, subjective viewpoint, one tightly bound to the way that Mandy perceives her suburban environment and the events that follow from this inauspicious stirring. The film’s gaze (and therefore Mandy’s) will return over and over to this otherwise unremarkable patch of grass, as if it holds some clue to understanding the hellish ordeal that unfolds in the ensuing weeks and months. No such luck: Bianco’s film is short on answers, although there is a kind of cold comfort in its raw, keen-eyed depiction of an adolescent girl’s experiences in the brave new (yet same-as-it-ever-was) world of the 2010s.

Mandy’s subsequent self-examination reveals bruises and abrasions on her body and, it is discreetly implied, more direct evidence of a sexual encounter. Shoving the sour dread of these discoveries into the back of her mind, she busies herself with the banalities of the following school day, which include basketball practice, hanging out with her friends, and dinner with her parents and little brother. Later that evening, however, the digital evidence of Mandy’s long, dark night abruptly surfaces. A flurry of alarmed but cryptic text messages from her friends – have u seen it? is it u? r u ok? – heralds the arrival of the video that will reverberate through Mandy’s family, school, and community. In the clip, she sees herself, facedown and unconscious on the floor of a friend’s bathroom, as several drunken male classmates mock and grope her. The blurry snippet of footage is blessedly short, but Mandy is no fool, and she draws the obvious conclusion about the events that followed.

Expanding on her 2015 short film of the same name, it would have been quite easy for Bianco to use this setup as the basis for a twisty SVU-style thriller about consent, assault, and victim-blaming in the digital age – or, more clinically, an Errol Morris-indebted inquiry into the epistemological limitations of the videographic frame. However, Share’s ambitions are both narrower and more unsettling than these. With nauseating clarity, Bianco conveys the experience of being an adolescent victim in an era in which digital evidence is easily disseminated via social media, and everybody and their uncle feels obliged to proffer their unsolicited opinion about each and every viral blip. Before long, Mandy’s parents, Kerri (Poorna Jagannathan) and Mickey (J.C. MacKenzie), stumble onto the humiliating video, and at their urging Mandy reluctantly presses criminal charges against A.J. (Nicholas Galitzine), the solitary boy that she can identify from the video. The scandal thereafter breaks wide open, turning Mandy’s life into an unremitting nightmare of sickening shame, social ostracism, and violent threats.

It’s exactly the sort of story that’s normally employed as the basis for tedious Luddite hand-wringing about These Kids Today. Bianco’s film disdains such alarmism, taking a hard left in the other direction, asserting that the ubiquity of smartphones hasn’t fundamentally altered the bedrock fact that women are routinely assailed, ridiculed, and doubted in a male-dominated society. The relentless liking and sharing of our experiences has just warped and heightened the same repulsive public farce that’s been playing out since the days of the Puritans (and beyond). Granted, the existence of video evidence turns what would have been a mere hallway rumor a couple of decades ago into a full-blown criminal investigation, but that same footage is also weaponized to attack Mandy, sending her into a downward spiral of anxiety, depression, and numb indifference. The insistent ding of the girl’s incoming texts becomes the soundtrack of her damnation – a never-ending barrage of anonymous, threatening vitriol that she can’t even be bothered to block.

That said, the digital dimension to Share’s plot is less central than the film’s title might suggest. Bianco refrains from the usual animated bric-a-brac that characterizes films about How We Live Now. Rather than revealing Mandy’s messages and videos with flashy on-screen pop-ups, the film peers over her shoulder in claustrophobic handheld shots. Bianco doggedly tethers her camera to the personalized, despairing perspective of her protagonist, who purposefully walls herself off from both new and old media out a combination of assiduous self-care and sheer mortification. Flashes of sensational local news reports on Mandy’s case appear at the margins of the film, but they are like a grotesque carnival half-glimpsed through an open tent flap – invariably sending the poor girl scurrying out of the room or fumbling for the remote.

The horror of Share is the horror of knowing with stomach-turning certainty exactly what’s being whispered behind one's back, messaged invisibly through the ether, and screeched in the Facebook comments that one should never (ever) read. It’s similar to the helpless, infuriating paranoia expressed by whistleblowing scientist Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), as he peers impotently at his ex-employer’s office from his hotel window: “I’m staring at the Brown & Williamson building. It’s all dark except for the 10th floor. That’s the legal department. That’s where they fuck with my life!” Perhaps coincidentally, the hazy, chilly aesthetic marshalled by Bianco seem to exhibit some inspiration from Mann’s dark urban odysseys, especially his mostly digital 21st-century features (Collateral, Miami Vice, Blackhat). However, it’s the youth-centered works of Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats) and Tim Sutton (Pavilion, Dark Night) – with their oneiric visuals and clenched adolescent emotions – that feel like the closest kin to Share. Much like Hittman, Bianco is acutely attuned to the simple, grinding, plain-as-day angst of being a hapless teenager.

There’s a lacerating bleakness that suffuses Share – a sense of small-bore, domestic doom where it seems as if things can only get worse for Mandy and her family – that could have easily devolved into pointless miserabilism. Bianco evades this partly through the film’s dreamy style, which is less about establishing you-are-there immediacy than conveying the feeling of being an adolescent girl who is being psychologically squeezed from all directions. Just as vital, however, is the shrewdness and litheness of the film’s screenplay, which never resorts to telling what Bianco’s compositions and her performers’ faces can show much more gracefully. When Mandy spies bestie Jenna (Lovie Simone) and nice-guy friend Dylan (Charlie Plummer) at the 7-11, and then sees that they are still palling around with her assailant as if nothing were amiss, her betrayal is not registered through histrionics. Rather, it’s discernable in the crushed and appalled look that flickers across Barreto’s face before she arranges her features into feigned adolescent insouciance.

As quietly expressive as the film’s performances can be, however, Share’s secret weapon is Bianco’s talent for visually and aurally conveying her protagonist’s alternating bouts of anguished hyper-vigilance and narcotic despair. When Mandy’s class is assigned to watch a film, Bianco’s camera disregards the illuminated screen and instead follow’s the girl’s gaze as it bores into the back of A.J.’s head. As Mandy enters the locker room for basketball practice, a flurry of shots mirror the way she anxiously searches her teammates’ faces for sneering judgment (or condescending pity). At the macro level, Bianco often employs jarring editing and sound design to transition abruptly from scene to scene, generating a fumbling momentum that suggests how Mandy’s days and weeks have begun to smear together into a wretchedly inert purgatory.

These formal choices on the part of the filmmaker are consistently guided by a cutting feminist outlook that is less incensed than grimly fatalistic. Bianco isn’t aiming to persuade but to cultivate awareness and empathy for the miserable banality of Mandy’s plight. If Share feels thematically slight – “It sure does suck to be a teenage girl” is about the extent of its argument – it admirably couches this self-evident truth in a vivid cinematic vocabulary that feels leagues from the usual after-school sophistry. There’s a lyrical yet exhausted quality to Share’s social observations that gives them authentic weight. In a key exchange between Mandy and her mother, Kerri explains that the scandal has been hard on the girl’s father because, being a man, he never suspected that the world was so secretly depraved and hideously unjust. “I know things like this happen to someone, every minute of every day,” Kerri explains to her daughter wearily but kindly. “But he didn’t know that, because he didn’t have to.”

Rating: B

Share is now available to stream from HBO Now.

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood'.
July 26, 2019
By Joshua Ray

The Last Picture Show

2019 / USA, UK / 161 min. / Dir. by Quentin Tarantino / Opens in wide release on July 26, 2019

After unleashing his nastiest work, The Hateful Eight, in 2015, one might rightfully expect Quentin Tarantino to lean even further into the subversive excavation of the violent heart of America in his latest feature, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. Subversively set mostly in a claustrophobic, snowed-in haberdashery, the “epic” The Hateful Eight — made and released in the impossibly huge (and most glorious) 70mm format — was a three-hour-plus Western whodunit that ends in a grand guignol bloodbath. The result was the biggest middle finger the Hollywood enfant terrible ever flashed to his audience and critics. The era of Hollywood — the film begins on Feb. 8, 1969 — is ripe for similar exploration: two years after the “Summer of Love” proved a futile cultural movement, and one year after the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, ushering in the most violent period of that decade (and possibly all the years since).

But Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is a much different behemoth than Tarantino’s previous film, a startlingly gentler and thankfully smarter ode to people stuck in the margins as cultural tides shift. It hews much closer to the pathos and humanity of Jackie Brown (1997) by crafting a tapestry of characters teetering on the edge between success and failure, their dreams dictated, realized, or heartbreakingly crushed by the same Dream Factory that spawned those aspirations in the first place. The bloodshed of the era is still present — the Manson family and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, shiny and effervescent but tinged with a yearnful aching) are two of the three narrative threads that run through it, after all — but it figures as a stalking specter rather than taking narrative prominence. Thus, Hollywood is a rich but ultimately tricky affair. On one hand, it’s a lopsided yet consistently enthralling late-career “hang-out” movie (see Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo [1959] and his subsequent rehashes of it for reference), languidly paced as to allow his characters room to behave and ruminate rather than twist and shout their way through the capital-W writer’s patented purple prose, which is largely reserved for the films-within-the-film that populate his latest. On the other, it’s an indictment of Hollywood, the director himself, and cinema at large as one of the ultimate creators of personal and cultural fantasies, for better and for worse.

Rick Dalton (a near-career-best Leonardo DiCaprio) is on the outs as a popular television star, relegated to cameos as “heavies” after leaving his stint as a cowboy hero and attempting to make it in the movies. Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), a potential new agent, praises one of the actor’s big-screen roles as a Nazi-immolating World War II fighter, but a flashback shows the performer’s reticence at using a flame-thrower, whinily exclaiming, “It’s too hot!” To which the prop master flatly answers, “It’s a flame-thrower, Rick.” This, coupled with Rick’s constant humbling and self-deprecation to Schwarzs, signals his waning self-confidence before the agent ultimately sends the actor into a downward spiral. He points out the parasitic nature of audience to movie star: Rick plays baddies now because it’s cool to see the star of Bounty Law take one in the gut, but eventually the cycle will push him even further down into the lower rungs of stardom and then into anonymous oblivion. It’s no coincidence that Hollywood is set during the death of the studio system (and made during a time synonymous with the “death of cinema”), and it takes full advantage of the industry’s instability and its effects on three protagonists to emerge as Tarantino’s most tenderhearted and melancholy work to date.

Tarantino himself has been a victim of the kind of pigeonholing to which Schwarzs speaks — some paint him as simple pop provocateur rather than master filmmaker — so it’s hard not to read this moment as a plea for sympathy (although it’s admittedly tough to sympathize with a personality as bombastic and strident as he projects) that verges on self-aggrandizing. Not until the director slyly begins interpolating loose versions of his own work within the narrative does the honest auto-critique begin — self-awareness rarely glimpsed in his oeuvre. That Nazi-burning certainly recalls the climax of Inglourious Basterds (2009), and a saloon showdown Rick stars in is straight out of Django Unchained (2013). They’re far from self-congratulatory victory laps; instead they blend the reality of his film’s historical setting and the faux reality circumscribed by the entirety of cinema. Tarantino sees the seventh art having the ability to dictate, shape, and reflect viewers’ fantasies and to enter consciousness as a representation of reality — a system in which he’s been joyously complicit. A crane shot over a drive-in theater screen and into the blinding white light of its projector visualizes the snake beginning to eat its own tail, but there’s no moment more mind-warping and exhilarating than watching Robie as Tate nervously communing with an audience watching the real Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew (1969) on the big screen.

The Django-like showdown, with its already flimsy representation of generic and filmic reality interrupted by Rick calling out for his lines, is further complicated by an analogous scene directly following it, in which his out-of-work stunt double-cum-driver-cum-best friend, Cliff Booth (a grizzled, chiseled, charming, and disarming Brad Pitt), visits the Spahn Ranch. A mock-up Western town used in cheapie productions of yesteryear, the remote locale is now home to the Manson family (Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, Margaret Qualley, among others), and their behavior is disarmingly reminiscent of the characters who once populated the movie set in which the family now lives, further wrinkling the depiction of cinema’s dissemination into reality. Like the dolly shot of the Manson girls slowly walking past a massive street mural of James Dean in Giant (1954), the scene posits that movies and their industry loom as large in their lives as it does for the Tinseltown aspirers Sharon, Cliff, and Rick. But here, the aforementioned meta-cinematic glee is supplanted with trademark Tarantino slow-build tension, until it inevitably erupts into the filmmaker’s trademark bursts of violence.

The director has asked reviewing press to refrain from spoiling his latest in depth, which this critic will begrudgingly abide by, but it’s entirely possible that Tarantino is smart in proposing that no one attempt to work through its final act without the benefit of time and repeat viewings. Indeed, the film’s final stretch throws what came before it into a vertiginous tailspin, while reinforcing its looping film-as-reality vs. film-as-fantasy dialectics and continuing to be as touching and bludgeoning, wonky and elegant, obvious and provoking, cartoonish and sincere as its first two movements. Ultimately, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is not his masterpiece — as Inglourious Basterds self-proclaims in its last shot … and maybe it is? — but it may be his magnum opus (as self-proclaimed by Tarantino in recent press) in chronicling both bull-headed confidence and crippling doubt in his life’s purpose as filmmaker and film watcher.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Farewell'.
July 26, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Big Little Lie

2019 / USA / 100 min. / Dir. by Lulu Wang / Opened in select cities on July 12, 2019; locally on July 26, 2019

A plot summary of writer-director Lulu Wang’s superlative sophomore feature, The Farewell, reads like the sort of tear-jerking, family-focused indie dramedy that typically thrives at the Sundance Film Festival. (Indeed, the film was a hit at the fest this past January, netting Wang a Grand Jury Prize nomination for drama.) Billi (Crazy Rich Asians scene-stealer Awkwafina), a 30-ish Chinese-American writer living in NYC, has a warm long-distance relationship with her feisty paternal grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), a widow whom the family affectionately refers to as Nai Nai. It’s therefore a painful shock when Billi learns from her suburbanite parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), that doctors in China have diagnosed Nai Nai with late-stage lung cancer, estimating that she has just a few months to live. What truly sends the thoroughly Americanized Billi into an anguished lather, however, is the family’s resolve to conceal this grim prognosis from Nai Nai herself, reportedly a not-uncommon practice in China. Instead, the family cooks up a pretext to gather their scattered clan together in Nai Nai’s home city of Chungchun: celebrating the hastily planned marriage of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) to Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara).

Everyone other than Nai Nai herself is in on this morbid deception, including the matriarch’s sister, Little Nai Nai (Hong Lu), who intercepts her elder sibling’s medical results and declares that the spots on her MRI have been determined to be “benign shadows.” Meanwhile, Billi’s nervous parents try to dissuade her from traveling to Chungchun for her cousin’s shotgun wedding. They’re fearful that Billi’s close bond with her grandmother, combined with her own sensitive, expressive personality, will fatally undermine the family’s ruse. Billi ignores this advice, paying her own way to China – a decision eased by the compulsion to escape a crushing professional disappointment in America. Thus begins a poker-faced, melancholic farce in which every family member, Billi included, dons a forced smile for Nai Nai’s sake and tries to appreciate what will presumably be their last opportunity to spend time with her.

It’s exactly the kind of high-concept, emotionally fraught scenario that American indies specialize in serving up, although in this instance it is built on the closely observed cultural and psychological specifics of the Chinese-American immigrant experience. That specificity is far from incidental: The Farewell is essentially a fictionalized version of the benevolent deception that Wang’s real-world relatives perpetrated on her grandmother. Wang recounted the incident in a 2016 episode of This American Life, and the film closely follows the story beats as she described them on that program. Little Nai Nai and her beloved singing Chihuahua, Ellen, even play themselves on screen.

Billi is nonplussed to learn that concealing a terminal illness from an elderly individual is not unusual in China, where doctors deliver the bad news to a relative rather than directly to the patient. This is not only legal but also regarded as the ethical thing to do – partly so as not to burden the patient with his or her own looming demise, and partly due to the Chinese belief in the synergy between mind and body. After all, Billi’s family argue, there’s a good chance that informing Nai Nai that she is gravely ill will just end up accelerating her physical deterioration. In fact, Nai Nai herself pulled a similar well-meaning con on her husband when he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Billi’s Uncle Haibin (Yongbo Jiang) describes such ruses as a mercy, framing the family’s collective decision to assume the psychological burden of Nai Nai’s illness as a duty gladly borne out of love. Of course, no one seems to have asked the visibly embarrassed Hao Hao and Aiko whether they wanted to wed; the relationship, such as it is, is only three months old, and the bride doesn’t speak a word of Mandarin. The expectation is that grandchildren – and their foreign sweethearts, evidently – should fulfill whatever responsibilities their families demand of them, and do so with a convincing smile, dammit.

Wang treats this material with great deftness, sincerity, and generosity, never explicitly advancing that the East or the West – as an exasperated Haibin simplistically divides the world – has an exclusive claim on the “best” way of living and dying. Wang, who was born in China but immigrated to the U.S. at age 6, uses her own cinematic analogue as the audience proxy, positioning Billi as the assimilated skeptic who pushes back compulsively yet steadily against traditions that seem illogical to her. However, The Farewell is deeply and affectionately embedded in the granular domestic aspects of middle-class Chinese life. The film is overwhelmingly in Mandarin, and Billi is portrayed not as an interloper but as a cherished member of her sprawling and far-flung extended family. (She also seems to be Nai Nai’s favorite.) Although Billi is occasionally a step or two behind those relatives who are older (and more fluent in Mandarin), necessitating a diegetic explanation for this phase or that tradition, there’s a refreshing absence of audience-directed “as you know” exposition. During a vivid graveside ceremony in honor of Nai Nai’s years-gone husband, the non-Chinese viewer must puzzle out for themselves the offerings of oranges, cookies, liquor, and burnt paper goods (which include replicas of money, clothing, and even iPads.)

The Farewell is the type of grounded, character-centered dramedy that usually wins viewers over with a sharp screenplay and lively personalities, which is a backhanded way of saying that films of this stripe are typically undistinguished, visually speaking. Not so with Wang’s feature, which from its opening shots proves to be a feast of stunning compositions, eye-catching environments, and the sort of accidental surrealism that often characterizes the spaces of modern, urbanized China. (The photography studio where the maybe-happy couple have their wedding shoot is a treasure trove of mesmerizing kitsch, including fuzzy pink hearts, gilded staircases, cotton-ball clouds, and replica Greek statuary.)

Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano frequently frame the characters with an expanse of negative space above their heads, suggesting the churning emotions that remain unexpressed for the sake of harmony, propriety, and Nai Nai’s sunny mood. Into this space, the filmmakers sometimes drop a background image such as a painting, poster, or illuminated cityscape to balance or accentuate the shot. Solano was reportedly influenced by Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (2008), but it’s the Japanese director’s recent Shoplifters (2018) that Solano’s work here most clearly evokes, with its deep-focus compositions and sharp-eyed regard for the arrangement of people in small spaces. Meanwhile, Alex Weston’s memorably eccentric score eschews both traditional Chinese forms and predictable pop-music cues. Recalling Alexandre Desplat’s work on Wes Anderson’s last few features, the soundtrack is heavy on plucked strings and moody vocalization. It’s at once completely left-field and eminently fitting for the subdued, off-kilter mood that Wang’s film requires.

Awkwafina’s striking downshift into relatively straitlaced drama is unquestionably the film’s marquee acting draw, but the The Farewell’s real scene-stealer is Nai Nai herself, whom Shuzhen Zhao inhabits wholly: a sprightly, diminutive grande dame who commands the attention of any room with her brightly barbed wit. However, Diana Lin bestows Billi’s mom, Jian, with some of the film’s most compelling shadings. Kind-hearted but still clinging to a sliver of outsider’s bitterness decades after she married into the family, the buttoned-down Jian finds performative grief distasteful and embarrassing.  “What do you want from me?” she demands when Billi accuses her of insensitivity toward Nai Nai. “To scream and cry like you?” In truth, it’s actually challenging to pick a clear standout in the cast. The performers are superb across the board at using bland pleasantries, furtive glances, and gravid silence – the lingua franca of a family struggling to keep a secret – to convey the clan’s complex landscape of affections, anxieties, and resentments.

Wang’s overall approach to this story is wonderfully mellow, thoughtful, and ambiguous. Although a profound pathos flutters just beneath the relatively restrained surface of The Farewell, the filmmaker never attempts to crassly manipulate the viewer into shedding tears on behalf of her autofictional family. The preemptive mourning that Billi and her family are struggling to conceal is frankly unremarkable in its universality; Wang’s film is more interested in the way that the deception compelled by their culture variously confuses, counters, and heightens their grief. Privately, Billi’s relatives express a diverse array of attitudes regarding their noble lie: matter-of-fact blitheness, clammy guilt, brooding anxiety, and grim self-possession. Meanwhile, Billi’s youngest cousin, Bao Bao, is too absorbed with his smartphone to notice the pent-up drama that unfolds in hissed whispers whenever Nai Nai leaves the room. Although much of the film’s dry laughs are rooted in affectionate clichés about Chinese families – Nai Nai’s ears perk up when she learns that her handsome doctor is single, prompting her to shoot emphatic looks at Billi – Wang refrains from leaning on overstated “wacky relative” humor. It’s vital to the film’s somber, faintly surreal tone that her characters and their bottled-up grief feel consistently genuine.

Such is the film’s sorrowful, unassuming elegance that Wang never needs to overtly call attention to one of its key themes: the common human struggle to live one’s life in the shadow of death. Through her stranger-than-fiction tale and the redolent specifics of Chinese and Chinese-American life, Wang discovers an entry point into a stark subject: Namely, how should the knowledge of our own mortality affect the way we live? Is it better to willfully ignore death, to stoically confront it head-on, to obsess over its inevitability, or to defy it by living voraciously? Nai Nai herself expresses a greeting-card adage that seems to align with the film’s favored philosophy: “Life’s not just about what you do, it’s more about how you do it.” However, Wang’s screenplay is at once too probing, too ambivalent, and too brooding (in that distinctly American way) to believe that this maxim is the end-all, be-all secret to happiness. In one of the film’s more glumly amusing scenes, Billi’s uncle walks her back to her hotel, repeating things she’s already aware of over and over – “Your Nai Nai loves you very much, but she’s very sick. You must be careful not to tell her.” – to which Billi can only reply, respectfully but exhausted, “I know, Uncle. I know. I know.” While everyone could stand to be reminded of their mortality from time to time, dwelling on it isn’t especially productive. The real question is: How does knowing it’s going to end someday change the way we live today?

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love'.
July 25, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Cry and Cry and Laugh About It All Again

2019 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Nick Broomfield / Opened in select cities on July 5, 2019; locally on July 26, 2019

Because of the success of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the critically panned biography about Freddie Mercury that still managed to gross more than $900 million worldwide, studios seem to be willing to invest big money into musician biopics again. Narrative features about Mötley Crüe and Elton John have already been released, and films about David Bowie, Judy Garland, Boy George, and Aretha Franklin are in the works. Such films seemed like prestige-drama gold for a brief period in the 2000s —  with entries like Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), and La Vie en Rose (2007) racking up awards and nominations — before the satirical Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) took some deserved jabs at the subgenre’s flaws and dulled some its luster. Even as biopics go in and out of fashion, however, documentaries can act as a counterpoint to fictionalized, glossy accounts of performers’ lives by presenting the whole(ish) truth. Thankfully, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen hasn’t received the Bohemian Rhapsody treatment yet. As director Nick Broomfield’s serviceable but flawed documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love reveals, there’s certainly enough raw material for a compelling account of the singer’s life.

Marianne & Leonard begins near the end of Cohen’s life, as a heartfelt letter he wrote to his dying muse, Marianne Ilhen, is read over old photographs and home videos. The film then goes back to the couple’s romantic heydey in the 1960s — which might as well be the beginning, as far as this documentary is concerned, despite the fact that Cohen and Ilhen were in their 30s when they started their eventual live-in relationship on the island of Hydra, Greece. Broomfield jumps right into the history of Cohen the artist and Ilhen the muse. He assumes the viewer knows who these people are and wastes no time explaining that Cohen was a Canadian singer-songwriter, a novelist, and a poet or that Ilhen was a Norwegian woman who served as an inspiration to numerous creatives. A series of talking-head interviews with people who were close to the pair establishes their ethereal relationship before pushing Marianne to the background and spending nearly an hour on the highs and lows of Cohen’s career as a musician. Then the film flash-forwards, returning to the couple before their respective ends just three months apart in mid- to late 2016.

Intriguingly, although Marianne & Leonard relies heavily on talking heads for most of its running time, they do not appear in the film’s first 15 minutes. For that quarter of an hour, the documentary plays like a dream: Shakily shot home videos and candid photos on the island of Hydra show Cohen and Ilhen’s blissful love affair in all its idyllic radiance, while nameless, faceless voices describe their affinity. Sunny days, blue oceans, gleaming yachts — it’s the sort of scenery that could galvanize even the most unmotivated artist. However, as this sequence comes to an end, it becomes clear that Broomfield’s account of Marianne and Leonard’s lives and the points where they intersect will stick to a more standard documentary form.

The film’s most conspicuous flaw is the sheer lack of Cohen songs. One would think that, as a purported portrait of an artist and the art that his muse inspired, Marianne & Leonard would include copious Cohen tracks. The glaring omission of any Cohen song beyond short snippets of “Hallelujah,” “So Long, Marianne,” and “Chelsea Hotel #2” undoubtedly harms the film. Rather than using Cohen’s songs themselves, the director employs talking heads to explain those songs to the viewer — as if a thing and a description of a thing are interchangeable. Strangely, the music that dominates the feature is not Cohen’s but that of Nick Laird-Clowes. He’s the composer responsible for the film’s original score, which mostly consists of endless, gentle noodling on an acoustic guitar. Securing the rights to a feature film’s worth of Cohen’s music would have been expensive, undoubtedly, but the payoff would have been well worth the price — especially given the opportunity to introduce a new generation to Cohen’s substantial catalog.

It’s missteps like this that keep Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love from being a definitive record of Cohen and Ilhen’s relationship. From the title, the viewer would assume the documentary would zero in on the couple and tell their story in its entirety. This just isn’t the case. It’s as if Broomfield wanted to make a film about Cohen in the wake of the artist’s passing and needed a way to frame it. Marianne’s death occurring so close to Leonard’s is simply a convenient bookend, no matter how fair or unfair that is to Ilhen’s story. It’s bitterly ironic that — much like Cohen — Broomfield uses Marianne as the stimulus for his project, only to set her aside to focus on other concerns. (The director even inserts himself into the movie to let the audience know that he, too, had a relationship with Ilhen.) A different title wouldn’t necessarily solve the film’s issues, however. There isn’t enough new material here for die-hard Cohen fans — most are likely to know the story inside and out, save for the occasional tangential anecdote from a close friend and or collaborator — yet what’s presented isn’t comprehensive enough for those unfamiliar with the artist. Because the film straddles the dubious line between “too inaccessible” and “not revealing enough,” it’s unclear what sort of viewer Marianne & Leonard is intended for in the first place.

Still, even an unfocused piece of nonfiction is preferable to an inaccurate narrative biopic. Broomfield deserves credit for pushing forward with Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love rather than taking the more lucrative option: producing a fictionalized account of the documentary’s events with a couple of young up-and-comers with box-office appeal. The film neglects to mention either of Cohen’s two children, often loses sight of the relationship that supposedly anchors the project, and frequently feels like the kind of video included in a museum installation. That said, there are just enough moments that deliver to make it all (barely) worthwhile. Broomfield has the necessary music-biopic experience, after all: Marianne & Leonard is the third film in a series that began with Kurt & Courtney (1998) and continued with Biggie & Tupac (2002), and he at least knows how to hit (most of) the form’s required beats.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'Klute'.
July 19, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Alan J. Pakula's Voyeuristic, Ahead-of-Its-Time Thriller is Still Electric, 48 Years Later

1971 / USA / 114 min. / Dir. by Alan J. Pakula / Opened in select cities on June 23, 1971

Actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland and director Alan J. Pakula had respectable résumés prior to 1971’s Klute — which joins the Criterion Collection with a brand-new Blu-ray edition this week — but there’s a clear distinction between the kind of work they put out before and after its release. It’s true that Fonda had previously landed the leading role in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and fronted the otherworldly B-movie Barbarella (1968). And, sure, Sutherland had appeared in Robert Altman’s seminal war comedy M*A*S*H (1970). However, it was Klute that proved to be the genesis for the hardened edge in their respective acting careers. The same could be said for producer-turned-filmmaker Pakula. With just one feature under his belt as director, compared to the six films he’d produced for director Robert Mulligan, Pakula needed Klute to show audiences the kind of grit he was capable of after his eccentric directorial debut, The Sterile Cuckoo (1969). Criterion has a well-known commitment to releasing historically or artistically important films from around the globe, and Klute is a quintessential addition to its library — it’s indispensably groundbreaking and masterful.

Klute’s narrative moves in a lot of different directions over the course of its two hours, but the gist is this: After advertising executive Tom Gruneman disappears, a graphic letter is found in his office that points police to the elusive Bree Daniels (Fonda). Model and actress by day, call girl by night, Daniels is an entrancing femme fatale — yet the case dead-ends when she can’t identify Tom’s photo. That’s when Tom’s boss, fellow executive Peter Cable, brings John Klute (Sutherland) onto the case. Staking out Daniels from the bottom floor of her building, listening in on her calls, and following her throughout her day, Klute is slowly beguiled by this key person-of-interest in Tom’s disappearance. The two eventually converge, working together to follow all possible leads — from Bree’s pimp, Frank (a pre-Jaws Roy Scheider), to some of her fellow call girls — all while evading Bree’s stalker. Although it might sound hackneyed or by-the-book, this loosely structured plot is elevated exponentially by the talent in front of and behind the camera.

As evidenced by Fonda’s Oscar-winning performance, Klute leans much more heavily on monologues and character development than on advancements in the investigation plot. These characters are in search of answers about Tom’s disappearance, but there are plenty of sequences where Daniels and Klute’s relationship and the tension that binds them to one another are far more pertinent than anything else happening in the film. Screenwriters Andy and Dave Lewis seem to have done this intentionally, as several vital plot-related questions never receive answers, even as the film enters its final act. This negative space within the story points to the film’s true nature as a character study.

Klute’s greatest strength is its portrayal of Bree Daniels, a complex female character even by today’s standards and a revolutionary figure for American film in the early ’70s. As an actress and an escort, Daniels is constantly playing different characters, and the film is always examining her choices. What makes this complicated character study even more unprecedented are the multiple scenes where Daniels confides in her therapist — her life is taxing, and therapy helps. There’s a key bit of dialogue early on as Daniels speaks to an important figure in the acting world. She tells him, “I forget myself when I act.” He responds, “You can’t forget yourself. You have to know yourself and kind of like yourself. You have to relate. Relate to people.” This encapsulates Daniels’ struggles. On a larger scale, it summarizes the film.

Beyond being an honest representation of a dynamic female lead, Klute depicts the seediness of New York City in a way that would become synonymous with the 1970s. Pakula’s first entry in what would become known as the “paranoia trilogy” — which includes The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976) — establishes an atmosphere where anything and everything feels 10 times eerier. Even something as banal as an elevator ride — the backdrop for a surprising number of scenes — carries an impending sense of doom. Martin Scorsese’s early films like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) and cult thrillers like Death Wish (1974) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) would build on this sensibility, but Klute lays the foundation for an image the city wouldn’t be able to shake until the Manhattan-set sitcoms and rom-coms of the 1990s. New York City hasn’t always been a place for meet-cutes and lovelorn hijinx — the city was dangerous and violent and squalid, and Pakula wasn’t afraid to put it all on display.

Even with all the grime and the filth, it’s hard to look away from what’s happening onscreen. Daniels taunts Klute at one point: “Did we get you a little? Huh? Just a little bit? Us city folk? The sin, the glitter, the wickedness? Huh?” It’s the ultimate way to describe the feeling of watching Klute, a film that is often literally just watching Klute as he watches Daniels. It’s voyeuristic, it’s invasive, it’s engrossing. Many viewers seemed to echo these feelings in 1971 — Fonda, Sutherland, and Pakula might’ve been established or rising talents pre-Klute, but there’s no denying that their profiles skyrocketed in the wake of the film’s release.

With all these innovative elements considered, it’s no surprise that Criterion chose to give Klute the Blu-ray release it deserves. Complete with supplemental materials like a new interview with Fonda, a short documentary about the locations featured in the film, and plenty of archival footage of Pakula and Fonda from around the film’s initial 1971 release, the amount of attention being paid to this trailblazing feature helps set history straight. Other erotic, anxiety-fueled crime thrillers have borrowed plenty from the film, but no other filmmaker has been able to reproduce the right-place-right-time electricity that Pakula, Fonda, and Sutherland achieved with Klute. Even contemporary thrillers like Se7en (1995) owe a lot to Pakula’s sophomore feature. It’s as if Klute created a genre unto itself. Nearly 50 years later, the lead actors continue to work steadily, while other directors are plainly influenced by the look and feel of Pakula’s film. The film was a lightning strike, and it will never be replicated.

Rating: B+

Klute is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

Tags: Reviews The Lens Recommends Kayla McCulloch

A stil from 'The Art of Self-Defense'.
July 17, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

A Good Offense

2019 / USA / 104 min. / Dir. by Riley Stearns / Opened in select cities on July 12, 2019; locally on July 19, 2019

Writer-director Riley Stearns’ exacting and self-assured sophomore feature, The Art of Self-Defense, never specifies what year the film’s events take place. The computers, photocopiers, answering machines, and other technological signposts suggest the early 1990s; it appears to be pre-Internet and pre-cell phone, at the very least. This ambiguity with respect to historical period is to the feature’s ultimate advantage, as TAOSD’s droll, pitch-black tone – so dry it’s practically shedding skin flakes – depends on a certain purgatorial atmosphere. The film appears to be set in Cincinnati, although this is revealed in such an offhanded way as to suggest that the specifics of place are largely immaterial. (It was in fact shot in Louisville, Ky., and the location crew deserves praise for unearthing such marvelously banal and shopworn spaces.) All that matters is that the film unfolds in the bland, suburban Middle America of a not-too-distant analog era, a time when the pace of day-to-day life was a bit slower and it took more effort to foster connections. This is not presented in a remotely wistful or affectionate way.

Unquestionably, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) – a meek, single accountant in his 30s – finds it all too easy to plod through this environment without making so much as a blip of an impression. He doesn’t appear to have any family or friends. He’s absurdly quiet and mild-mannered, his personality as beige as the sensible, slightly outdated clothes he wears. His attempts to ingratiate himself to his male co-workers with small talk are excruciatingly awkward; pursuing a romantic relationship with a woman doesn’t seem to have occurred to him at all. At night, he goes back to his tiny house, pets his dachshund, and eats cold pasta while sitting on the couch. He wants to visit France someday, and so he listens to French-language lessons during his commute; yet this seems to be the extent of his preparations for this theoretical trip abroad. He’s not just boring but pathologically timid – what the 4chan misogynists of 2019 would doubtlessly call a beta-male cuck, if Casey ever actually interacted with a woman other than the cashier at the corner grocery store.

Casey’s insipid routine is forever shattered one night when he walks to said store for dry dog food. (In the generic brown bag, of course.) On the way home, he is brutally attacked for no apparent reason by a trio of helmeted assailants on black sport motorcycles; when he offers them his wallet, they beat him into unconsciousness. This event so deeply traumatizes Casey that he finds he cannot return to work or even contemplate leaving his house after sundown. However, a potential solution to his crippling anxiety presents itself when he stumbles across an unassuming karate dojo in his neighborhood. Within its walls, a modest cadre of students train under the cucumber-cool eye of the Sensei (Disobedience’s Alessandro Nivola), a man who no one would ever characterize as a cuck. Upholding the traditions of his late Master – who, as the characters dryly and repeatedly mention, was accidentally killed by a hunter’s shotgun – the Sensei inculcates his students in a warrior mantra that emphasizes strength, control, and intimidation. Casey is captivated; he signs up for the school on the spot and begins attending lessons every day.

The low-fi cunning of Stearns’ screenplay lies in how economically it lays out the rules of the dojo – mostly via the eager, entry-level questions that Casey is perpetually directing at the Sensei and the other students. It’s a credit to the filmmaker’s tight control of TAOSD’s odd-duck tone that these blatant violations of the “show, don’t tell” rule feel relatively unobtrusive, and even amusing in their mannered absurdity. Casey’s amiable classmate Henry (indie filmmaker David Zellner) explains the color-coded system of belts and tape stripes that defines the dojo’s simple, ranked hierarchy. He also notes that although the Sensei holds both day and night classes, the latter are open by special invitation only. The dojo’s only other instructor is also its only female member, the brown-belted Anna (Green Room’s Imogen Poots), who exhibits precisely the kind of “backward and in heels” ferocity that one would expect in the hyper-masculine atmosphere that the Sensei cultivates. She has to be twice as accomplished as her male cohorts simply to compel the Sensei to designate a space for the women’s changing room (in truth a semi-converted storage closet).

Casey takes to this world – with its stern but sincere positivity, self-evident ranking system, and almost comical emphasis on chest-thumping dominance – with a single-minded fervor that he has never exhibited toward … well, anything else. There’s a strain of childishness to his obsession that speaks to his arrested emotional development: When he earns his yellow belt, for example, he thereafter buys only yellow foods at the grocery store. In short order, the Sensei’s classes have substantially bolstered Casey’s confidence and assertiveness, but also transformed him into something of a simmering asshole. There’s no gradual progression – it’s a wild pendulum swing from cringing diffidence to wound-up hostility. One day he punches his unctuous office manager in the nose apropos of nothing, which is just as well, given that he can no longer even feign interest in his work life. At the Sensei’s urging, Casey discards his adult-contemporary CDs for speed-metal albums and switches from French- to German-language lessons. The suggestion that he trade his dachshund for a German shepherd is a bridge too far, but he does stop “coddling” his pooch, refraining from petting or praising it. “It’s for your own good,” he declares aloud to the dog in a purposefully aloof manner.

Despite the ambiguity of the film’s period, it’s apparent by this point in the plot that TAOSD is taking aim at a distinctly late-2010s subject: toxic masculinity. The macho intimacy of hand-to-hand combat has been used to satirize this cultural current before, most conspicuously in Fight Club (1999), that notorious object misread by excitable film-studies undergraduates and men’s-rights troglodytes alike. In truth, TAOSD bears more than a passing resemblance to David Ficher’s film, to the point where it often feels like a rumpled indie riff on the same plot outline. However, where Tyler Durden’s underground bare-knuckle club only gradually mutated into an anarchist cult-cum-terrorist network, the Sensei’s dojo is eventually revealed to have been a hotbed of pathological abuse and criminal violence all along. This might seem like a bit of a spoiler, but Stearns’ feature never suggests anything else. It’s obvious that Casey is enthusiastically embedding himself in a twisted ideology that will inevitably trap him in an insidious, overcompensating feedback loop. It’s not a question of whether the Sensei will give him a firm, paternal shove over the proverbial moral precipice, but whether Casey will come to his senses and scrabble for safety at the last moment.

Director Jody Hill’s feature debut, The Foot Fist Way (2006), took another approach to this martial-arts-as-codpiece conceit, leaning into the sad-sack cringe comedy of a hapless schlub throbbing with unjustified self-confidence. However, it’s Hill’s wildly divisive, “psychotic mall cop” comedy Observe and Report (2009) that feels closer kin to TAOSD, at least in terms of its acidic, machismo-skewering ambitions. Hill failed to resolve his film’s pitch-black satire with its indulgence of action-cinema fantasy, but Stearns is on much firmer ground. He achieves this in part by adhering to a bone-dry, quirky tone that seems ripely plucked from an early Tod Solondz or Terry Zwigoff film – the sort of doggedly deadpan humor that inevitably provokes complaints of “There were no jokes!” from a dissatisfied filmgoer or two. There’s also more than a little of Wes Anderson’s stilted eccentricity in TAOSD’s screenplay, but Stearns lacks that filmmaker’s fascination with precocious wunderkinds and burned-out overachievers. TAOSD is resolutely normcore, a story whose grotesque darkness is unsettling precisely because it is presented in such a square, mild, and unexceptional context.

It helps that all of Stearns’ performers are so clearly attuned to the film’s oddball tone. TAOSD is an excellent showcase for Eisenberg, who isn’t so much playing against type as he is playing the flinching, milksop inner child of his usual supercilious, motor-mouthed characters. That the film works as a comedy at all rests on Eisenberg’s superbly guileless interactions with Nivola and Poots – the former nudging Casey towards the abyss like the world’s most unconvincing strip-mall Svengali, the latter coldly rebuffing him while also drawing him into her wary confidence. Admittedly, the film’s actors aren’t really portraying flesh-and-blood characters, but ridiculous, wooden caricatures. This isn’t a criticism, as it suits TAOSD’s satirical aims, allowing Stearns to maintain a blithe comic distance even as he takes the plot into the blackest crevasses of the anxious male mind.

If there’s a nagging flaw to TAOSD, it’s that the whole enterprise ultimately feels light on insight. Satires can paper over facile social criticisms with sheer, giddy nastiness and a high laugh-to-minute ratio; see, for example, the Coens’ vicious farce Burn After Reading (2008), which openly admits that it has no moral. Stearns’ film is simply too poker-faced for its own good in this respect. Although its central message – the devouring cycle of toxic masculinity is just as terrible for men as it is for woman – is a welcome one, it’s a somewhat meager basis for a 104-minute feature whose comedy relies primarily on scenes of characters talking stiffly at each other. It’s difficult to envision TAOSD having much rewatch value based solely on its thematic substance, but it has enough meat elsewhere on its bones to spawn a potential cult following. Between the ridiculously severe performances, the razor-studded edge to its graphic violence, and its unexpectedly terrific mise-en-scène – which resembles a parallel-universe Napoleon Dynamite (2004) as directed by Yorgos Lanthimos – The Art of Self-Defense feels like a dark-horse contender for some future “Best Underrated Comedies of the 2010s” inventory.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Ophelia'.
July 12, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

What a Piece of Work Is Man

2018 / UK, USA / 114 min. / Dir. by Claire McCarthy / Opened in select cities on June 28, 2019; opens locally on July 12, 2019

Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia is the latest in a long line of cinematic Shakespeare adaptations that take the Bard’s words and add a supposedly creative twist. What sets the director’s revisionist take on Hamlet apart from all the others is its hectoring insistence on being different. The film’s opening image finds Daisy Ridley submerged in water, clutching a bouquet of flowers. Her Ophelia is not like any iteration of the character seen before (unless, of course, the viewer has read the 2008 novel by Lisa Klein on which the film is based). She addresses the viewer directly in voice-over: “You may think you know my story. Many have told it. It has long passed into history ... into myth.” Ridley then submerges as the film’s title appear. This fourth-wall-breaking narration device is discarded after a minute or two, but its purpose is clear: to emphasize that now is the time for Ophelia to tell her side of the story. Yet, by doing this, the film labels itself subversive in a way that is never fully realized.

The “same story, different perspective” gimmick is nothing new. It’s even been done for Hamlet before, most famously in Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play and its 1990 film adaptation, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which manages to add a metafictional twist along the way without ever removing the story from its Shakespearean setting. Ophelia’s opening monologue insinuates that its relationship to the story of Hamlet is similar, if more period-drama traditional — the framework of the narrative remains the same, but the way each character experiences that narrative differs.

For much of the first half, McCarthy’s female-centric take on Hamlet establishes the story that viewers presumably already know: Ophelia captures the attention of Hamlet (George MacKay), the son of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and an unnamed king, at a pivotal moment for the kingdom. While the adults deal with the tension that comes with being on the brink of war in the wake of the king’s death, Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship only grows stronger as their sanity wears thinner. Because Ophelia  isn’t royalty — Gertrude took her in at a young age to help bring her up in ways her father, Polonius (Dominic Mafham), and brother, Laertes (Tom Felton), couldn’t — any potential union with Hamlet is essentially forbidden, something that Hamlet’s uncle-turned-king, Claudius (Clive Owen), is more than willing to point out.

It isn’t until the second half that Ophelia begins to diverge from Shakespeare’s story. From the introduction of Mechtild (also Watts), the long-lost sister of Gertrude who is well-versed in witchcraft, to the complete overhaul of Ophelia’s arc, McCarthy’s adaptation seemingly contradicts the intent conveyed in its opening monologue. To be clear, there is no inherent folly in reworking one of Shakespeare’s plays into a (mostly) original vision. That’s why movies like West Side Story (1961) and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) work — the instructive difference being that they never allude to their repurposing of the Bard’s stories. Given that Ophelia opens with a speech that recalls the events of Hamlet and states that the story that audiences are about to hear will provide the other side of that well-known tragedy, the film owes it to the filmgoer to adhere to Shakespeare’s account, at least in terms of plot. Instead, Ophelia violates its own rules and strays from the beaten path to tell an entirely reimagined version of Hamlet. This feels like a Brutus-level betrayal of the expectations that McCarthy herself establishes.

While the story is derailing, it’s at least enjoyable to focus on the film’s immersive aesthetics. The dresses of Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts are intricately crafted, flowing and breathing as if they were alive themselves. The royal garments that adorn the men earn similar praise — costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini achieves an elegance that elevates the film. Production designer David Warren and set decorator Ute Bergk also deserve recognition for the sheer amount of detail crammed into every shot. When one thinks of Hamlet, visions of men in drab garb holding skulls come to mind. The look of Ophelia effectively erases these gray perceptions by filling the background with evocative colors, dreamlike sets, and floral patterns.

Visually, Ophelia is enchantingly wispy. Structurally, it’s cleverly assembled. Nonetheless, Ophelia’s opening statement proves to be its downfall. If not for the setup, which frames the film as the B-side to Hamlet, the film would be notable for adding some much-needed flair to a character with untapped potential. Yet, because it positions itself the way it does, Ophelia comes across as a film that gives up halfway, erasing key plot points and adding in frivolous ones while still trying to maintain the illusion that Ophelia and Hamlet present different perspectives on the same events. The changes made are so drastically divergent, there’s simply no way that this could be true — it’d be understandable if Ophelia felt one way about a situation and Hamlet felt another, but it’s ludicrous to assume that the action-packed events of Ophelia’s latter third could somehow be reconciled with Hamlet’s fifth act. Ophelia would be have more memorable if it had avoided making promises it couldn’t keep. Or, better yet, if it had heeded Shakespeare’s admonition: “Above all else: to thine own self be true.”

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'Wild Rose'.
July 11, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Country Roads, Take Me Home

2018 / UK / 100 min. Dir. by Tom Harper / Opened in select cities on June 21, 2019; opens locally on July 12, 2019

Jessie Buckley is a combustible powder keg as ex-con country singer Rose-Lynn in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose. At the drop of a cowboy hat — or the switch-on of a microphone, more literally — the Glaswegian will break through her already infectious, knowing smile to tear down the walls that attempt to contain her, always locked and loaded with a very Scottish “fuck off” to whomever stands in her way. Buckley’s is the kind of performance that, for a small audience, will position her in the top tier of newcomers, teetering on the line between critical darling and megawatt star. The most reductive analogy for Buckley’s standing after this very “indie” movie hits the arthouse circuit is that of a Short Term 12 (2013)-era Brie Larson, shortly before her Oscar win for Room (2015) and long before leading a blockbuster tentpole in this year’s Captain Marvel.

The talent necessary for that sort of trajectory is present in Buckley, and one could make a good case here for the actor-as-auteur argument that’s bandied about with canonized old-Hollywood stars and even some established modern ones. If Wild Rose contained a more adventurous narrative than someone overcoming self-destruction to self-actualize, perhaps it wouldn’t be so easy to characterize Tom Harper’s film as truly belonging to Buckley. That’s not to say that an actor-centered film theory isn’t a cogent one, or that it is only deployed for “lesser” products — it’s been used to assess many great films and performers — but ever since Wild Rose’s premiere on the festival circuit last fall, the predominant word has been that Buckley completely owns it.

Harper is working from a script by Nicole Taylor, here penning her first theatrical feature after many years working in British television. The director does a more than capable job in realizing the screenwriter’s depiction of lower-middle-class life in her home turf of Glasgow, Scotland. Harper effectively employs an enveloping widescreen frame and an all-too-occasional head-spinning musicality, but the text is nevertheless conventional. Covering the time from Rose-Lynn’s prison release up to the very point of (possible) stardom, the film isn’t a whirlwind rise-fall-rise narrative like the recent biopics Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019). Instead, the wholly fictional Rose is culled from disparate parts of rote indies, here cohering here into a light-on-its-feet crowd-pleaser with some lopsided, manipulative story beats.

To wit, a synopsis can read like a parody of lesser Sundance Film Festival fare. Following her release from a 12-month stretch in prison for heroin smuggling, Rose-Lynn returns to the Glasgow projects where her mother (an always sparkling Julie Walters, even when in exasperated-mom mode) has been caring for the children she left behind. An ankle monitoring bracelet prevents the country-and-western singer — “Agh, it’s just ‘country,’” as she often corrects the normies around her — from returning to her decade-long singing gig at a local honky-tonk. That doesn’t stop her from shirking her responsibilities toward her children, forgetting a promised dinner out after day-drinking for hours in a neighborhood bar. She is then forced to take a house-cleaning job with an affluent family, the matriarch of which, Susanna (Sophie Okonedo), takes a special liking to Rose-Lynn because of her rough-hewn charm and impressive musical talents.

After Susanna rebuffs her employee’s request for a loan so she can attempt to fulfill a life-long wish of making in it Music City, USA (Nashville, for the unacquainted), she offers a connection to a legendary BBC disc jockey, Bob Harris (playing himself). It’s at this point that Susanna urges Rose-Lynn to record a demo video for a song previously belted out in a fantasy-tinged number in which an imaginary full band backs the singer as she vacuums her employer’s front hall. This latter sequence illustrates how Rose sparkles in realizing passion through cinematic techniques. Alternating between a shot from the front-facing camera of a laptop and a swooning, swirling widescreen close-up of Rose-Lynn, the a capella number morphs into a fulsome, orchestra-backed moment of realized expression.

What follows, however, are the film’s wonkiest and most unbelievable movements, as Rose-Lynn boards a train to meet with Harris at BBC headquarters in London. After drunkenly losing the handbag seemingly containing her entire livelihood, she’s swept into the world of country radio and all but guaranteed a big break when the DJ god prompts her to write her own music. The moment references the singer’s motto and tattoo of “three chords and the truth,” a definition of sorts for her preferred genre, but it reeks of self-promotion, painting the film’s production company as a charitable dream factory instead of the corporate conglomeration that it actually is.

Both of those descriptions can be true, but Wild Rose isn’t interested in the latter — just as it takes that aforementioned credo to its achy-breaky heart without investigating the nature of artistic expression and its entanglements with public presentation and identity. Even if one carefully reads between the lines of the great performance and rollicking music — some covers and some originals (co-written by Oscar-winning actor Mary Steenbergen, of all people) — there’s not much nuanced meaning, just surface-level emotion. As a portrait of self-destruction, Taylor’s film is much more successful, arguably due to Buckley’s incendiary turn as Rose-Lynn, who is constantly taking one step forward and two back. She makes the incredible credible, including a fateful decision in the final act that could manipulate even the most immovable viewers into believing that there really is no place like home.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Transit'.
July 10, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

A Tyrant Spell Has Bound Me, and I Cannot, Cannot Go

2018 / Germany, France / 101 min. / Dir. by Christian Petzold / Opened in select cities on Mar. 1, 2019; locally on Mar. 22, 2019

Transit was released on Blu-ray from Music Box Films on July 9, 2019 and is also available for digital rent or purchase from major online platforms.

The first 10 minutes of writer-director Christian Petzold’s absorbing new drama, Transit, constitute some of the most deftly disorienting cinema of the year. The setting is Paris, currently under German occupation, where the viewer is introduced to a cagey man in his 30s, Georg (Franz Rogowski). He and his comrade Paul (Sebastian Hülk) are German, but also members of the underground resistance. Unlike Paul, who writes dissident literature, Georg is just a working man, an apprentice radio and TV technician whose training has been derailed by the war. Paul meets Georg at a bar and asks for a favor: Deliver a pair of letters to another German writer, Weidel, who is sympathetic to the cause and staying at a nearby hotel. There, Georg discovers to his shock that Weidel has recently committed suicide, and the man’s body has already been discreetly removed. There are other letters and a finished manuscript in the writer’s room, and the hotel manager offers the dead man’s effects to Georg with the foreshadowing query, “Would you like to take them?” Unfortunately, when Georg returns to Paul, he arrives just in time to witness his comrade’s arrest by the heavily militarized and presumably collaborationist Paris police.

Wait: Back up. The police officers are outfitted in contemporary tactical SWAT gear, complete with 21st-century body armor and assault rifles. What year is this? The vehicles on the streets and the police equipment – plus the odd CCTV camera and flat-screen television – suggest a present-day setting. However, the film’s production design otherwise appears to date the story’s events to the middle of the 20th century, at the latest. There are no smartphones and no computers, but rather an analog world of intrigue realized in handwritten letters, travel visas, and hotel registries. The characters speak in the vocabulary of Germany’s World War II conquests and pogroms: fascism, camps, cleansings. One character attests that the occupiers are targeting Jews, but there is no explicit mention of Nazis or the Third Reich. Meanwhile, some words – like “refugees” and “aliens” – resonate in a contemporary European and American context. Eventually an overt, in-universe reference to Dawn of the Dead (1978) is dropped into conversation. What sort of eccentric alternate reality is this?

Petzold’s brilliantly slippery screenplay is adapted from German-born writer Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel, Transit Visa, which is based in part on the author’s own experiences as a French émigré during the Nazi occupation. The filmmaker gives the novel’s events a nominal 21st-century gloss but preserves their historical resonance through the familiar language, situations, and atmosphere of countless World War II-set stories. In doing so, Petzold creates a tale that is not so much timeless as it is unstuck in time. Transit is a war story, but it is not about war per se. Rather, it is about the way that violence and tyranny dislocate everything: people, identities, priorities, relationships, and the illusory order of everyday life. At one point in the film, Georg quietly sings a bit of doggerel his mother once taught him, a nursery song about animals returning to their homes. In the context of this story, the tune feels at once wistful and bitter. All the film’s characters desperately want nothing more than to escape their homes, to flee to a less fearful and perilous life somewhere, anywhere else.

After nearly walking into the clutches of the Paris police, Georg evades capture, eventually returning to a resistance safehouse. It turns out that he already has an urgent assignment to carry out: He’s to clandestinely escort a gravely injured comrade, Heinz, back to the man’s wife and child in Marseilles via rail, concealed inside an empty cargo car. While en route, however, Heinz succumbs to his wounds and dies. This leaves Georg on his own in the sun-kissed South – where the German lines have not yet reached – with nothing but a rucksack containing Weidel’s letters and manuscript. It’s around this time that Petzold adds another layer of obfuscation: a voice-over narrator who identifies himself as the bartender (Mathhias Brandt) at the little café that Georg ends up frequenting. Georg’s tale thereby becomes an unreliable one, an anecdote recounted secondhand by the person who just happened to be the only friendly ear available at the time.

It seems that Weidel’s letters include strange, contradictory missives from the writer’s estranged wife, as well as correspondence from the Mexican government notifying him that his travel visa has been arranged. Georg also peruses the unpublished novel, a tale of flawed people scrabbling to survive in a time of conflict. Marseilles, as it happens, is filled with such souls, people seeking egress from France before the Germans reach the Mediterranean and the “cleansings” begin. Much to Georg’s annoyance, these fellow exiles are unfailingly compelled to share their stories with anyone who will listen. (That he does this very thing with the bartender seems lost on Georg.) There’s the anxious, perpetually clammy orchestra conductor in the white suit (Justus von Dohnányi) who claims that he has a new position waiting for him in Venezuela and explains the elaborate rules governing passport photos to Georg. There’s the poised and acerbic architect (Barbara Auer) who is resentfully wrangling the pedigreed dogs of her wealthy American employers – a married couple who have long since evacuated by plane.

Georg seems to run into these people – and other vaguely familiar faces – again and again around Marseilles. They’re all trapped in the same loop, shuffling back and forth between dingy hotel rooms, seaside cafés, and the Mexican and American consulates, hoping to secure ship’s passage out of France by any means necessary. There’s also a gorgeous mystery woman (Paula Beer), who shortly after Georg’s arrival in Marseilles runs up to him, touches his shoulder, and then withdraws in confusion – as though she mistakenly thought she recognized him. This occurs more than once, but the stranger’s beauty and the sheer oddness of these encounters render Georg mute with bewilderment.

When he eventually attempts to turn over Weidel’s effects to the Mexican consulate, Georg is mistaken for the writer, an error he quickly exploits to claim the visas and tickets meant for Weidel and his wife. It’s only then that Georg puts two and two together, realizing that the mystery woman – who previously rushed past him in the consulate’s overflowing lobby – is none other than Weidel’s wife, Marie. Until Georg’s ship leaves in three weeks’ time, avoiding the spouse of the man he’s impersonating seems like the prudent move.

However, Georg has other concerns weighing on him, namely Heinz’s deaf, North African widow, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), and young son, Driss (Lilien Batman). After delivering the unfortunate word of his comrade’s death, Georg strikes up a paternal friendship with Driss, fixing the boy’s malfunctioning radio and playing soccer with him in the courtyard of the family’s dusty housing block. Melissa is wary of Georg’s intentions, but when Driss’ asthma later takes a turn for the worse, Georg dutifully fetches a German doctor who is also idling in Marseilles. As it happens, the doctor, Richard (Godehard Giese), is seeking a way to smuggle his lover, Marie, out of France, but she remains convinced that her estranged husband will arrive in the city any day now and secure her visa from the Mexican consulate. Oh. Awkward.

Petzold – who previously directed the more traditionally pulpy World War II psychodrama Phoenix (2014) – sketches this tangled web of love, lust, duty, and mercenary self-interest with fantastic parsimony and precision. Transit’s modest 101-minute running time feels impossibly dense, not so much with words as with emotions, loyalties, and upheavals. Every character’s motives are at once plain as day and hopelessly muddled. Georg, Marie, and Richard are swept up in a ridiculous dance of faux-nobility and manipulation, where visas keep swapping hands and luggage keeps getting loaded and unloaded. Everyone is cynically using everyone else, yet under the looming jackboot of the setting’s “Papers, please” authoritarianism, genuine human passions seem sharper than ever. Indeed, Georg’s entire nightmarish situation often feels like a morass of absurd contradictions. When a hotel manager explains that he must pay for a week up front until he obtains proof that he has booked passage out of Marseilles, Georg’s exasperated response summarizes the film’s air of low-key, border-town madness: “I can only stay here if I can prove that I don’t want to stay?!”

Critics are often guilty of over-using the term “Kafka-esque,” but it’s an apt descriptor for the plight of Georg, Marie, Richard, and the rest of Marseilles’ lost souls. Trapped in a purgatory seemingly fashioned from the castoff fragments of a Graham Greene novel, they haunt a handful of locales, pacing in circles while the war closes in around them. The characters share pizza and wine at the narrator’s café so many times – Georg always sitting near the entrance, his back to the door – that these encounters start to blur together. Even after Georg meets Marie and they begin to fall in doomed love with one another, she remains somewhat inscrutable, a puzzle whose devotion alternates between sweet, affected, and pathological. What’s more, Georg sees her everywhere in Marseilles, and it’s ambiguous whether all these sightings are real. Even when she’s in his arms, she remains a willowy mirage, a fleeting touch on the shoulder.

Petzold’s control of character and mood is peerless, as are the dazzling efforts of his crew – particularly cinematographer Hans Fromm, whose sunbaked daytime exteriors possess a prosaic, holiday-snapshot prettiness that clashes pointedly with the approaching cloud of an autocratic crackdown. There’s a perversity in the way that life seems roll on for the locals in Marseilles, who continue to snack, shop, and stroll as though oblivious to (or completely on board with) the coming fascist occupation. As for any potential resistance, Petzold repeatedly emphasizes the way that tyranny ensures compliance through good old-fashioned fear. When a terrified woman is dragged screaming from Georg’s hotel by the authorities, he locks eyes with the architect across the hall, and they both look down at the floor in shame, secretly grateful they’re not the ones being disappeared into the night. Much like the fantastical, postmodern approach employed in Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed graphic novel Maus, the ambiguous, Bizarro-World War II setting of Transit allows for an evocative dread that transcends the particulars of any one historical conflict. The dehumanization and dislocation depicted in Petzold’s feature has happened before, it’s happening now, and it will inevitably happen again.

Transit has its share of noir elements – it bears some resemblance to Casablanca (1942) by way of Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jacques Audiard – but it is not a film characterized by clear-cut villains or stark moral depravity. The German occupiers are more of a faceless, oppressive presence than true antagonists, and even the story’s most unlikable characters, such as the smug American consul (Trystan Pütter), are painted in shades of gray. It's true that there are no innocents in this tale, except perhaps for poor little Driss, who latches onto Georg with a ferocity that is almost frightening. This of course means that the child’s betrayal is all the more blistering when he learns that his new friend is soon bound for Mexico. Georg’s already-insoluble dilemma is thus complicated by his various roles: surrogate father, stand-in husband, reluctant savior, craven con man. No matter his choices, someone is going to get hurt. Getting left behind is lonely as hell, but at least the wronged get sympathy – the “sad songs,” as the film puts it. The one doing the leaving gets contempt, and then gets forgotten.

The viewer never discovers what family or friends Georg left behind in Paris, because his old life no longer matters – it’s just abandoned luggage on a train platform. In this, Georg is quite dissimilar from the typical noir anti-hero, who is invariably harrowed by the demons of their past. Owing to the exigencies of life during wartime, Georg now finds himself fumbling his way through two half-lives, each one belonging to a different dead man. This, Petzold’s film posits, is the effect of tyranny on the margins, where the self is shed like a dried-out skin until there’s nothing left but a collection of impulses. There’s no going back, but there’s also no going forward, just endless waiting, punctuated by false starts and fleeting hopes. And so Georg sits in the café, sips wine, and waits for Marie, while the rumble of war gets louder day by day.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt